Mark Stutzman: Elvis has left the building [HalfBleed magazine]
by Hope Katz Gibbs
HalfBleed: The Newsletter for Members of the Art Directors Club of Metropolitan Washington
Creating the famous Elvis stamp may be considered illustrator Mark Stutzman’s 15 minutes of fame. But then again, maybe not.
Perhaps Stutzman, 40, is more like the infamous pop icon Andy Warhol who gave us the over-used “ 15 minutes” quote. Perhaps the illustrator is actually a pop icon himself who will be famous for a long time to come.
Stutzman’s work surely is recognizable. In addition to Elvis, he’s the hand behind another U.S. Postage Service (USPS) stamps in the “Legends In American Music” series, including Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, and Bill Haley.
For McDonald’s and D.C. Comics he also created the illustrated versions of Jim Carey’s Riddler, Danny Devito’s Penguin, and Michelle Pfeiffer Cat Woman, among others in the Batman movie series. And he painted Michael Jordan for the Warner Brothers 1996 Space Jam flick.
Big clients. Big commissions. Lots of exposure. Ironically, as a kid Stutzman figured he would be an unknown painter living in Europe. The image was clear in his head. Poor, struggling artist, dirty beret, Florence address.
Then his dad started getting transferred around the country for his job, and Stutzman moved from city to city along the east coast. Stutzman started drawing to comfort himself. Those pictures caught the attention of his teachers, and they encouraged him. Soon, the young artist began to imagine himself being slightly more wealthy, slightly more mainstream.
Instead of becoming an illustrator after graduating from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, he went to work in the graphics department of a TV station in Pittsburgh. Then, to be closer to his girlfriend at the time (illustrator Laura Warren, now Laura Stutzman) he moved to Washington, D.C. and took a job with Goldberg, Marchesano Advertising where, among other duties, he created promotional posters for PBS. He then took a job as art director at Enten, Sadowski & Jeweler, finding bliss illustrating pocket schedules, brochures and posters for the Washington Bullets and Capitals.
He decided to go full-time freelance on the day his daughter Falon was born in 1985. Soon after, he and Laura formed Eloqui, a studio that promotes their illustration.
A few years after the family adopted their son Ivan from Korea, Stutzman got the call that would change his life. It came from Howard Paine in March of 1992, who had been coordinating seven artists to illustrate the “Legends In American Music,” for the U.S. Postal Service.
Stutzman and six other artists had been working on the project. But shortly after the job started, Postmaster General Anthony Frank announced he would unveil an Elvis stamp before he retired—in less than a month.
Ironically, Elvis had not even been included in the “Legends” series. That changed pretty fast, however. Each of Paine’s artists quickly began to paint to Elvis, including Stutzman who was a little intimidated.
“I new many of the seasoned artists submitting against me,” he says. “I was defiantly the new kid on the block. But, I decided to put all my eggs in one basket and only submit a single image of Elvis in his early years.”
He found a reference shot of Presley holding a guitar and wearing western garb. He changed the clothing to gold and positioned him cradling a microphone and playing to the crowd. The illustration was accepted.
The story doesn’t end there, however. It turned out that USPS couldn’t decide if they should depict Elvis in his youth, or in his later years. So USPS chose put the stamps to a public vote. Elvis fans went nuts over the idea. Ballots poured in by the thousands. Stutzman was a nervous wreck. For weeks, he waited – not even knowing if he’d be able to attend the ceremony in Memphis where USPS was planning to announce the winner.
The CBS Morning Show was on top of the story, and wanted to capture the winner on tape. The network flew Stutzman, first class, to Tennessee.
At the ceremony, Laura held his sweaty palm as Postmaster Frank took the podium. A limo pulled up with Priscilla Presley. She was on the podium when Frank opened the envelope—sealed, of course, in an USPS Express Mail Overnight envelope.
Stutzman held his breath as Frank said, “The winner is Mark Stutzman’s young Elvis, by a land-slide margin of three to one.”
The days and weeks that followed were a blur of interviews, public appearances, parades, trade shows and stamp signings, Stutzman says. And, he was pleased. Overwhelmed, but happy. Then reality began to wedge its way in.
He realized he wasn’t making any money promoting a job that was already done and paid for. Luckily, he had commissions from McDonald’s to do their collector cup series, which led to other assignments to illustrate the characters for the four Batman movies.
Of course, trying to manage the fame of Elvis and his freelance business was difficult and draining. The demands finally caught up with him. In 1993, he contracted mononucleosis, was depressed, and couldn’t bear to look at anything remotely connected to Elvis Presley. “The attention was nice but it didn’t pay the bills and it wasn’t very rewarding creatively,” Stutzman says today. “I started to question the value of the whole event. If I don’t get recognition from potential clients then what were I doing? I had hoped the victory would bring me scads of great work. Not a chance. It mostly brought me endless conversations about Elvis.”
A little more than five years have now passed since Stutzman’s time in the spotlight. He’s moved his family from Rockville to a cottage in the foot of the Appalachian Mountains in rural Maryland, and he’s gotten back to his original dream of being a quiet, inconspicuous illustrator.
Although he doesn’t wear that dirty beret, he says life has gotten a little more under control. He can even bare to look at photos of Elvis again.
“I think of the whole event as an old friend,” Stutzman says. “It helped my career, but in a very round about way. Having it in my portfolio gives me credibility and opens conversation with total strangers. Fortunately I don’t think art buyers are too swayed by it and rely on the rest of my work when choosing me for a project.”