Artist stamps his mark on forever

The Baltimore Sun

Brunswick-- --You could probably say this about any day, but yesterday really was the first day of forever, at least as far as the post office is concerned.

Yesterday, the home post office of the artist who designed the new "forever" stamp celebrated with a ceremony and commemorative envelopes. The stamp, by Tom Engeman, sells for 41 cents, the new first-class rate that went into effect yesterday, but it will get your bills and birthday cards to their destination forever, no matter how much the cost of postage increases in the future.

With frequent rate increases sending stamps more quickly into extinction, having his design - a colorized, modernized, computer-generated version of an old woodcut of the Liberty Bell - chosen for the forever stamp is probably the closest anyone in Engeman's ephemeral field can get to immortality.

"Forever's a pretty long time," he said with a grin.

Engeman, who at 73 manages to be both white-haired and youthful, moved here six years ago after spending most of his life in the Washington area, where he was a freelance illustrator and graphic artist for groups such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He spent yesterday morning at the post office, ZIP code 21716, signing envelopes bearing a Brunswick postmark - a double circle around railroad tracks, befitting the town's past as a hub for the B&O; Railroad - and a bigger-than-life-size version of the forever stamp.

He designed the stamp several years ago - it's his 16th or 18th or so stamp, he's lost count - and it was "banked," as many designs are, until needed. A couple of months ago, the postal service told him the design was chosen for the "forever."

"It's flattering," Engeman said, "because they could get anybody."

The world of stamp design is a small one, no pun intended. The U.S. Postal Service has an advisory committee that considers subjects for stamps, then it works with a group of art directors to find artists whose work might be suitable for the subjects, which in recent years have ranged from Elvis (the most popular stamp ever) to baseball stadiums to various flora and fauna.

One requirement of the artist is that he or she submit the design at no more than four times the actual stamp size, which seems like it would be constraining but actually suits Engeman's style.

"It's the best training in the world because you learn to keep your art simple, and simple is usually best," he said. "It's only when you get in trouble that you make things busy."

You would probably recognize Engeman's designs if you give stamps more than a passing glance - he has a clean, graphic style, featuring a stripped-down version of the subject (most often a building or natural formation, rather than a person) against a beautifully rendered sky.

Among his designs are stamps commemorating the World War II Memorial in Washington (2004, 37 cents, with the memorial in white with blue shadows, against a sunset sky) and the 150th anniversary of the Smithsonian (1996, 32 cents, the red sandstone "castle" against a golden sky).

His favorite design is one of a series of four stamps sold to nonprofits to use in their mailings, featuring a red butte with blue shadows against a yellow sky. "It's simple and bold," he said. "It's hot." (The other three - depicting a wetlands, a sea coast and a mountain - are small gems as well.)

"I don't really do people," Engeman said. "I'm not good with people."

He seemed to be doing fine with real people yesterday, visiting with residents of his adopted town - which he characterizes as "friendly but not nosy" - greeting those he didn't know with a "Hi, I'm Tommy." He first visited Brunswick 20 years ago and thought to himself, this was somewhere he could live. When he retired six years ago, he moved here - although "retired" means he still takes the occasional postage stamp commission and he'll do posters and other art for friends and causes he supports. (His print of the Catoctin Aqueduct on the C&O; Canal, which goes to donors who contribute to its restoration fund, would make a beautiful stamp.)

With the advent of e-mail and bill paying online, first-class mail has been on the decline in recent years. But Engeman - as well as the women manning the post office yesterday - say there will always be a market for new postage stamps, even with the forever stamp selling well among stockpilers playing the market against future rate increases.

The collectors will always want new stamp designs, said Brunswick Postmaster Joni Britner, such as the Star Wars issue coming out May 25. And then there are the theme stamps, for wedding invitations and birthday and Christmas cards that should keep designers in business. (Artists receive a flat $5,000 for their work, Engeman said, no matter how many stamps are sold.)

It's an odd slice of the art world - no gallery openings, but the occasional first-day issue event; no signatures on the bottom either, although the cognoscenti know their favorites. (His own: Nancy Stahl and Steve Buchanan.) You rarely make it into the popular culture, although a stamp artist had one of those great small roles in the movie Fargo, as the husband of Marge, the sheriff played by Frances McDormand.

But stamp artists do have the rare experience of running into their work when the day's mail comes in, a "really a weird form of d?j? vu," Engeman said, because there's usually several years of lag time between when the postal service accepts the artwork and when it starts selling the stamp version of it.

"You're not connected with it anymore, like when you made it," he said. "It was another person."

And it's a fleeting experience, with old stamps going out and new ones coming in, particularly with rate increases. (Once, however, the post office liked one of his designs so much, he said, it reissued it with the new rate.)

Now, though, he'll have the experience of seeing his Liberty Bell "forever."


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