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.
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
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.
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."
family nurtured Lee's passion for art
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
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
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.
1994, Lee designed America's first joint-issue stamp with China. The two-stamp
set featured a black-necked crane and a whooping crane.
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."
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.