Milk stamp backers eye SF artist’s painting

by Matthew S. Bajko .
Monday Apr 6, 2009

San Francisco artist Jim Leff has been creating stamp artworks since the 1980s. The postage mockups run the gamut from being homoerotic to political in nature.

His first in the series, created in 1984 when stamps cost 22 cents, is titled "First Class Male" and depicts the backside of a man wearing skimpy white boxer briefs. Another stamp, costing 32 cents and titled "Keep America Green," depicts cannabis plants.

But it is his depiction of a stamp honoring slain gay rights leader Harvey Milk that is now gaining national attention as an effort is under way to convince the U.S. Postal Service to issue an official commemorative stamp in honor of the former San Francisco supervisor.

"I think Jim's version is great - talk about camera ready art. It would be so great if they used an out and stalwart LGBT community artist's work such as Jim Leff's," said Dan Nicoletta, a friend of Milk's who helped oversee last year's effort to place a bust of the late supervisor inside City Hall. "I think the postage stamp project is wonderful. I would get such a thrill licking Harvey again!"

The openly gay Leff, 61, moved to San Francisco in 1971 and met Milk several times. He painted the Milk stamp sometime in the late 1980s as an homage to the path-breaking politician. Milk became the first openly gay man to be elected to political office in a major U.S. city when he captured his seat on the board in 1977.

The postal artwork depicts a smiling Milk, his hair tussled, in front of a bluish-green background. His name is spelled out in white lettering up the left side of the stamp while the block letters of USA are filled in with the colors of the rainbow flag.

"I am a bit of an activist. This is my way of doing my share to spread the legend of Harvey," said Leff, a staple at the city's street fairs where he sells his artwork.

He said he would be honored to have his oil on canvas creation turned into an actual stamp.

"If a stamp does come out, I would love it to be mine because I was the first one to paint it. People always said the stamp should be real," said Leff. "That was not why I was doing it. I painted it to make a statement, not a stamp. If this was chosen now, it would be such an honor."

The founder of the Facebook group known as "Honor Harvey Milk with a U.S Postage Stamp," told the Bay Area Reporter this week he would be happy to submit Leff's postage painting for consideration as the actual stamp.

Daniel Drent, an openly gay man who lives in Cincinnati, is coordinating the effort to convince the U.S. Postal Service's Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee to issue a Milk stamp. He would like to have approval of the stamp to coincide with what would have been Milk's 80th birthday on May 22 in 2010. Should the committee select the Milk stamp next year, it would not be released until 2012 at the earliest.

"I think this proposed version of the stamp is a wonderful representation of Harvey. It shows his charm and personality in his face, and the rainbow colors for the USA, signify the LGBT movement," wrote Drent in an e-mail after being shown Leff's artwork. "I would be thrilled to submit this design to the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee when I submit the letter to request this long deserved honor for Harvey Milk."

As the B.A.R. first reported online last month, this is the second time a push has been made to see a Milk stamp be issued. In 2005 San Francisco's 11-member Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution calling on the postmaster general to issue a Milk stamp.

The board's action went largely unnoticed, and the Milk stamp idea failed to take off. After seeing the Oscar-winning movie Milk, Drent revived the effort, and as of this week, nearly 11,000 people had signed on to his Facebook group.

The gay couple who bought Leff's Milk stamp artwork about seven years ago is supportive of the effort. They said people who see the image believe it should be a real stamp.

"I remember when it was in our window at our shop on Market Street people always asked, 'Is that a real stamp?' I would tell them, 'No. It is a wish,'" said David Gin, who paid $1,000 for the painting. "I think it would be a good idea. They honor a lot of other people with stamps. I don't see why they shouldn't honor Harvey."

Gin shares the same birthday as Milk - he will turn 58 this May 22 - and has always taken a keen interest in his life, said his partner, Gary Nathan. The couple assisted with the Milk bust unveiling last spring.

Nathan said whenever people attend parties at their house, they always ask about the stamp painting.

"The number one comment we hear is 'I didn't know they are making a stamp of Harvey' when they see that artwork," said Nathan, who used to co-publish with Gin the monthly LGBT newspaper Spectrum. "I think it would be great. It would be another thing that keeps the ideals of Harvey alive."

Leff said he never contemplated the possibility that he his artwork could be submitted to be an official stamp. Having seen the movie Milk himself, he said he realized just how big a loss the LGBT community suffered when former board colleague Dan White killed Milk, along with then-Mayor George Moscone, inside City Hall in November 1978.

"After seeing that movie, I realized a big voice had been removed from us. And you don't get many of those coming along," said Leff.

Having the stamp be issued, said Leff, "that would mean he is given credit for the legend that he is. It would make him a legend in everybody's eyes."

Should he be given the opportunity, Leff offered to update his Milk stamp creation.

"I would love to do another one; that one is now outdated. I can do a better one; I am a better painter now," he said. "It would be the culmination of all the stamp art I have been painting if I get invited to work on a stamp like this by invitation."

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