Iowa Arts Council
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Iowa Arts Council

Tiny Portraits Tell a Big Story

Artists who want to make a lasting impact could do worse than create stamps for the U.S. Postal Service. After all, they’re “Forever.”

So the Cedar Falls artist Gary Kelley was honored to create a quartet of tiny portraits of four larger-than-life luminaries of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. Their faces adorn four new Forever stamps the USPS released on May 21 — just four days before the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis refocused the nation’s attention on racial injustice and the often overlooked contributions of African Americans.

The stamps honor the novelist Nella Larsen, the writer and arts advocate Alain Locke, the historian Arturo Alfonso Schomburg and the poet Anne Spencer. All four contributed to the burst of creativity that centered in Harlem, the New York neighborhood where thousands of African Americans migrated after the First World War.

Photo credits: Jon Van Allen, left, and Cydney Kelley, right.

The new stamps aren’t Kelley’s first commission for the USPS. He created portraits for an earlier series honoring famous gospel singers, another series about Hollywood directors, and a single stamp about Oscar Micheaux, the pioneering African American filmmaker, who spent several years in Sioux City.

“I’m always happy to do them,” says Kelley, who participated the postal service’s virtual unveiling ceremony.

Over the course of his award-winning career, Kelley has exhibited his work all over the world and created illustrations for Time, Rolling Stone and The New Yorker. His murals adorn Barnes and Noble Bookstores nationwide, as well as the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates in downtown Des Moines and a massive Google Data Center in Council Bluffs. He also painted a mural at the University of Northern Iowa as part of the Iowa Arts Council’s Art in State Buildings program

Just last week, he polished off a manuscript for his first graphic novel, about the Spirit Lake Massacre, which the publisher aims to release in March 2021.

But there’s nothing quite like a postage stamp. As soon as the new series was released, his wife picked up a few fresh sheets at the post office in Cedar Falls.

Others have mailed him sets to autographs — tucked in, of course, with pre-stamped, self-addressed envelopes.

“I’ve gotten a few packets in the mail now,” he says, “from people I don’t even know.”

Michael Morain, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

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Empowering Iowans to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by cultivating creativity, participation & learning in the arts.

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Iowa Culture

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The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs empowers Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to resources. iowaculture.gov

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