Monday, January 1, 2001
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Posted on: Monday, January 1, 2001

Hawai'i's 'stamp guy' turned into cult hero

Museum offers book on exhibit

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

On Jan. 21, when his latest Lunar New Year’s design, "The Year of the Snake," becomes America’s first commemorative 34-cent stamp, Honolulu artist Clarence Lee will add another first to his growing list of "firsts."

Clarence Lee’s Snake stamp design was initially printed as a 33-cent stamp, but had to be redone as a 34-center at the last minute.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Already Lee has been mobbed from the United States to China by stamp collectors eager for his autograph. Once, in Pomona, Calif., at a first-day issue celebration, he was chased through the streets by a gang of friendly but overzealous signature seekers. Last year in San Francisco at another first-day issue event, he was stunned when a man dashed up to beg an autograph seconds before keeling over from a fatal heart attack.

"That kind of thing doesn’t happen to many stamp designers," said Terrence McCaffrey, who is in charge of the stamp design program for the U.S. Postal Service in Washington.

So far, Lee has been commissioned to design 14 stamps for the U.S. Postal Service. There is, however, more to Lee than stamps. In Honolulu, for it’s barely possible to make it through a day without encountering his influence in some way.

Pass a Bank of Hawaii or an Outrigger Hotel, pick up a box of Hawaiian Host chocolates, or glance at the safety sticker on the bumper of the car in front of you, and you’ve seen Lee’s work.

Momi Cazimero, the first woman in Honolulu to start a graphic design company, said Tom Lee and Bruce Hopper deserve credit for introducing graphic arts to Hawaii in the 1950s.

"But Clarence’s major contribution was that he took graphic design to the national level, and formed a bridge between East and West," she said. "No one had done that. The advent of graphic design elevated all sorts of things in Hawaii — from photography to illustration to typesetting. Clarence transformed attitudes here about art."

Still, Lunar New Year’s stamps are what has brought Lee universal recognition. The Snake will be his ninth, and he will do all 12 Chinese zodiac signs before he’s finished.

Among notables

On Nov. 11, when "Pushing the Envelope: The Art of the Postage Stamp," opened at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., Lee’s work was included in the exhibition alongside that of such notables as caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, pop artist Robert Indiana and the late icon Norman Rockwell. It marks the first time the U.S. Postal Service has bothered to show off its original art collection.

Lee has not only been a part of the process, he seems to be aiming for the Guinness World Record of postage stamp superlatives:

In addition to doing the first commemorative 34-cent stamp, Lee designed the first stamp honoring Chinese Americans, the country’s last 29-cent stamp, and the stamp with the shortest active life in the nation’s history (his Year of the Boar stamp was official first-class postage for all of one day).

The reason Lee logs so many superlatives is because his Lunar New Year’s designs are always pegged to the beginning of the year, which happens to be the same time rate changes occur. Lee keeps getting caught in the crunch. For example, his Snake stamp was initially printed up as a 33-center, only to be destroyed and redone as a 34-center at the last minute.

Confusion surrounding his craft is nothing new to Lee. Lots of people don’t understand the differences between a piece of commercial art, a design and an illustration. Lee’s own daughter ran into the problem as a kid.

"In school my friends asked what my father did, and I said He designs logos,’ and they looked at me like, What the heck’s a logo?’" said Cathy Lee Chong, 39.

One need look no further than Lee’s own company logo to experience his particular brand of cleverness. At first, it appears to be his first name in mostly white, outlined letters. It takes a second glance to spot the three solid black letters that spell out his last name.

"There’s a Lee right in the Clarence," said Lee, who in 1965 began what is now Honolulu’s largest graphic design firm (in the beginning it consisted of Lee and an answering machine). "It’s funny, because it takes some people two or three years to notice it."

For this odd name coincidence Lee can thank Dr. H.Q. Pang, the man who delivered him on Feb. 1, 1935. Lee’s Chinese name is Kim Mun Lee; it was Pang who tagged him with Clarence.

'Always doing art'

By the time he was 6, Lee already knew what he wanted to be.

"I grew up in McCully and I was always doing art. I was the only kid in the neighborhood who wanted to go to the Honolulu Academy of Arts. We were running around barefoot, and none of my friends were interested in going there."

Lee’s journey from a barefoot boy to Iolani School to "the stamp guy" is the tale of a kid who led a charmed life and seemed always to be in the right place at the right time.

His dad, a butcher, knew nothing about art but encouraged him to pursue his interest. A junior high teacher recognized Lee’s talent and supplied him with a desk in the art room throughout high school.

At 17, Lee won a scholarship at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, which led in turn to Pomona College. In 1954, Lee took a summer art course at the University of Hawaii. Later, the instructor, noted Yale Arts School chairman Josef Albers, helped Lee enroll at the prestigious Ivy League institution.

At Yale, Lee worked closely with a number of the country’s most influential graphic designers, including Bradbury Thompson, who went on to become the design coordinator for the Postal Service’s Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee. Since 1957, that committee has advised the postmaster general on art designs for postage stamps.

In the late 1980s, a Georgia woman named Jean Chen launched an effort to have Chinese Americans honored for the first time on a U.S. postage stamp. After years of intense lobbying, the stamp advisory committee finally embraced the idea of printing a Chinese Lunar New Year’s stamp for 1993, the Year of the Rooster.

Although Thompson had left the committee by that time, the advisory panel was well aware of a Chinese graphic designer in Honolulu. Lee was chosen to do the stamp.

"It was originally scheduled to be a one-stamp deal," recalled McCaffrey. "But it proved to be so popular we decided to continue the whole series."

Lunar New Year’s stamps became an instant moneymaker for the Postal Service. Chinese collectors bought them by the millions, to keep, not to use as postage. The revenue was pure profit for the Postal Service.

"We make a couple of million dollars off each of his Lunar New Year’s stamps," said McCaffrey. "And that’s just the United States revenue. We also sell his stamps in mass quantities to foreign administrations, primarily China."

Lee was paid $50,000 to do the entire Chinese zodiac series. He could have easily made far more than that by simply selling his signature on a stamp.

But the designer insists he has no interest in ever hawking his autograph.

"The perk is that you make people happy," he said. "It’s the smile on their faces. And just for signing a postage stamp! It doesn’t get any easier than that."

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