February 22, 2019

Postage gets its due in museum show

You really don’t want to go to a show where the artist is just mailing it in — unless the artist is Shirley Familian. 

Her first solo show, “19,275 Stamps” — her count of the number of stamps it took to create the works now on display at the Craft and Folk Art Museum — not only bears the marks of being mailed in, but consequently, canceled as well.

The show, consisting of pieces in which used postage stamps completely cover various objects or are arranged in circular patterns, closes April 27. It is the result of Familian’s love of stamps — the 93-year-old is a lifelong collector — and the visual and social connections that they engender.

“Many of my friends collect stamps for me. Everybody feels part of it,” Familian said from her Westwood home, where she has set up a studio near the kitchen.

One of the objects in the show, a large, Styrofoam ball covered with stamps, depicts people from all over the world, and in her studio she demonstrated her process on another, similar piece.

“It takes time and a steady hand,” said Familian, who majored in art at the University of Washington in Seattle. “First, I cut the white off,” she said as she carefully snipped off the perforations and border of a canceled United States postage stamp depicting famous boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.

“I’m a bit of a pack rat,” admits the artist, who recycles everything, including the pieces of paper she soaks off the stamps and the trimmed perforations.

After putting on latex gloves, she painted the back of the stamp with acrylic matte medium as an adhesive and positioned it on the globe. 

“I wonder what Andy Warhol would think of this process?” she asked, pasting Robinson next to a stamp featuring the American pop artist’s likeness. “If he’s the right color, and the right size, he gets pasted.”

Nearby, in drawers, Familian, who has been covering objects with stamps for 25 years, keeps her supply neatly sorted in envelopes: flower stamps, bird stamps, love stamps, yellow stamps, even Chanukah stamps. The circular pieces in the show — especially those consisting of concentric circles of one stamp design — make use of her collection of multiples.

One piece has a circle of Cary Grant stamps, another of Marilyn Monroe; several others make use of rings of stamps with an orange on them. Only close up does the museumgoer make out the individual images. From a distance, “They look like mandalas,” said Familian, speaking of the Hindu or Buddhist graphic symbols.

Among the stamp-covered objects in the show are a skateboard and teapot.

“I love doing objects,” said Familian, who explained that the skateboard came from a friend whose daughter no longer had use for it.

Her first stamp-covered object was a stool made for her then-2-year-old granddaughter, who needed something to stand on get to the bathroom sink.

“I was going to paint it,” she recalled. But then the thought came: “Why don’t I use these stamps?”

As for the stamps pasted over the Frank Gehry-designed teapot, they disguise a bit of a kitchen accident. While waiting for the teapot to heat water one day, the phone rang, and by the time Familian came back, it had boiled dry. 

“It was all black,” she said. “I recycled it.”

Another object in the show reconnected her to the former plumbing supply business of her late husband, the philanthropist and Jewish community leader Isadore Familian. The company is now part of Ferguson, and that’s where she found a piece of tubing several feet long — now wrapped in stamps, of course.

Other objects covered in stamps decorate her home, including a seated mannequin she has named “Coco,” positioned as if to greet a visitor.  

“I call her my tattooed lady,” said Familian, whose first husband was the late Burt Baskin, co-founder — with Familian’s brother, Irv Robbins — of Baskin-Robbins ice cream.

For Familian’s next project, she wants to do something big — like a car — or, more practically, something that can be broken down into smaller parts. One result of the show is that she now has the philatelic inventory to do it; since it opened Jan. 26, people have been sending Familian their stamps, beginning with a man in Riverside who sent to the museum a manila envelope stuffed with them. 

“He said he was saving them for his retirement,” she said. But since he was 82 and hadn’t used them, he sent them to Familian.

Next, she got a phone call from a person who had two shoeboxes stuffed with stamps. 

The caller had asked if Familian could use them, to which she remembers replying, “I can use any canceled stamp,” and had a friend pick them up for her. 

Finally, a large box arrived at the museum. Inside, “There must be 25,000 stamps,” she said, raising a handful from the box.

Collecting inventory for her art, Familian also has found, is a good way to keep in touch with her circle of friends. 

“They send me post cards from their travels. They go to South America, and suddenly I have stamps from Brazil,” said Familian, who herself has cut back on travel.

“As the years go on, your life changes,” she said. “You’ve got to do something that you can do all by yourself. I couldn’t go to the club to play cards. …  Having this to do, and the drive, has just made a different person out of me.”