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Art in Your Mailbox: The Wildlife Illustrations of Steve Buchanan

by Anita Jacobs

Steve Buchanan's masterworks measure barely as large as your average Elderberry Longhorn Beetle.

In fact, his dramatic portrait of a Velvet Ant is many times larger than the subject itself.

Buchanan's wildlife portraits may not fit well over the fireplace, but they grab you by the collar and pull you in to marvel at their irresistible color, vitality and movement.

They give some people the heebie-jeebies," says Don Smeraldi of the US Postal Service.

In 1996 Buchanan landed a gig with the US Postal Service illustrating the award-winning Tropical Flower stamp series released in May of 1999. Shortly afterwards, he was offered the notorious Insect and Spider Classic Collection stamp series released later that year.

Overnight, his work, which had been mainly in botanical field guides, scientific journals, and gardening magazines, would be enjoyed by people all over the world. He became a celebrity in wildlife illustration circles.

Smiraldi says about the Insect and Spider series, "The stamps are on a white background and Steve's work is so photo-realistic that some people have thought the bugs were real and tried to push them off the page."

While Buchanan himself was afraid of the public's squeamish response to the images and warned the Postal Service to proceed cautiously in the printing runs, the stamps were instantly snapped up by more than just the entomologist crowd. Originally geared towards children in the 8-12 year old range as part of National Stamp Collecting Month, the Insect and Spider series became the sixth greatest revenue generator in postal history.

Carnivorous Plants were the subjects of another popular series in 2001, and this October, Buchanan fans can look forward to his much awaited Reptiles and Amphibians series.

The selection of stamp artists is exclusive and secretive. "It fell from the sky," laughs Buchanan about how he was chosen to work on his first assignment. "I was working on an illustration for a book, and the phone rang, and Carl Herrman from the US Postal Service was on the line."

The veteran designer proposed that Buchanan work with him on the upcoming stamp collections. "If I had set out to do this" says Buchanan, "there is no way it could have been done. Who knows why this happened?"

Steve Buchanan's path to becoming a successful wildlife illustrator was anything but calculated. At 40 years old he was a concert pianist and on the faculty of James Madison University in Virginia, teaching individual piano students and classes. One day his wife Rita came home with Dr. Betty Edwards's book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. On a lark he worked his way though the book, exploring his artistic potential, intrigued that it might inspire his musical creativity.

Recently, Buchanan unearthed some of his old drawings from that time. One early exercise had been to draw a picture of a person. His drawing had the circular head and stubby legs of a stick figure. By the end of the book, Buchanan found that he really could draw what was around him. Even many years later he says with more than a little awe, "I was not prepared for that."

Fate intervened again, and the couple moved to Connecticut where Rita, a writer and naturalist, became editor of Fine Gardening magazine. At loose ends during his job search, Buchanan enrolled in a few art classes at the Hartford Art School and tried his hand at wildlife illustration. He got small jobs illustrating articles for gardening publications. He says, "But when you do botanical illustration, sooner or later people want you to draw bugs." He stopped thinking about finding a faculty teaching job in music, and turned his attentions toward visual art.

Buchanan remembers goofing around on a computer illustration program in 1996. He thought, "This is fun, but it'll be 15 years before it will be a serious tool. A year and a half later, I put the tops on my tubes of paint, and I've never opened them again."

Even though his artistic medium has gotten more high tech over the years, Buchanan doesn't cut corners when it comes to slow and careful observation of the natural world. "To really see how beasts behave you need to spend time outside," he says, "in fact, it's even true with plants. We live here out in the woods, so if I need frogs I can catch green frogs or I can catch common toads to see what their behavior is like and what their posture is like."

For each project with the Postal Service, Buchanan works with a team whose job it is to make sure that the renderings are biologically accurate.

"For Reptiles and Amphibians, our consultants were real field biologists, and they were out there in the swamps. Between them they had thousands of slides, so if I needed close-ups of frog feet or something like that, I had good photo references," he says. "Insects and Spiders were a little bit different because they preserve so well."

Observation of living insects was important to document things like antenna positions but, as he says, "I had real bugs on pins, and I could just pop them in a microscope." He laughs, "Having real bugs on pins is almost as good as having them crawling around on your desk."

Writer WB Yeats called postage stamps, "the silent ambassadors on national taste." Stamps enjoy a dual role in our society. They are important cultural documents, and ephemeral and almost mundane proofs of postage.

The mystique of stamps has thrilled exclusive collectors for years, but postage stamps are essentially designed as art for the masses. Philip B. Meggs, a member of the Citizen's Stamp Advisory Committee, wrote, "From their inception, stamps have been linked to the culture and history of each nation through art and design." Buchanan's Carnivorous Plants stamps (as well as all of his other original stamp art) are housed in the Smithsonian's National Archive in Washington, DC.

Buchanan's newest portraits of a blue spotted salamander, scarlet kingsnake, ornate chorus frog and other amphibians and reptiles will be released by the US Postal Service on October 7th.

Those images, as well as the Carnivorous Plant, Insect and Spider, and Tropical Plants series and more of Buchanan's artwork, including some of his early guache paintings will be on display at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Steinhardt Conservatory Gallery from October 18 to November 16.

All images copyright © of the U.S. Postal Service

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