Alzheimer's Design of a stamp...

"The challenge and the energy running requires may be a selfish one, but it actually motivates me to be stronger in my relationships." JOAN BENOIT SAMUELSON

For designer, Alzheimer's stamp taps personal pain
By Steve Hendrix The Washington Post

Monday, October 27, 2008
Mark Gail/Washington Post

Ethel Kessler, designer of the new Alzheimer’s awareness postage stamp, said the project was “one of the most emotional projects I’ve ever worked on.” Kessler’s mother is in the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

WASHINGTON - Ethel Kessler is used to squeezing big ideas into tiny spaces. As one of four art directors contracted by the U.S. Postal Service to create stamps, the Bethesda, Md., designer has produced hundreds of peel-and-stick commemorations of subjects including American choreography, the Chinese New Year and love itself.

But when it came to reducing the vast and tragic issue of Alzheimer's disease to a 1-inch canvas, that was tough. Because that was personal.

Kessler's mother is in the later stages of Alzheimer's. And it was just as the designer began working on an Alzheimer's awareness stamp three years ago that her mother began a steep decline, stopped recognizing her daughter and had to move to a nursing home.

"It's one of the most emotional projects I've ever worked on," Kessler said the day her Alzheimer's stamp was officially released. "I'm not even sure my mother remembers my name now. She hasn't said it in a long time."

Kessler's design portrays an elderly woman wearing an expression of soft emptiness, a hand laid comfortingly on her shoulder by an unseen companion. It's that loving touch from behind that stems from Kessler's experience, the recognition that Alzheimer's strikes not only its victims but their families.

"The whole notion of caregivers is critical," Kessler said. "They provide the care that Alzheimer's patients need to live, and they suffer a terrible loss of their own. It took us 10 or 15 false starts before we finally figured that out."

David Failor, the Postal Service's executive director of stamp services, said officials looked at dozens of designs before Kessler provided one that fully captured the serene menace of the disease.

"It's about being able to tell a story on this little piece of paper," he said. "Ethel is just very good at that."

The Baltimore-born Kessler has designed more than 200 stamps for the post office since she became one of its outside art directors 12 years ago. Her studios, Kessler Design Group, are lined with images familiar from the daily mail: a bright and graphic Hattie McDaniel, the first black to win an Academy Award; a brilliant underwater coral reef; a sheet depicting paintings and images of the civil-rights movement.

First-class art, in the most literal sense.

"How in the world do you fit the civil-rights movement on a stamp?" Kessler asked with a laugh at the central challenge of her craft. Her answer: "Very carefully."

In that case, she found some of the most powerful paintings, sculpture and photographs from the segregation era and cropped them to work on an extra-small scale.

"Stamps are not just a reduction of a larger image," she said. "It becomes a new iconic image itself."

A citizens advisory panel decides who and what will be honored on our envelopes each year. Kessler's job is to take those topics - as varied as Irving Berlin and America's national parks - and make them work in thumbnail dimensions.

Her first step is to research the topic, seeking to understand the subject well enough to boil it down to its essence. For Alzheimer's, she contacted the National Institutes of Health, various advocacy groups and some of her friends who have parents suffering from the disease.

When Kessler finally hit upon her idea for the Alzheimer's design, she asked New York artist Matt Mahurin to draw the portrait. He used his aunt as a model and his wife's hand as the caregiver's.

"He was nearly perfect on the first sketch he sent," Kessler said. "That's part of my job: knowing of virtually every artist and illustrator out there."

Kessler also created the 1998 breast cancer awareness stamp, the first stamp used to raise funds for an outside cause. It was another personal issue for the designer, who won her battle with breast cancer in 1994.

The Postal Service has sold more than 1 billion of the breast cancer stamps, and those, plus her many other tiny works, surely make Kessler one of the best-selling designers of all time.
Her work is widely available and currently sells for 42 cents apiece.

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