Alan Blackman has had a long and storied career, as an artist, calligrapher, typeface designer for Adobe, lettering arts instructor, and three years working for the U.S. Post Office at San Francisco’s Rincon Annex. By his own account, however, his most significant work is Letters to Myself.
Letters to Myself was a personal project first undertaken by Blackman in 1968. His then 11-year old son Stephen lived across the bay in Berkeley, east of San Francisco.
Through his work in the postal service, Blackman became familiar with “first day covers,” letters affixed with a stamp on its first day of release and mailed from the city from which the stamp originated. Each such letter is stamped with the cancellation FIRST DAY OF ISSUE, as well as the date and city of origin.
For every letter that Blackman sent to his son, he sent a similar one to himself. Using the stamp design as a starting point, he hand-addressed the letter in beautifully colored calligraphic design, each cover compatible or related to the design of the stamp. Over the years, his calligraphic envelopes became more elaborate and theme oriented.
As a child, Alan Blackman was an avid stamp collector, an enthusiasm he shared with his brother. Growing up in rural New York State, they ordered stamps from around the world by mail, becoming familiar with remote and exotic place in the process, including Tannu Tuva, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Schleswig-Holstein, Sarawak, and St. Pierre and Miquelon. Through the letters project, he hoped to share the joy of receiving a personal letter in the mail, as well as his love of design and stamps, with his son.
“I wondered if ‘the stamp bug’ would bite him as it had once bitten me,” said Blackman. “Postage was then six cents. I addressed an envelope for each of us, taping twelve cents to a card & mailing them within an outer envelope to postmasters of various cities. Some weeks later we received our respective envelopes, each cancelled FIRST DAY OF ISSUE… (Later) my son resided in England for many years, eventually acquiring a collection identical to mine—bearing his name & his address.”
In all, Blackman mailed approximately 1,000 letters. As a consummate professional, he considers only 300 of them worthy of display. With regard to the creative process, he said, “I cherish the seasons when wondrous ideas occur: startling designs, whose equal I’ve never seen before. During these times I’m very happy. Then, try as I may to avert it, the sky darkens & a chill fills the air. Leaves fall from the trees. A witch with a bony hand appears at the garden gate extending a poisoned apple. Once again the land becomes arid and unyielding. I am compelled to wait—without knowing the length of the winter—for the coming of spring. Perhaps a truer insight into the above question is that I have learned to wait through periods of frustration without giving in to despair.”
On a recent day, through a serendipitous encounter, I had the pleasure of having lunch with Alan and our mutual friend Ann. In describing him, the first word that comes to mind is “dapper.” He was wearing purple pants, a fuschia jacket, (which he readily admitted that he had purchased in the women’s department at North Face because of the color) and a moonstone earring in his left ear. He looked amazing. Upon visiting his website, I have come to know that Alan is equally comfortable in a tuxedo or jacket, bow tie and hat. The common theme to his apparel seems to be both artistic and colorful.
Alan no longer designs first day covers, but has taken up singing with a local chorus. As I described my
interest in all things related to letter writing, including the new Elvis stamp scheduled for release in Memphis in August, Alan burst into song with a commendable rendition of one of Elvis Presley’s gospel songs.
Alan Blackman’s work has been shown in museums and galleries. Most currently, Letters to Myself will be on display in the Jewett Gallery of the San Francisco Main Library, 100 Larkin Street, July 26 – Oct. 11, 2015. The exhibition is dedicated to the memory of his beloved son Stephen Blackman (1957 – 2012), born in Oxford, England, a noted TV cameraman, photographer and cinematographer whose work was in demand all over the world.
This exhibition is presented by the Marjorie G. and Carl W. Stern Book Arts & Special Collections Center, home of the Richard Harrison Collection of Calligraphy and Lettering, where original calligraphic works by Alan Blackman may be found.