By Michael Kinney
In his short career as a fine art artist, Robert Peterson has put together some major commissions. From the Oklahoma City Thunder to private owners across the country, the Lawton (Okla.) native has an impressive portfolio.
However, in terms of size and scope, it’s hard to imagine any having the reach of his latest employer, the United States Postal Service.
The USPS hired Peterson to create a painting that would be used for the 46th stamp in their annual Black Heritage Series, which will come out in 2023.
“The Black Heritage Stamp is the stamp that the United States Postal Service puts out every Black History Month every February,” Peterson said in an exclusive interview. “I’m honored to be able to say that this Black History Month, February 2023 will be the year that the stamp that I painted is released.”
When Peterson was approached about the project, it came through an email that he almost didn’t open.
“I don’t know why I opened it, but I’m glad that I did,” Peterson said. “They said that they really loved my artwork. They had noticed it on Instagram. Somebody had actually put them onto my account a few months prior to that email. So, they had been following me for a while. They liked my personality, that I was about family and fine art and stuff like that. He said we would love to see if you would be interested in being commissioned to do this painting for a stamp.”
But even after reading through it, it took a while before Peterson believed he wasn’t the subject of an elaborate prank.
“I think anybody would have this initial feeling like am I being punked? Are you serious? And then after, you know, looking into who the guy who contacted me, I Googled his name, looked up in social media, and then connected his name to United States Postal Service,” Peterson said. “And of course, everything checked back. I was like, Okay, this is real. And you know, the thought of one being a black artist that was commissioned for this, and then two, having the opportunity to paint another black creative, the author was absolutely amazing. And then three, to be one of the first people to do it from my city and possibly even my state was absolutely amazing to me.”
Peterson’s subject for the stamp is renowned novelist Ernest Gaines (1933-2019). The Louisiana native is best known for penning such novels as “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and “A Lesson Before Dying.” The son of sharecroppers explored the untold stories of rural African Americans, adding a vital voice to American literature.
Gaines was also a UL Lafayette writer-in-residence emeritus and taught creative writing at the University from 1983 until his retirement in 2010. He died in 2019 at the age of 86.
Peterson didn’t have an in-depth knowledge of Gaines career when he was approached about the project this past summer. So, he had to rectify that quickly.
While heading on vacation with his wife, Peterson purchased a few of Gaines’ works.
“It was just perfect timing because I knew that I would have time on the plane and time on the beach to read some of his books,” Peterson said. “And he was an absolutely amazing writer, grew up in the south and was a family man. I loved what he did. I’ve seen a little bit of myself in that.”
Peterson ended up choosing an image from photographer Raoul Benavides as his foundation and then went to work on it.
“I ended up settling on the one that you see, I just think that it shows the strength in who he was,” Peterson said. “He was a focused person. He was a driven person. As an author who wrote as many books as he did, to overcome some of the things that he overcame to be what he was.”
It took Peterson close to a week to finish the painting before he sent it off. Then it had to be approved by the postal service and Gaines’s family.
While negotiations and the approval process took longer than the actual work, everyone involved is happy with the outcome.
While Peterson’s portrait of Gaines is the only one that will be used exclusively in this year’s Black Heritage Series, other luminaries who will be featured on USPS stamps in 2023 include Chief Standing Bear, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Toni Morrison, Roy Lichtenstein and the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team.
“The 2023 stamp program features a broad range of subjects and designs,” said USPS Stamp Services Director William Gicker. “These miniature works of art highlight our unique American culture and offer a broad selection for those looking to collect stamps or send their mail around the nation or the world.”
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