A Heart with a History

The next in the Love series is a modern nod to an age-old art form.

  • Story by Hilary Masell Oswald
  • Stamp art direction by Antonio Alcalá
  • Stamp artwork by Q. Cassetti
Cut Paper Heart, 2013

Cut Paper Heart (2014)

rtist Q. Cassetti loves valentines. Even before she was an illustrator, she would send them religiously, painting her own versions and bestowing them on lucky recipients as gifts. “I love valentines because I love symbols,” Cassetti says. “A symbol is riddled with stories, and none is more powerful than a symbol of love.”

So when it came time to select a topic for her MFA thesis, Cassetti chose valentines, creating 300 illustrations in just three months. Then, fortuitously, she posted her work on her blog, qcassetti.com, where USPS art director Antonio Alcalá discovered it. He had seen an illustration Cassetti had drawn for The New Yorker and googled her name.

The stars aligned: Alcalá invited Cassetti to submit illustrations for a new Love stamp, the next in the popular series that began in 1973. “I thought, ‘Wheeee!’” Cassetti laughs. “For most illustrators, [designing a stamp] is a bucket-list wish.” Cassetti created 30 different designs that crossed styles and themes, including one that drew on the ancient craft of papercutting. It grabbed the attention of Alcalá and his colleagues. The Cut Paper Heart stamp began to take shape.

Cassetti says she found inspiration in the work of Henri Matisse and in Mexican cut-paper flags, but her work builds on a long history of cut paper as art. Papercutting originated in China, perhaps as early as the fourth century A.D. It spread to Japan and eventually the Middle East. By the 16th century, Turkey had a prominent guild of professional papercutters, and by the 17th century, areas in Europe had developed their own regional styles. While Matisse might be the most famous of papercutters, many people practiced the accessible art, including farming peasants who used cut-paper designs to brighten their cottages.

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I like to get into the weeds and details. I fill whatever I’m doing with pattern and color. There’s never too much." —Q. Cassetti

German immigrants brought scherenschnitte, the art of “scissor snipping” or “scissor cutting,” to America in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Elaborate and intricate — and still practiced today — the cutwork depicts birds, flowers, animals, hearts, and even words. One form of the art, love letters (or liebesbriefe) carried declarations of love and sometimes even marriage proposals. These ornately cut and painted pieces were the precursors to modern-day valentines.

Papercutters’ methods vary: Using flat paper, some artists draw their designs first and then cut away the paper between the lines of the drawing with a knife, scissors, punch, or gouge. Others make their cuts freehand without an initial drawing. And the fold-and-cut method so familiar to American schoolchildren is also a favorite of artists, who use the method to create designs of near-impossible intricacy.

Cassetti’s illustration, while digital, refers to papercutting’s history with its handsome design — and her process, in some ways, mimics the actual craft itself. To create the initial concept, Cassetti designed only half of the image using Adobe® Illustrator® and “flipped” it digitally, producing the image’s perfect and satisfying symmetry. For other illustrations, she’s worked off of hand-drawings or a scanned cut-paper model made of black material, which reads well as a solid shape and can be easily morphed into lines and vectors.

Early stamp sketches by Q. Cassetti. Early stamp sketches by Q. Cassetti.

Cassetti says she found inspiration in the work of Henri Matisse and in Mexican cut-paper flags, but her work builds on a long history of cut paper as art.

She admits that her initial takes were more intricate and detailed: “I like to get into the weeds and details. I fill whatever I’m doing with pattern and color. There’s never too much,” she says. “With each revision, the design got simpler. Antonio reminded me how small this thing would be. I really pulled back, and I’m so pleased with the result.”

Alcalá says the design appeals to him because it feels distinctive — different from previous Love stamps but also appropriate for the beloved series. “I like that it speaks to folk art in a lot of different cultures,” he says. “It’s the introduction of a new visual language into the series.”

Cassetti’s hope is that the stamp lives beyond the Valentine season. “It’s not fluffy or too feminine. I like the brevity, the simplicity,” she says. “I would love to see it span the year. Couples could use it for their wedding invitations, or maybe people will use it just to send some warmth to people they care about” — because, after all, symbols of love never go out of style.