O.C. McManus was just "trying something different" when he glued canceled postage stamps on cardboard to make a picture--a collage-like, swirling design of two South Sea Islands women carrying baskets of fruit on their heads.
The artwork came from a man who etched on his mess kit during three years as a prisoner during World War II, who has painted on silk, who makes plywood furniture for children and cartoons for everyone.
It is now more than 25 years and 30 pictures after that first stamp mosaic, which McManus began after joining the Postal Service, and neither his productivity nor his interest has diminished. In fact, they have been heightened by admiration from fans and requests for exhibits of his work.
"There are a million artists and most of them are better than I am," said McManus in explaining his search for the offbeat. "I've always liked doing things that are a little different."
McManus, a 71-year-old widower, joined the Navy in 1936 and served 20 years before retiring and settling in Pasadena, where he worked for the post office as a sign painter until his second retirement three years ago. He said he has dabbled in art and crafts since his childhood in Iowa.
The downstairs rooms of his spacious Pasadena home are decorated with art, much of it stamp portraits of his loved ones and stamp replicas of famous artworks.
In an upstairs work room--in boxes, baskets and cans--are stamps: blue stamps in one, green in another, a heap of the most common U.S. flag stamps, a carton of stamps donated by a friend in Australia, a special cache of Eisenhower stamps that "have the best skin tones."
McManus has spent 25 years patiently soaking thousands stamps from the remnants of envelopes, drying them and sorting them according to color. He sketches his subjects on large pieces of cardboard and then begins the cutting and gluing process that can take months of off-and-on work.
The outcome is what McManus calls a mosaic, a carefully detailed portrait with its finest lines and outlines highlighted by tiny slivers of stamps.
In McManus' home are stamp portraits of his three children and one foster daughter, his Southern grandfather in Confederate army uniform copied from an old tintype, a likeness of King Tut and a green Cher in dazzling costume, created to make her look like a Martian.
They reveal the evolution of his works, from the relatively simple South Sea Islands maidens to intricately shaded portraits. A religious picture is made solely from stamps with religious topics. A young woman with Oriental eyes gazes from a stamp background that looks like Asian brocade. A WAC's portrait is made from flag stamps. All were done for pleasure, not for sale.
The material for his art comes from the bounty of stamps McManus receives from friends. The only time he had to buy canceled stamps, McManus said, was when he needed more for the black hair in a portrait of former Pasadena Postmaster Kathryn Wilson.
"I went out and bought several sheets of black Hitler stamps," he said. That portrait hung in the city's main post office for years.
Explaining other works, he said, "I use a lot of red because there's a lot of red in stamps."
McManus says he is too busy to be a member of stamp clubs, but he sometimes lends his work for their programs. His creations have been displayed in an Arcadia post office, a La Canada Flintridge civic building and in Pasadena art shows.
'I've always liked doing things that are a little different.'