JUNEAU, Alaska – Alaska Native artist Rico Worl said he jumped at the chance to create for the U.S. Postal Service a stamp he hopes will be a gateway for people to learn about his Tlingit culture.
“I think a lot of people already are learning that there’s a lot more richness in authentic work, and authentic work from Indigenous people and the stories that are there,” he told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
A ceremony marking the release of Worl's Raven Story stamp was held Friday in Juneau, where Worl lives. The event featured dancers, including Worl, and the telling of a version of the Raven story.
Two ravens, birds that are ubiquitous in Juneau, happened to fly overhead after the story was told.
Worl said his Twitter following exploded from five to more than 8,000 after he shared the Postal Service's tweet highlighting the stamp announcement earlier this month, with his own quote tweet adding: “I did a thing.”
People seem excited, he said. “They know it's something different, and they want to be a part of that,” Worl said.
Raven, a trickster or transformer, is a key figure in Tlingit culture. Worl described as an influence for the stamp a story in which Raven discovers that a clan leader had in his possession the sun, moon and stars. Raven assumed human form to share those items with the world. The stars were in the last box Raven opened.
In a statement, Worl said he wanted to showcase “a bit of drama,” with Raven trying to hold onto as many stars as possible while transforming back into bird form during a frenzied escape.
The Sealaska Heritage Institute, which hosted the unveiling in front of its building, said this is the first stamp by a Tlingit artist.
Marlene Johnson, chair of the institute's board, said she has known Worl all his life. Worl has a goal “to tell the story of Indigenous people today, a story that we are all still here. We have been here for at least 10,000 years, and we will be here for 10,000 more," she said.
“Rico, I say, you did good,” Johnson said.
The Postal Service posted on social media a video featuring an illustrated version of the Raven story and Worl discussing the story behind the stamp and his process. Jakki Krage Strako, an executive vice president with the Postal Service, was on hand for Friday's ceremony.
Antonio Alcalá, an art director for the Postal Service who worked with Worl on the stamp, said he became aware of Worl's work while at a gift shop at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The shop carried work by Worl and his sister, Crystal Worl, through their Trickster Co. Alcalá said a basketball stood out.
“There are many typical types of books, art, and crafts on display in the gift shops of museums presenting American Indian history and culture. But this was the first time I saw a basketball. The fact that it featured a piece of formline art seemed incongruous at first and also very cool,” said Alcalá, who noted he's "always looking for visually appealing artwork."
He remembered the ball being credited to Trickster Co., and looked up the business when he was looking for an artist for the stamp.
Worl, who is Tlingit and Athabascan, has a background in anthropology and considers himself a social designer, who uses design to address societal concerns. One of the first products he designed were playing cards, which Worl said was in response to concerns about seeing a tourism market for Native-inspired art not produced by Native artists.
“It was me, experimenting, how can we, as Indigenous artists, break into this economy?” he said. Worl said he hopes more people buy Indigenous pieces, such as art work or hand-carved items. “I think there’s a growing demand for authenticity in the world. But at the same time not everyone can afford that.” For some people, he said, a deck of cards “is a lot more accessible.”
He said he likes to infuse modern, traditional and playful touches in his work. He cites Trickster's basketballs, with traditional formline designs, as a way for members of the Native community to “represent who they are” in a light-hearted way.
Art directors can work with photographers, designers, artists or others to bring a stamp from concept to final design. Final designs undergo a legal review and, once cleared, advance to the postmaster general for the last stamp of approval.
David Rupert, a Postal Service spokesperson, said 18 million Raven Story stamps are being produced. He said a stamp unveiling, like the one held Friday in Juneau, is meant to be a “momentous occasion.”
Other stamps announced by the Postal Service for this year include those celebrating flowers, the late nuclear physicist Chien-Shiung Wu, Japanese American soldiers of World War II, lighthouses, the 200-year anniversary of Missouri statehood, America's “love of coffee” and barns.
“We look at stamps as often little pieces of art, really, and they represent America,” Rupert said, adding later: “We want to celebrate America and all the great things about it.”