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Americans in Berlin: A Cinderella Stamp Commemorative Issue

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Continuing my conversation with T.H.E. Hill, the author of Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary, the Military Writers Society of America Book of the Month for September 2009, and the winner of a 2009 Branson Stars & Flags Book Award in the Thriller/Adventure Fiction category. For more background and information, read a review of Voices Under Berlin, and interviews with Hill about the novel, and about the craft of writing.

T.H.E. Hill is creating a sheet of Cinderella stamps commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall which led to the reunification of Germany. I asked him to explain what Cinderella stamps are, and to talk about the artistic process of creating postage-stamp art. The following, in Hill's own words, is taken from an email exchange with him.

For the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall I wanted to create a piece of art work to commemorate the almost 50 years that American troops spent in Berlin in the cause of peace and freedom. I had already designed a number of mugs and T-shirts commemorating the fall of the Wall, but I wanted something that provided a bit more scope to tell the story. While it may sound counter-intuitive, I decided that smaller was better, and created a sheet of poster stamps to show what happened.

Poster stamps are a sub-category of Cinderella stamps, stamps that would like to go to the ball of philately, but are generally snubbed by "serious" stamp collectors, whose only interest is in stamps that will move a piece of mail from point A to point B. Cinderella stamps are not valid for postage. They are in reality an art form that uses the medium of stamp-sized images on gummed, perforated paper. Modern practitioners of the art — of whom there are many
prefer to use the term artistamps.

The name that I use for this medium was, in part, dictated by J.R.R. Tolkien, who drew "North Pole Post" Cinderella stamps with cancellations on the letters that "Father Christmas" wrote to Tolkien's children.  Tolkienologists prefer the term Cinderella stamp, and I am a well-read student of Tolkien, therefore, Cinderella stamp is the term with which I am most familiar.

The layout concept chosen for this project owes a debt of gratitude to Andy Warhol (1928 –1987). His famous stamp-like poster of 25 colored Marilyns (1962) made me conscious of the impact that repeated images can have. Like his iconographic image of the label of a can of soup, Warhol's images of Marilyn Monroe are larger than the sheet of stamps that they suggest. I, however, decided to keep my images at stamp size, and to alter the rows instead of the individual "stamps." That is my "value added" to the concept.

The original poster stamps were intended to be torn off from the sheet along the perf lines, glued to letters, and/or collected individually in albums. The closest equivalent today is, perhaps, the ubiquitous die-cut, self-adhesive sticker. My poster stamps are old-fashioned. They are printed on gummed paper with perf lines like poster stamps. They are, however, designed to be viewed like Warhol's, as a whole sheet.

The stamps are printed on high-quality glossy white, water-activated gummed paper. The sheets are separated into individual stamps using a line perforation machine that produces 11.5 perforation holes every two centimeters. The perforations extend from edge to edge. The printer's placement technique has been optimized so as to create precise corner holes, avoiding "odd crossings," in as far as possible. An unexpected added extra for this project is that the Cinderella stamp printer I engaged to produce the stamps is located in Berlin. That gives them a greater sense of authenticity than they would have if they were printed somewhere else.

The hard part about designing postage-stamp-sized art is creating an image that is recognizable when it is that small. This is a medium where the silhouette of the design takes precedence over individual lines. Because the viewer has to be familiar with the shapes used in the design, the artist has to carefully consider his target audience. For those who never served with the US forces in Berlin some of the shapes will be incomprehensible. The shoulder patch for Berlin Brigade, for example, is used in two of the stamps, and unless the viewer has seen it before, it will not be recognizable in miniature. I, therefore, have created a four-color, tri-fold brochure that explains the art for those who were never in Berlin. There will eventually come a time when Warhol's poster of 25 colored Marilyns will need a similar explanation so that the viewer can relate to the woman pictured on the poster, but the explanation will never be as good as the one that Warhol could have written himself. For those who doubt that: who was the woman in Vermeer's painting "The Girl with a Pearl Earring" (1665)? I've tried to avoid that "knowledge gap" by producing the brochure that will accompany each sheet of stamps.

The "Americans in Berlin" commemorative sheet consists of five rows of six stamps. The top row displays the shoulder patch for Berlin Brigade. It is denominated 45, recalling the year in which American troops first entered Berlin at the end of WWII. The second row borrows the classic representation of the Berlin Airlift from the 1956 German commemorative postage stamp. This stamp is denominated 70 to commemorate the number of American (31) and British (39) pilots and aircrew who lost their lives in the Airlift. The third row depicts the silhouette of Field Station Berlin located atop the Teufelsberg ("Devil's Mountatin"), the highest point in Berlin. It is an iconic part of the Berlin skyline. This stamp is denominated 24/7 to recall that the Field Station was "on watch" 24 hours a day, seven days a week throughout the Cold War, helping to prevent the Cold War from turning hot. The fourth row is a celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The colors used in the text allow the numbers from the dates that the Wall stood to be read together with the words on the line below to say "One Berlin – Twenty years." The fifth row seems to repeat the Berlin Brigade shoulder patch, but the flaming sword of the conquerors of 1945 has been replaced by the Berlin Bear, symbolizing that when the Americans left in 1994, they left as friends and "Berliners."

At the left of the bottom margin of the sheet is an image of the crest of the City of Berlin with the honorific banner "Outpost of Freedom." The crest is bisected by one of the perforation lines to symbolize Berlin's other Cold-War title, "The Divided City." The bottom right of the margin hosts a faux cancellation mark for "APO 09742", the Army Post Office number for Berlin. The cancellation shows the date 9 November 2009 as the "First Day of Issue." This is the date of the twentieth Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. In the center of the bottom margin is John F. Kennedy's world-famous statement, made in Berlin in June 1963: "Ich bin ein Berliner" (I am a Berliner). (Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean "I am a jellied doughnut.")

What Kennedy actually said was: "Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is 'Ich bin ein Berliner'." The men and women of the Allied Western Armed forces in Berlin felt this same sense of pride in being Berliners, perhaps even more strongly than Kennedy, because they actually lived in Berlin, sharing the fate of those whom it was their duty to defend. In Kennedy's view, "all free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin," and, therefore, this sheet of commemorative Cinderella Stamps is for all those Americans who, like Kennedy, "take pride in the words 'Ich bin ein Berliner'."

The official unveiling of the set will take place on 9 November as a part of America's largest Veterans Day celebration, Veterans Homecoming Week in Branson, Missouri. It seemed an appropriate place to present a project that honors the veterans who served in Berlin Brigade and Field Station Berlin. And as an added bonus, that's where I'll be picking up my "Branson Stars & Flags Book Award."

To see the images used on the "Americans in Berlin" sheet of commemorative Cinderella Stamps, please visit the website for Voices Under Berlin.

 

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