Postal Service Art Director Derry Noyes Turns Famous Artworks into Stamps
Last year, final—and most monumental—work opened its doors to the public. Titled Austin after the Texas city it calls home, the 2,715-square-foot structure boasts 26-foot-high ceilings and houses several other works by the artist, who died in 2015.
This year, Kelly is being honored on a much, much smaller scale. The United States Postal Service (USPS) recently announced that it will commemorate the influential abstractionist with a set of postage stamps, slated to go on sale later in 2019.
These miniature masterpieces are the work of Derry Noyes, a longtime art director for the USPS. For nearly 40 years, she’s been creating minute tributes to some of the biggest names in American art and design:
It all begins with the Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC)—a 12-person panel composed of historians, educators, designers, and others who determine the subjects for each year’s crop of stamps. (Noyes actually served on the committee herself for several years, before transitioning to art direction in the early 1980s.) Their goal, she said, is “to pick a broad spectrum that reflects American history, pop culture, people, events—to try to get a good balance for each year.”
Usually, Noyes noted, abstract art is a hard sell for the CSAC. But Kelly’s work sailed through the approval process. “This art is so well-suited for stamps,” she explained. “It reduces down beautifully. The simplicity of the forms and the bright colors and the crispness of it all, it’s just made for stamp size.” This is not often the case, she added. “When you reduce art down, it can get very muddled, sort of fussy,” Noyes continued. “It doesn’t look well at a tiny size, whereas it looks great as a poster.”
Noyes has developed a sixth sense for identifying stamp-friendly artworks over the years. “Your eye gets better and better at figuring out what is going to work and what isn’t at this little one-inch scale,” she said.
Another aspect to consider when designing stamps, Noyes said, is how the individual stamps work together on a sheet. “There’s a dialogue between them,” she said. Take Kelly’s Blue Red Rocker, a 1963 sculpture in primary shades of blue and red. Catty-corner on the sheet of stamps is Red Blue (1964), a painting that echoes the sculpture’s colors and shapes. “One’s flat and one’s sculptural,” Noyes said, “but you can see that they’re related, so there’s that going on as you place these on a page.”
Another concern when arranging the Kelly stamps was that South Ferry (1956)—the only work in black and white—was too visually dominant. “Does that pop out too much?” Noyes wondered. “Or does it work well because there are others with similar shapes, maybe in different colors, that balance each other out?” In the end, she decided that placing it along the edge kept it from overwhelming the other works.
One piece of the stamp-making process that’s gotten much trickier over the years, Noyes said, is gaining legal approval to use particular images. She said the Kelly series is surprising in its breadth. “It’s unusual, now, to have 10 different stamps pass through all the legal hurdles that we have,” she explained. This particular set was facilitated by the late artist’s husband and director of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, photographer Jack Shear, who was able to grant them the permissions they needed. “We didn’t have to go through the layers and layers of different estates and different families,” Noyes said.
The stamp-making process typically lasts between two and four years, Noyes said, though it can go on for much longer—particularly if legal issues arise. During this time, the four USPS art directors meet monthly to discuss their ongoing projects and critique one another’s work. Eventually, they share their work with the CSAC to see if they like the direction. The committee eventually votes to approve the final stamp designs, which then must be approved by the postmaster general before they can be released. “Unlike a fine artist working for him or herself, doing whatever they feel like, this is a real team effort,” Noyes said.
Although she often works on fine-art stamps, Noyes has been involved in a wide range of projects over the years. She has directed series on endangered species, beloved children’s book characters, American ballet, and even lacemaking. “To be given subjects that you know absolutely nothing about is fun, because you delve into finding out about people that you never would have been exploring otherwise,” she said. “And that’s sort of a lesson in American history in a funny way. I’ve learned a lot of history by designing stamps over the years.”
Other times, she’s intimately acquainted with her subjects. Her father,
“That’s actually been the total plus of this job for me—the timing of these things, and being able to work on something that has such a personal connection,” she said. “It’s still fun working on the ones you have absolutely no connection to, but that was just an added delight.”
Throughout her career, Noyes has watched the number of letter-writers wane. But, she said, “we are still at it. There are enough people out there using the mail that we’ll keep making these little pieces of art.”