The United Nations Postal Administration recently issued 18 commemorative stamps by portrait artist Stephen Bennett of Tamaqua.
On Oct. 11, 2012, the UNPA issued a set of "Indigenous People" stamps in three mini-sheets of six stamps each in denominations of $0.45 US. The stamps are good only for postage between United Nations offices and are not acceptable for US postage.
Because the UNPA runs its stamp operation as a profit-making business, they are very careful to select artists whose works are likely to become collectible stamps. Their stamps are sought out by collectors and are often sold out on the date of issue.
This is the third series of 18 "Indigenous People" stamps designed by Bennett. His previous series were issued in 2009 and 2010.
Bennett travels to remote parts of the world, and becomes comfortable in the local communities where he photographs the local people. He then uses the photographs to create large, typically five or seven foot high paintings based on the photographs but artistically colored to represent the character, personality and emotions that he sees in his subject.
To gain access to many of these countries, Bennett writes letters to their president, prime minister, minister of culture, minister of tourism, ambassador to the United Nations, and their ambassador to United States, etc.
"I'll write a couple of letters and run 30 copies and personalize it for all these different people," Bennett explained. "It's better to personally deliver the letter because I get to meet the person."
He was in the U.N. delivering a letter and saw the curator, Jan Arnesen, in the process of hanging an exhibit. She is the curator of all the exhibits within the United Nations buildings in New York.
"She was very friendly and she took my information," Bennett said. "Every year there is an Indigenous Congress of the indigenous leaders of the world at the United Nations. She called me back when the Indigenous Congress was going on."
For each Indigenous Congress, there is an exhibit in the lobby of the U.N. "She thought my paintings would be perfect for that year's exhibit if we included some from Africa and Malaysia," Bennett continued. "It was principally indigenous artists from around the world. Although I was not an indigenous artist, they invited me as my art represented indigenous people."
During the exhibit, the director of the United Nations' Postal Administration saw the exhibit. "He said that it would be perfect for a new series of Indigenous People stamps. We began working on the stamps and created for the United Nations three series of 18 stamps: 2009, 2010 and the current 2012 stamps. In 2011, Bennet traveled to China and the other Asian countries to take the photographs for his current series of Asian indigenous people.
The size of Bennett's acrylic-on-canvas paintings vary from 60" x 48" to 80" x 64". "That's 5 to 7 feet high," Bennett noted. "They are big."
Bennett, 51, was born and raised in upstate New York where he studied fine arts at Russell Sage College and the State University of New York at New Paltz. "My professor said that I could stay there for two more years and study art history or go to New York City and start painting," Bennett said. "I went to New York. I wanted to paint, I didn't want to remain in school and study art history-I wanted to make art history."
"Because I was young and unknown, and I didn't understand the business, I wasn't earning enough money as a fine artist when I arrived in New York. I didn't know how to sell things."
Bennett worked in New York City for 27 years as an artist and a freelance art director. "I took the ideas of a film director or a fashion show runway designer or an event coordinator and turned them into a visual presentation for the public. Mostly I did backdrop painting. I learned to paint big by painting backdrop paintings for theater, films and fashion shows."
Busy in his Tamaqua studio, he works on both the indigenous people portraits based on the photographs he has taken on his world travels, and commission portraits. Each of his large portrait taking 3 to 4 weeks.
"Some faces are easy to understand; some are very complex," He began to explain. "Faces are asymmetrical. One eye is usually higher or wider than the other. Your face, because you sleep on one side, is usually altered by that, so I have to capture that asymmetricality to capture the personality in the painting."
Asked how he feels about having created three series of stamps for the United Nations, Bennett replied, "It's exciting. It's incredible. It's a dream come true. Every artist who makes art for the public to look at would love to have their work on stamps because it is a form of recognition. It's also a way for many people to see your work, and it's fun to have your work reduced into a tiny image that you can lick and stick on things."
For more information about the work of Stephen Bennett, see: theportraitpainter.com.