Forever Stamps are US first-class stamps that retain their value forever. If you buy them at, say, 50 cents a stamp, even after the first-class postage rate goes up, your Forever Stamp will still be valid. And it's this concept of perpetual retention of value that makes artist Paul Rucker's show so compelling.
In Forever, which is currently on view at the Greg Kucera Gallery, Rucker constructed 15 commemorative stamp prints out of aluminum. Eschewing "traditional" subjects like presidents, state flowers, and American flags, Rucker opted instead to place the faces of civil rights–era activists, schoolchildren, and falsely accused teens who were murdered or framed by white supremacists.
While some of the people depicted might be familiar to viewers—like Emmett Till or the four little girls who were murdered in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing by members of the Ku Klux Klan—others may prove unfamiliar.
For instance: Vernon Ferdinand Dahmer Sr., a leader in the civil rights movement and president of a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter in Mississippi, who was murdered by the KKK in 1966 for his efforts to get Black people registered to vote. Or Edwin T. Pratt, executive director of the Seattle Urban League and an advocate for equal housing opportunities for black Seattleites, who was shot in 1969 at his home in Shoreline by a white man who was upset with Pratt's organizing efforts.
By centering these martyrs, Rucker investigates how we as a country remember our violent history and who gets remembered as being fundamental in the telling of the story. While some may point to nonviolent activists like Rosa Parks (who refused to give up her bus seat to a white man) as the beginning of their civil rights knowledge, it was really the 1955 violent murder of Emmett Till (who was falsely accused by a white woman of harassment) that spurred Black Americans to fight for recognition of their civil rights.
Compositionally, the stamps are brighter than I'd expected—a sunset orange, a regal purple, a blue fading into red provide backdrops to the portraits of these martyrs. Rucker told me that he did not want the depictions of these people to be in black and white, but in full vivid color, as a way to bring them to life. Decorating the background of each stamp is the subject's biography in tiny print, telling their story in a way a portrait by itself never could.
But of course Rucker's series is simply a proposal of how stamps could be. Though stamps are, perhaps, less ubiquitous now than they would have been in a non- digital age, the historical and cultural figures we place on them are recognized as being important to the history of our country.
While remembering people like Pratt or Mississippi activist Medgar Evers by erecting a bronze statue or naming a park after them is also meaningful and important, there's something about the domesticity and "everyday-ness" of a face on a stamp that's just as appealing. It carries emotional power. These faces then become a part of our day-to-day lives, filling our drawers with images of people who history has chosen to forget. A reminder of their life, but also of the value in remembering their stories and what they died for. Forever.