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Hawaii Graphic Artist Brings Cultural Awareness to New Olympic Stamp

  • Heidi Chang

The United States Postal Service has issued a new stamp to commemorate the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. It was designed by a graphic artist from Hawaii. As Heidi Chang reports, Clarence Lee may not be a household name, but his stamps are recognized around the world.

It's just before noon, and business is bustling at this Honolulu post office. Jane Yee is buying a sheet of Olympic Games stamps. "The colors are beautiful and it shows the gymnasts in action," she says, explaining why she likes the stamp. She's also pleased to discover that Clarence Lee, one of Hawaii's best-known graphic designers, created it.

The stamp depicts a leaping gymnast, in bright red. Lee says it honors the spirit of the Games. "It was just so energetic and appealing, and it's very athletic in motion." Illustrator Katie Doka provided the artwork on the stamp.

This isn't the first time Lee has created a stamp. In 1992, the U.S. Postal Service asked him to design a New Year stamp to honor Chinese Americans. Looking ahead to the Year of the Rooster, Lee knew what he wanted to do. His rooster stamp was very popular, bringing in more than $5-million in sales, not just in the U.S., but also in China.

Lee says there are some 20 million stamp collectors in China. "This was the first [U.S.] stamp with a Chinese character on it, Chinese artwork, paper cut artwork. It was very colorful. And so they were buying up all these stamps because it had a Chinese theme."

Because the rooster stamp sold so well, the Postal Service commissioned Lee to design a Lunar New Year series of 12 stamps. Lee, who was born in the Year of the Dog, has his own favorite – the Boar. "It's just flying through the air and it seems happy and it seems very active."

Supportive family nurtured Lee's passion for art

Over the years, Clarence Lee has spoken to stamp collectors in major U.S. cities and in China. He often shares how the stamps have given him a chance to honor his parents.

Lee's mother was a Chinese-American from Hawaii and his father emigrated from China. "I'm sure everybody else has a story like that," he says, "ancestors that had braved coming across the ocean and making a life that's better for their children and their children's children."

Lee's father worked in a butcher shop, and was able to send his son to a private school and to Yale University, where he studied design.

Lee discovered his passion for art when he was still a child, and credits his parents with nurturing his talent. "I remember my father getting butcher paper, that was a pink, waxy butcher paper, and he would bring it home for me, sheets and sheets of it. And I would just sit on the floor and just start drawing."

Today, Lee is internationally recognized for his designs, which often incorporate a sense of cultural awareness. He has created eye-catching logos for major companies in Hawaii and around the world, as well as posters and brochures for special events.

In 1994, Lee designed America's first joint-issue stamp with China. The two-stamp set featured a black-necked crane and a whooping crane.

Designing world peace on a postage stamp

When asked what stamp he'd design today if he could pick any theme, Lee didn't hesitate. "I would think it would be world peace, which is not something that's happening this day and age."

He recalls doing a series of posters for the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. "I enjoyed doing that project. But it was based on world peace and something we need all to share."

Now in his 70s, Clarence Lee continues to design and create art. He is still amazed that his smallest projects – postage stamps – have become his biggest claim to fame.