In 1968 well-known San Francisco lettering artist Alan A. Blackman began sending hand-written envelopes as a surprise for his young son, Stephen, across the bay in Berkeley. Blackman had been an avid stamp collector in childhood and remembered the excitement that a new postage stamp could create—and the excitement of receiving his own personal mail. At the same time he addressed an envelope to his son, he addressed a similar one to himself.
Our guest blogger Alan A. Blackman vividly describes his thirty-six year calligraphic obsession. The exhibition Letters to Myself: The Calligraphic First Day Covers of Alan A. Blackman is on view now in the Main Library's Jewett Gallery, Lower Level, and continues through October 11, 2015.
POSTAGE STAMPS HAVE BEEN in my blood since early childhood. My older brother & I fought to the death for the possession of our stamp collections. We grew up in a remote New York State rural community, ordering our new stamps by mail. The monthly arrival of exotic & glamorous stamps was tremendously exciting. They taught us our geography lessons, for example, including such far-flung locations as Tannu Tuba, Bosnia-Herzogovina, Schleswig-Holstein, Sarawak & St. Pierre & Miquelon.
IN THE LATE 1960s I was a postal employee at Rincon Annex, the main distribution center near the waterfront in downtown San Francisco. I became aware of letters addressed to postmasters requesting first day cancellations for new postage stamps. I would often see envelopes passing through the mailstream bearing new stamps cancelled FIRST DAY OF ISSUE. Such cancellations always bear the date and the names of the issuing cities. Monthly posters in the Rincon Annex lobby announced the design of the latest stamps, the respective cities & the dates.
MY FIRST ENVELOPE dates back to 1968. I had begun my calligraphic studies some ten years earlier & was fairly competent in the italic & uncial alphabets. My eleven-year-old son, Stephen, lived across the bay in Berkeley. I wondered if "the stamp bug" would bite him as it had once bitten me. Postage was then six cents. I addressed an envelope for each of us, taping twelve cents to a card & mailing them within an outer envelope to postmasters of various cities. Some weeks later we received our respective envelopes, each cancelled FIRST DAY OF ISSUE. Doting fathers may appreciate the element of surprise that this method of indirect communication can bring to their children. My son resided in England for many years, eventually acquiring a collection identical to mine -- bearing his name & address. Our postal service later changed its procedure, requiring collectors to purchase & affix their own stamps, allowing them thirty days to do so & still receive the official cancellation.
THERE WERE TWO SHOPS selling stamps for collectors near my place of employment. I discovered that LINN's Stamp News, Sidney, Ohio, contained a wealth of information about new foreign stamps. I learned that certain foreign philatelic bureaus sent out periodic bulletins announcing their forthcoming new issues. My favorite countries became Great Britain, Canada, Australia, & Sweden. I eagerly requested their cancellations, sending them our blank self-addressed envelopes including a remittances for the price of the stamps plus a possible "fixing fee". Many overseas bureaus accepted personal checks in U.S. dollars including an additional amount to cover the rate of exchange. I believe that now most postal bureaus accept valid credit cards. Some collectors become fond of specific topics. Mine were stamps-on-stamps (new stamps that portray previous historical issues); coats of arms, manuscripts and -- my son's favorite animal, the pangolin -- a scaly anteater native to certain regions of Africa & Southeast Asia.
BY CHANCE MY FIRST effort used a box of 100 Crane’s kid finish white envelopes. The paper takes ink flawlessly. I could carefully scrape off small errors with a surgical scalpel under a magnifying glass without damaging the surface of the paper. It’s a meticulous operation which calligraphers eventually learn. The back flap of each envelope was embossed with the name of a time-honored San Francisco department store or boutique—I. Magnin, Gump’s, Schwabacher Frey—a refinement which I cherished. During my long years of this hobby I continually sought out other brands, other envelopes, other papers, but I became quite enamored of Crane’s. They were always the best for me.
MY EARLIEST ADDRESSES were written with steel pen nibs and black ink. I discovered Boku-eki, a dense, glossy, liquid Japanese sumi ink that has remained my favorite commercial ink to this day. As my calligraphic skills increased I supplanted my use of steel pen nibs with turkey & goose quills, both of which create a finder line on the page. For colored writing I used gouache in tubes or water-soluble colored pencils. I later learned how to grind a set of colored Japanese stick inks on individual ink stones: one stone for reds, one for blues, one for greens, etc. For metallic effects I found that imitation pigments (for example, Winsor & Newton gold ink, Japanese cake colors, Pelican silver & copper gouache) were more attractive than authentic shell gold & silver. There is always the risk, however, that they will eventually tarnish. For greater adhesion I added gum arabic to the ink to prevent smudging as the envelope travelled on the bottom of mail bags, through people's hands & through the cancellation machines.
FOR THE FIRST TEN YEARS most of my envelopes bore identical addresses -- my italic & uncial handwriting. They were exciting to receive at the time, especially when they came from overseas. In the early 1970 calligraphy societies emerged on both the local & national scenes. Our artistic horizons broadened. The writing styles of Friedrich Newgebauer (Austria), Kennedy Smith (England) & David Mekelburg (Los Angeles) had a profound effect on my personal vision. I began to use color more adventurously. Most important of all --- & it happened very gradually -- the images on the stamps became the inspiration for the design of the lettering.
THE MOST INTRIGUING aspect of this activity—apart from the indirect communication with my son—was the creative process. Could I produce something new this time? How? How far could I go? Was legibility important? Where were the good designs when I really needed them?? Every envelope was not “a winner”. I have boxes of unsuccessful envelopes that are rarely opened, whose unfortunate contents never see the light of day. My friends would occasionally ask how I was able to sustain the high outpouring of continuous inspiration. My answer was that it was not continuous. My creativity has always run in cycles of indeterminate & unpredictable duration. I cherish the seasons when wondrous ideas occur: startling designs, whose equal I’ve never seen before. During these times I’m very happy. Then, try as I may to avert it, the sky darkens & a chill fills the air. Leaves fall from the trees. A witch with a bony hand appears at the garden gate extending a poisoned apple. Once again the land becomes arid and unyielding. I am compelled to wait—without knowing the length of the winter— for the coming of spring. Perhaps a truer insight into the above question is that I have learned to wait through periods of frustration without giving in to despair.
I HAVE OCCASIONALLY USED my envelope collection as a teaching example in classes & workshops. It was an obsession that I continued to maintain for thirty-six years. I relinquished it in the year 2004. By that time my son, Stephen, had become an adult, self-supporting as a talented TV cameraman, traveling the world on assignment, no longer resident in what had been till then his permanent childhood home. There was no longer a reason for me to continue, as newer envelopes would not reach him. I believe that by the time I leave the planet this collection will have become my most important work. --Alan A. Blackman
This exhibition is dedicated to the memory of my beloved son,
Stephen Anthony Richard Blackman (1957-2012).
Stephen Anthony Richard Blackman (1957-2012).
Note: Please do not send mail to the addresses on the envelopes; the artist may be contacted through his website: http://www.alanblackman.com/