"As with most illustration assignments, it started with a call from an art director, in this case one who is part of the team at the US Postal Service, Ethel Kessler."
The Breast Cancer Research semipostal stamp, originally issued in 1998, was reissued in 2014. Mandated by Congress in 1997 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, the 1998 Breast Cancer Research stamp was the first semipostal issued by the U.S. Postal Service. Semipostals are stamps sold at a surcharge to raise money for a particular cause. Purchase of this stamp supports the breast cancer research work of the National Institutes of Health and the Medical Research Program of the Department of Defense.
The stamp art depicts a woman standing with her right arm raised, reaching behind her head in the position recommended for breast self-examination. The drawing of the woman’s body is set against a background of pastel colors ranging from yellow to violet that cover the entire face of the stamp. Across the top of the stamp are the words “Breast Cancer.” Circling the figure’s right breast are the phrases, in all caps, “FUND THE FIGHT.” and “FIND A CURE.”
Art director Ethel Kessler, herself a breast cancer survivor, faced a challenge in designing the stamp. She wanted a design that brought awareness to the importance of breast cancer research while offering a positive and uplifting image. After working with variations on the theme of pink ribbons—the symbol of breast cancer awareness—and photographs that struck her as too melancholy, Kessler turned to artist Whitney Sherman for other ideas.
Sherman produced many sketches, but one stood out from the others. A woman stands with her right arm raised, reaching behind her head in the position recommended for breast self-examination. The pose reminded the artist of depictions of the ancient Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis (Diana to the Romans), reaching back to pull an arrow from the quiver hanging from her shoulder. The archetype represented by Artemis signifies strength, courage, survival, and hope, all the emotions that the art director and artist hoped to capture in the stamp art. Each Breast Cancer Research semipostal stamp is valid for postage at the First-Class Mail, single-piece, first-ounce rate in effect at the time of purchase. To date, the stamp has raised more than $78 million for breast cancer research.
"The stamp image had to distinguish itself from the earlier Breast Cancer Awareness Stamp, and originally the USPS wanted the pink ribbon to be featured. Neither she nor I wanted that, so I worked up numerous B&W concepts which were reviewed and narrowed down, and then color versions were done. The benefit to me as an illustrator were firsthand stories about being a survivor and a willingness by the art director to represent my thinking to the committee of designers the USPS retains. Once the concept and color treatment were approved, it was made into final art, placed in the stamp format with typography, and sent to the USPS Advisory Council for final approval," said the artist.
"Much like the classic Artemis, my modern interpretation wears a quiver and uses arrows to target the disease," Sherman explained. "The body is a kaleidoscope of color that defies the boundary of figure, and bursts outward in an expression of the spirit of each woman's claim to health, hope and strength. The image is a call to action for every woman." Describing the artistic challenge, Sherman said she developed images that demonstrated courage, strength, hope and spirit. Still she felt a lack. "One element was missing," said Sherman. "It was the heroic nature of the care-givers, the doctors and the researchers involved in the fight against breast cancer, most importantly it was the women. They are the reason the care-givers give, the doctors doctor and the researchers research. By representing the spirit of those who have fought and are fighting breast cancer, I could speak about the disease."