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PALM LATITUDES

Close Up

December 08, 1991|Ellen Alperstein | EDITED BY MARY McNAMARA

If you think it takes a long time to buy a stamp in this town, try designing one. As an artist commissioned by the United States Postal Service to create some of the approximately 30 commemorative stamps issued each year, Angeleno Ren Wicks, 72, knows that "swift" is a relative term when it comes to the federal bureaucracy.

His most recent stamp, a portrait of writer William Saroyan, was in production for more than a year. It was a joint issue between the United States and the Soviet Union, and although the two superpowers have issued other stamps in common, this was the first featuring a person. Saroyan's Armenian heritage was a sensitive subject; even after Wicks delivered his acrylic-and-gouache likeness, the Soviets, he says, "doctored my artwork to make their version more ethnic--more brooding and Middle Eastern."

Wicks submitted four designs from which the Stamp Advisory Committee, a prestigious body of private citizens, chose. "I would have chosen another, more dramatic one," Wicks admits. "But they liked this one. That's why you get so many mediocre-looking stamps--the people on the committee aren't trained artists." Not that the committee has an easy time of it, fielding between 15,000 and 20,000 suggestions.

Wicks has been a commercial artist for 50 years; besides doing work for NASA and NATO, among others, he designed the controversial poster of Jane Russell for "The Outlaw." But he never thought of himself as stamp artist.

"It's not something you apply for. It's a caprice of fate," he says. "You're in there, or you're not. " Wicks was chosen by the chief of the advisory committee, a fellow member of the New York Society of Illustrators. Hicks' first commission was 1974's 10-cent crossed flags, commemorating the nation's bicentennial. Despite the limitations of stamp art, which pays nominally, Wicks relishes the opportunity "to contribute to the culture. Designing stamps is an honor; my work will be perpetuated forever."

Wicks' latest offering is scheduled to appear in 1992. Because the postal service treats stamps as legal tender, he is contractually obliged not to reveal the subject. He does confide that it is a portrait of a great historical explorer, and that he relied on the resources of Western Costume, a local prop and costume warehouse, to research the attire for the subject, of whom no portrait exists.

Who could that be?

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