Ottawa art students produce postal covers

By Jesse Robitaille

Merivale High School is at it again.

This Valentine’s Day, Canadian Stamp News received a lovely custom-made envelope – one of a series produced by Grade 11 students at Merivale High School in Ottawa.

“Designing miniature works of art is a good challenge for my design students,” said Irving Osterer, the award-winning department head who oversees Merivale’s Fine Arts, Technical Education and Computer Science departments. He’s also the co-ordinator of the school’s Focus program, whose 18 students produced nearly 40 Valentine’s Day covers for their first project of semester two.

Merivale’s Focus program teaches graphic design, photography and flash animation in a concentrated, one-semester offering. It’s one of several programs offered to students of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) as part of the Ministry of Education’s Specialist High Skills Major directive.

Osterer said his students have limited philatelic knowledge but come away from these projects with a greater appreciation of both the hobby and the art behind it.

“They learn about scale and resolution, they learn about different printing technologies and they also gain an understanding of the marriage of type and image – even on a canvas as small as a stamp,” he said. 

Measuring 22.2 cm by 14.6 cm, the cover CSN received shows a photograph of a smiling female student holding a large foam heart, also created by students, on its left side. Beneath the photo are the school and program names as well as the project theme, You Gotta Have Heart (a song originally performed on Broadway in 1955). To the right of the photo are the words “HAPPY VALENTINES DAY!”

Perhaps most interesting, however, is the cover’s cancellation – a special Valentine’s Day-themed cancel that was postmarked in none other than Love, Sask., on Feb. 16.

For 30 years, people have been sending their mail to the small village of Love, where the local post office uses its now-famous cancellation featuring a teddy bear holding a heart.

Osterer said Love’s postmaster, Connie Black-Sturby, contacted students after they mailed their Valentine’s Day covers – two from each student – through the Love post office earlier this year.

“The postmaster in Love, Sask., has reached out to us and loves our involvement. She now looks forward to what we do every year.”

As part of the Focus program, Osterer said his students complete one philatelic project each year.

“The projects depend on the flavour of the day,” he said. “I try to keep things as relevant as possible, so some years I do covers, but I’ve also done booklets, sheets, stamp design, FDCs [first-day covers], labels, mail art, postmarks, Picture Postage and have participated in contests sponsored by Canada Post.”

He said for students, these projects are “almost always their first foray into the world of mail and postage.”

“Today’s young adults know nothing about mail and stamps. The hardest thing is getting them to address envelopes correctly – they have no idea at all,” he said.

“This is just not their vernacular.”

Osterer, who has been teaching for 34 years, said the world has changed; children today simply live in a different world than their philatelic forefathers lived one generation ago.

“In their world, newspapers, books, magazines and mail do not exist. The information paradigm has shifted. The kids still read and communicate, but they do so virtually today.”

He said he’ll continue to do a different project each year for Valentine’s Day.

“The kids love it as for many of them it’s the first thing they’ve ever mailed.”

Most students post their efforts to a significant other – “and again,” said Osterer, “for most, it’s the first piece of mail they’ve ever received.”

Osterer said his interest in philately comes after a life of stamp collecting, which has made him appreciate the hobby’s artistry.

As an art student at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD), Osterer was shown samples of engraving efforts by one of his teachers, James Boyd, who was also a famous Canadian artist and bank note engraver.

Osterer also said he was very fortunate to have Ken Rodmell, another well-known Canadian designer, as a teacher at OCAD.

“For many years, Rodmell was responsible for setting the type on our postage stamps,” he said.

“Both these designers were masters of their craft. I try to continue in their footsteps.”

For more information on Merivale High School’s Communication and Design Focus program, visit

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