A Pain Vast and Personal, Writ Small

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 23, 2008

Ethel Kessler is used to squeezing big ideas into tiny spaces. As one of four art directors contracted by the U.S. Postal Service to create stamps, the Bethesda designer has produced hundreds of peel-and-stick commemorations of subjects including American choreography, the Chinese New Year and love itself.

But when it came to reducing the vast and tragic issue of Alzheimer's disease to a one-inch canvas, that was tough. Because that was personal.

Kessler's mother is in the later stages of Alzheimer's. And it was just as the designer began working on an Alzheimer's awareness stamp three years ago that her mother began a steep decline, stopped recognizing her daughter and had to move to a nursing home.

"It's one of the most emotional projects I've ever worked on," Kessler said Friday, the day her Alzheimer's stamp was officially released. "I'm not even sure my mother remembers my name now. She hasn't said it in a long time."

Kessler's design portrays an elderly woman wearing an expression of soft emptiness, a hand laid comfortingly on her shoulder by an unseen companion. It's that loving touch from behind that stems from Kessler's experience, the recognition that Alzheimer's strikes not only its victims but their families.

"The whole notion of caregivers is critical," Kessler said. "They provide the care that Alzheimer's patients need to live, and they suffer a terrible loss of their own. It took us 10 or 15 false starts before we finally figured that out."

David Failor, the Postal Service's executive director of stamp services, said officials looked at dozens of designs before Kessler provided one that fully captured the serene menace of the disease.

"It's about being able to tell a story on this little piece of paper," he said. "Ethel is just very good at that."

The Baltimore-born Kessler has designed more than 200 stamps for the post office since she became one of its outside art directors 12 years ago. Her studios, Kessler Design Group near downtown Bethesda, are lined with images familiar from the daily mail: a bright and graphic Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Academy Award; a brilliant underwater coral reef; a sheet depicting paintings and images of the civil rights movement.

First-class art, in the most literal sense.

"How in the world do you fit the civil rights movement on a stamp?" Kessler asked with a laugh at the central challenge of her craft. Her answer: "Very carefully."

In that case, she found some of the most powerful paintings, sculpture and photographs from the segregation era and cropped them to work on an extra-small scale.

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