Richard Sheaff’s artwork doesn’t adorn galleries. None of his myriad pieces over the last 20 years has been for sale. Yet, even those who know nothing about art have probably seen at least one of the Scottsdale re sident’s creations.
Sheaff, who moved to Scottsdale with his family in 1997 from Norwood, Mass., is a stamp design coordinator for the U.S. Postal Service. His job is to take ideas from a committee and bring them to life for a stamp.
"I love what I do," said Sheaff, 60. "There are no exhibits, but my work is out there. It’s fun to use your own stamps on mail. It’s a real thrill."
Sheaff’s latest project, a commemorative for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, will be unveiled Wednesday at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia.
"Give Lonnie (Busch, an artist from Franklin, N.C.) the real credit for that one," said Sheaff, who was the designer, art director and typographer for the stamp. "We worked on the project together, but he was the artist. If you have a panel of them together, you can see they connect to form a row of people running in the background."
The stamp features a stylized depiction of a Greek runner. An ancient Greek vase from the museum’s collection provided Sheaff inspiration for the stamp. The main figure appears in black; the same figure is repeated in red in front and behind the main figure.
Among subjects for Sheaff’s other stamps, which he estimates at 300 to 400, were nine in a Black Heritage series, including civil rights activist Malcolm X and the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; pop artist Andy Warhol; a U.S. Old Glory prestige booklet; "Stars and Stripes together," depicting conductor/composer John Philip Sousa; a 50-state "Greetings From America" series, second to the Elvis Presley stamp — designed by someone else — in number sold.
Two of his favorites are a 100th anniversary Rural Free Delivery commemorative and a psychedelic creation for the J. William Fulbright Scholarship, named for the former U.S. senator from Arkansas.
"The prestige booklet was full of ephemera, which is what I’m really into," Sheaff said. "Most of the flag-related material in it is from from my collection."
While most collectors don’t know who worked on a stamp, administrators at the American Philatelic Society in State College, Pa., know Sheaff ’s work well.
"He’s a prolific stamp designer," said Bob Lamb, the society’s executive director. "He has been a member of our organization for 20 years and is very helpful and giving of his time to our hobby.
"The quality of designs coming from the U.S. Postal Service are very good, and there’s lots of diversity. Sheaff plays a major part in that."
Sheaff studied premedical biology at Dartmouth and "drifted" into art.
"I was good at design so I decided to try it in grad school," said Sheaff, who received a master’s degree in visual communications from Syracuse University.
How does an artist wind up wo rk i ng for the Postal Service?
"Like anything, it’s being in a certain place at a certain time," Sheaff said. "They needed design people and a friend who worked for them knew I had an interest in stamps, so they came to me."
Most stamps take quite a while from concept to completion, Sheaff said. "I’m working on designs for 2006 and 2008 now. The committee comes up with an idea and presents to an artist. It can take anywhere from six to eight months, if we’re really being pushed, but usually several years out. The more time we have, the more research we can do on a subject."
Sheaff realizes he’s creating what some people will consider collectibles, but sees the work he and his colleagues do as even greater.
"It’s kind of odd, a little like designing currency," he said. "It really is a privilege."