Artist puts his stamp on Olympics Designer is honored for commemorative series

June 15, 1996|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

Richard L. Waldrep of Baltimore County has won his second Olympic gold, and he didn't have to run, jump, throw, dive or swim for it. He just sat down and drew.

The Sparks artist was honored at last night's Flag Day "Pause for the Pledge of Allegiance" at Fort McHenry for his accomplishment -- designing a set of 20 commemorative 32-cent U.S. postage stamps for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, his native city.

Waldrep designed six stamps for the 1992 summer games in Barcelona (when first-class postage was a mere 29 cents). For this year's centenary games, he created highly stylized "heroic" drawings of athletes in their peak moments of tension and drama.

"The Postal Service chose the events to be depicted and said the figures were to be heroic; the interpretation was left to me," said Waldrep. "I was really surprised and flattered to get it because I had done the 1992 Olympics.

"It's the project of a lifetime," he said.

At Fort McHenry, Waldrep, 53, signed commemorative stamps and envelopes for sale by the Postal Service -- a task that is fast becoming familiar to him.

The artist faced a near-Olympic test of endurance -- one that baseball's iron man, Cal Ripken, could well appreciate -- when he spent a week in April and another in May at a Postal Service distribution center in Minneapolis, signing blocks of his stamps.

"I think I signed more autographs in two weeks than Cal did in a year. My signature will never be the same," the award-winning illustrator said with a laugh about the 35,000 autographs that were part of a new Postal Service marketing strategy.

His Olympic stamps are part of the Classic Collection aimed at philatelists -- and a moneymaker for the Postal Service.

The first Olympic stamp, issued in January 1932. cost 2 cents and depicted a ski jumper.

The latest Olympic project began in March 1995, when the Postal Service invited Waldrep -- who also drew the 1993 Country and Western Music series of stamps -- to submit proposals. "I worked on them for a couple of months, sent the samples and then they gave me the job," he said.

Robin Wright, a spokesman in Washington, said the Postal Service "recruits artists all the time. Sometimes it's graphic artists, sometimes portraitists or engravers, sometimes people who are whimsical. But we never take unsolicited work."

The Postal Service picked 20 Olympic events in which American athletes were expected to excel, including three first-time medal sports -- beach volleyball and women's soccer and softball. Waldrep had access to thousands of photographs of athletes competing in all the sports.

He studied the pictures for weeks, seeking the best for what the Postal Service wanted.

In the 1992 series, Waldrep explored anticipatory moments such as when a soccer player's body contorts to block the ball or a swimmer soars midair above the pool.

This time, the artist said, "They wanted excitement and tension. I looked for people at the height of whatever the event was, the drama, the heroism."

The resulting figures, unidentifiable as individuals, "are beyond real, above what's actual. They are very graphic, with very bold musculature," he said.

The shape of the stamps is an important factor. The 1992 stamps were horizontal and figures were incomplete; athletes were missing heads and limbs. The new, vertical stamps show more of each straining body.

Waldrep, who earned bachelor and master of fine arts degrees from the University of Georgia, said he drew 4-by-6-inch preliminary designs, four times the size of the final stamp. Many revisions later, Postal Service art coordinators approved the final form for each of the 20 stamps.

He colored the designs using gouache, an opaque watercolor, and an air brush.

"The stamps this year are the most realistic I've ever seen," Wright said.

Waldrep demurred: "The 1992 stamps were not as stylized; I think they were more realistic."

For Waldrep, who has won numerous awards for his work, art has been a way of life. "My grandmother was an amateur artist. I was inspired by her, and my whole family always encouraged me."

Pub Date: 6/15/96

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