Stamp art dazzles at Toronto’s First Post Office

By Jesse Robitaille

Stamps and pencil crayons are helping one artist stay “on the bright side” of things.

Oct. 6 was the opening reception for “On the Bright Side: The Stamp Art of Celine Chen,” a new exhibit hosted by the Town of York Historical Society at Toronto’s First Post Office (TFPO). It will be on display until Jan. 20, 2017.

“Stamps, to most people, are something they almost cannot relate to anymore,” Chen said. “Honestly, when was the last time I mailed something out?”

Nevertheless, her love for stamps – “especially the old ones that have been cancelled” – persists.

“I find the used ones are so much more meaningful,” she added. “They embrace culture, art, history, feelings, emotions.”

“On the Bright Side” is a collection of Celine’s pencil-crayon drawings, many of which are also available for purchase. For this exhibition, she has created a series of works about Canada – her home for more than four decades – and more specifically about Toronto, the city she loves.

“I proudly became a Canadian over 42 years ago,” said Chen, who added she has spent most of her time in Toronto. “I love everything about our city. When Toronto’s First Post Office offered me this opportunity, I was so thrilled and excited and decided to work on a series of stamp art about Toronto and other cities in Canada.”

A COMMUNITY HUB

Kathy Hartley, a reference librarian at the Vincent Graves Greene Philatelic Research Foundation, attended the Oct. 6 opening reception at TFPO.

“The opening reception itself was lovely. The thing about TFPO is that it’s really like a community hub, just like in the old days, when people would drop in en route to church or market to pick up their mail, when they’d stop and catch up with the postmaster or others picking up their mail,” said Hartley, who added TFPO “retains that feel.”

Hartley said the image TFPO used to promote the show – an image of one of Chen’s most beautiful pieces – aroused her curiosity.

“The philatelist/archivist in me was startled to see a postage stamp displayed in such a non-philatelic/archival way, but the renegade/boundary basher in me – no actually the person who appreciates seeing stamps out there in the world – also got a real kick out of how playful and how simply beautiful her piece was.”

STAMP ART PHENOMENON

The cover of the Fall 2016 issue of PhilaJournal uses a postage stamp collage, which is just one example of the recent stamp art trend.

“Is the philatelist in me ‘horrified?’” asked Hartley. “Sure, for a moment. But if we get away from the idea of all stamps being precious commodities to be handled with tongs, studied under magnifying glasses and then squirrelled away for no one to see because they are so valuable, well in reality that’s a pretty small percentage of what’s ever been produced.”

Stamp artists such as Chen use these stamps as a focal point in telling the stories she feels compelled to share, and in a “really skillful and unique way,” said Hartley.

“It gets a postage stamp framed and put up on someone’s wall,” she added. “How cool is that, really?”

ARTISTIC UPBRINGING

Chen, 57, was born into a family with four generations of artistic vocation.

Chen’s mother, who was a principal, served as her first art teacher. Chen’s mother was taught by her father (and Chen’s grandfather) Chen Shuren, who was one of the founders of the Lingnan School of painting.

Chen’s father, however, was the person who introduced her to stamp collecting, which she began doing as a child in Hong Kong.

“He loved collecting stamps, and he taught me how to prepare them with care,” she said. “After all these years, I still love to collect stamps.”

More recently, she began illustrating memories from her childhood – the trams, ferries, foods and markets – using pencil crayons and anchoring each drawing to a cancelled stamp.

“Illustrating these memories and feelings through pencil crayons and a stamp is the passion that I wish to share with everyone at this point in my life,” she said.

“It’s a blessing if my passion can touch someone’s heart.”

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