Story by David Thompson
Stamp Illustrations by John Dawson
If you’ve ever put a banana slug on a postcard, sent a sea otter to a friend or paid an electric bill with a cutthroat trout, you might be familiar with the work of Big Island illustrator John Dawson. He’s the artist behind the US Postal Service’s annual Nature in America stamp series, and wildlife from his drawing board has carried the US mail to postal addresses worldwide for the last twelve years. Until now the series has focused on bioregions far from the cluttered art studio in Dawson’s otherwise neat and orderly Hilo residence: the Sonoran Desert, the Arctic tundra, the Great Plains prairie and eight other ecosystems. But this year the stamps came home, with the spotlight turned on the Hawaiian rainforest and the life it sustains, including the fiery red ‘i‘iwi, or Hawaiian honeycreeper (left). Illustrating the ecosystem that edges up to his backyard has been a joy for the bespectacled, soft-spoken 73-year-old. “I think it’s one of my favorites,” he says.
The research that goes into John Dawson’s illustrations can be exhaustive. He spent two years studying and sketching ants before undertaking the twenty illustrations he did for a National Geographic story on the insects: His investigations involved manipulating dead ants under a microscope to understand how they’re put together and several trips to the Harvard University laboratory of renowned myrmecologist (ant expert) E.O. Wilson to observe living ant colonies in action. For a National Geographic story on mummies, he spent a month in Peru watching archaeologists painstakingly unwrap an Incan mummy encased in a gigantic cotton ball. For a National Park Service trailside sign marking an ancient Hawaiian agricultural site, he grew sweet potatoes in his backyard to see how the vines crawl on lava rock walls.
Most of the illustrations he’s done for the Postal Service are based on photographs or on insect and plant specimens sent to him by researchers. But for the Hawaiian Rain Forest scene (left) he worked with the living, breathing thing. “For Hawai‘i I got to go into the field and do sketches. I love doing that,” he says. He was already thoroughly grounded in the subject, having lived on the Big Island since 1989 and having tackled all nine ecosystems within Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park for a set of educational paintings at the visitor center. Still, he made many return trips, often accompanied by park staff who guided him to some of the more than two dozen species seen in the painting, which include the flowering purple hähä and the Kamehameha butterfly, or pulelehua.
PACIFIC CORAL REEF
You would never really see the near-shore sea creatures of the US territory of Guam packed together like beachgoers in Waikïkï as they are in Dawson’s 2004 Pacific Coral Reef scene (left). “But you have to think of it like this,” he says. “If you waited at this one spot for six months, you probably would see all this stuff.”
Stylized as these riotous wildlife tableaux may be, the individual species within them are 100 percent biologically correct. Every detail of the organisms Dawson renders—from the billowy tentacles on the magnificent sea anemone (lower left) to the bumps on the heads of the bumphead parrotfish (upper right)—undergoes scrutiny by scientific consultants to ensure accuracy. Keys on the back of the stamp panes identify the main players in the scenes, which in this case include a blacktip shark, a humphead wrasse and a green sea turtle.
Dawson started his career in advertising, but even as an adman he displayed an aptitude for animals. Among other projects, he illustrated billboards for the San Diego Zoo, did the portrait of the original Morris the Cat and the label for 9Lives cat food. It was his cat food work that helped him land his first job with the Postal Service. The job? Commemorative cat stamps. They cost $.22 and came out before self-adhesion was the norm. The price of postage has doubled since then, and postal customers are no longer licking the back of Dawson’s work.
PACIFIC COAST RAINFOREST
One thing that’s easy to deduce about Dawson from his illustrations is that he’s detail oriented. “I do love details,” he confirms. “I love finishing a painting and doing all the little hairs and highlights. I have fun getting into all the little nooks and crannies, things most people will probably never see.” The hard part, he says, is early on when he has to figure out where to put everything. “Then it’s just a big mess.”
Each Nature in America pane is really eleven paintings in one: ten stamp-sized miniatures set within one overarching mother scene. In the first years of the series, that compositional challenge was complicated by a limitation of the die-cutting process that required all the stamps in a pane to touch at least one other stamp, as they do in Pacific Coast Rain Forest (left), released in 2000. Eventually the technology advanced to allow stamps to be plucked from anywhere within the scene, which gave Dawson freedom to place things wherever he liked. “The scenes evolved after that,” he says.
Still, the fundamental paradox of Nature in America remains: The more postage you use, the more the pictorial scene disappears. It’s a calculated marketing move. You can’t peel off a single stamp in a pane without destroying the collectors’ value of the others. The Postal Service, which depends on the sale of stamps for operating revenue, figures this encourages customers to buy some stamps to use and others to keep. “Basically,” Dawson says, “they want you to buy more stamps.”