Cultural Stamp of Approval

Lunar New Year "forever stamp," by Camille Chew MFA 20 PR, was commissioned by the US Postal Service (USPS)

For any emerging artist or designer, landing the commission to create a “forever stamp” for the US Postal Service (USPS) seems like a sweet deal. And if you’re still a student, it’s especially fortuitous.

When Camille Chew MFA 20 PR initially signed on to work on this year’s new Lunar New Year stamp, she was more focused on creating an image that felt right than thinking about the potential exposure for her artwork.

With an abiding interest in mythology, fantasy and the occult, the illustrator had branched out into mask-making several years ago, creating an online presence as the Lord of Masks. That’s how USPS art director Antonio Alcalá first found her intricate, fanciful masks—on Instagram.

Colorful mask by Camille Chew MFA 20 PR
Chew’s series of masks—like the ones above and below—led to the recent commission from the US Postal Service.

Since 2020 is the Year of the Rat in the Chinese zodiac, Alcalá commissioned Chew to create an original rat mask, but one that feels more light and inviting than menacing. After all, people born in the Year of the Rat are said to possess the rodents’ more positive qualities: intelligence, resourcefulness and sociability.

To land on the right vibe for such an iconic image, Chew researched Chinese folklore and rituals, looking at the masks used in lion and dragon dances, along with Asian textiles and cut-paper art long associated with Lunar New Year celebrations.

Colorful mask by Camille Chew MFA 20 PR

Bringing her own sensibilities to bear, Chew then proposed sketches for the rat mask and worked with Alcalá in refining them before making the 3D piece the way she makes her other masks.

This involves printing monotypes that she cuts and folds into shape before painting finer details in acrylic and then adding playful embellishments like tassels and flowers.

Camille Chew MFA 20 PR with poster of stamp commissioned by the US Postal Service
Camille Chew MFA 20 PR at the RISD/USPS reception celebrating her Year of the Rat mask, which is now on a forever stamp.

Every year the Postal Service issues approximately 35 stamps and delivers roughly 150 billion pieces of mail to people all over the world, noted Kevin Clark, the USPS district manager, at a February 27 event at RISD to celebrate the new stamp.

“Imagine how far Camille’s artwork will travel,” he said. “Stamps bind the nation together. They celebrate different cultures and they show the world who or what is important throughout history.”

“We have students showing work all over the place... but a stamp that moves through the world... that’s a first.”

RISD Provost Kent Kleinman

“It’s extraordinary, and very unusual,” agrees RISD Provost Kent Kleinman, who also spoke at the event. “We have students showing work all over the place—all the time. But a stamp that moves through the world and has durability at that scale, that’s a first for me—and I think it may be a first for a RISD student as well.”

The Year of the Rat stamp by Camille Chew MFA 20 PR, commissioned by the US Postal Service

The Year of the Rat stamp is also the first in the USPS 2020 Lunar New Year series, which will include all 12 signs of the zodiac and may ultimately feature more of Chew’s work. For now, though, she’s thrilled that just months before graduation her rat mask has surfaced on a forever stamp in wide circulation.

“It really is an exciting place to get your artwork displayed,” Chew says, “because so many people get to see it.”

—Liisa Silander

March 4, 2020

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