Carol Gordon – a founder and first president of the Claude C. Ries Chapter #48 of the AFDCS - died on February 19, 2014 at the age of 75 in Los Angeles, California. Carol made her last recorded public appearance in October 2009 when she paid a surprise visit to SESCAL and the 25th anniversary party of the Ries Chapter. I discovered Carol’s passing in October 2018 while conducting research into her life and work. Although I never had the good fortune to meet Carol, I am honored to write this tribute to a prolific cachetmaker and fascinating artist.
Most Southern California members of AFDCS knew her as the person at local stamp shows, sitting under the large blue and white sign saying The Hobby That Entertains and Educates. She and husband Greg regularly coordinated AFDCS activities in Southern California, organized regional meetings, actively recruited many new members, and represented AFDCS at West Coast philatelic shows.
Florence “Via” Villaseñor remembered Carol, who lived with her for a while, as a quiet and soft spoken “nocturnal being.” Carol would stay up all night cooking, making noise, and filling the house with good cooking smells. She would also work at night at a table in the living room, using tracing paper to transfer, combine and arrange images from her extensive library (personal communication, 2015).
Michael Luzzi “always thought Carol was a very free spirit, almost hippie-like” and that’s “why her covers were so wonderfully illustrated” (personal communication, 2016). Dave Bennett once described her as “an outstanding and uniquely creative cachet designer” whose FDCs are “stunning works of intricate handpainting” (First Days 50:2, p.51). Bob Lewin goes further. He believes that Carol is “the most significant cachetmaker of at least the last 25 years … not for her artistic talent, but for the content of her cachets … there are fairly few cachets that are more substantive than just ‘pretty pictures’… Carol had no fear and spoke her mind through her art … without hesitation or reservation” (personal communication, 2015).
Her Life and Work:
Carol was born Carol Louise Thompson in Los Angeles on November 28, 1938. She received her B.A. in Fine Arts from the University of California, Los Angeles before moving to New York to study art history at The Institute of Fine Arts of New York University. While there she married Gregory Gordon at Niagara Falls in 1965.
Over the course of her 25-year career Carol created over 600 different cachets encompassing some 1100 U.S. stamps issued between September 25, 1980 and October 4, 2004. Ninety percent of her covers are for commemoratives. One exception was the cachet Carol produced for the first Ries Chapter cover – a multi-color design with additional hand coloring for the Rancho San Pedro Historic Preservation postal card (Figure 1).
Many thanks to the Ries Chapter members quoted here who graciously responded to my telephone calls, letters and emails over the past five years. I’m particularly grateful to Michael Litvak for connecting me with Carol’s friends and associates. And to Bob Lewin, fellow Gordon collector, for his enthusiastic support and encouragement in my research and exhibiting efforts.
Carol’s covers stand out for their unusually large sizes and bold graphic designs. She made her own envelopes in sizes ranging from 5 ¼ x 7 ¼ inches to many covers on cardstock measuring 7 x 9 ¾ inches or larger. She used these large sizes because they accommodated then-current U.S.P.S. format and size varieties, including oversize blocks of four, commemorative booklet panes and plate blocks. Each cachet was offset printed in limited numbers (generally 100 or fewer), signed and numbered. Carol created an unusual variety of combinations and cancels, with special limited combos and/or unofficial cancels often put together at the last minute in very limited numbers.
By the1990s her distinctive cachets were mostly hand-colored. At this time Carol’s cachets begin to reflect her realization that cachet art can be a platform for spreading awareness of and advocacy for social and political issues of the day. She was an outspoken critic of crooked politicians, failures in environmental protection, the impacts of war on civilians, and the harms caused by industry in the pursuit of profits. Carol’s covers for Earth Day, the United Nations’ relief efforts in Somalia and Rwanda, and the Endangered Species stamps are especially poignant (Figures 8-18).
From the beginning Gordon derived inspiration for her cachets from a wide range of times and cultures. In a 1981 letter to Richard A. Monty, Carol wrote “I produced my first First Day Cover cachet for the Indian Masks issue of September 25, 1980. I began with that issue because of a long standing interest in folk art, which I collect” (Figure 2). Although folk art continued to be a major source of design inspiration, her sources soon expanded to include folk lore, religion, science, industry, and history.
Carol Gordon Cachets:
In 1980 Gordon began selling her FDCs under the name Covers by Carol Gordon from her base in Santa Monica, California. She advertised extensively, placing ads in hobby publications, sending lists of available and upcoming editions and mailing notices to subscribers for special sets. By January 1985, she was doing business as Carol Gordon Cachets and offering a subscription service. With a $25.00 deposit, you could receive each issue as soon as it became available, plus updated lists of available covers and advance notice of special limited combinations and unofficial cancels.
After a brief move to Toledo, Ohio in late 1987 - 1989, Carol returned to California for the remainder of her career. In 1996 FDC dealer James T. McCusker purchased a large percentage of Gordon’s inventory. Many of her most common pre-1996 covers are still available on his website but covers created after 2000 are rarely seen for sale anywhere. She produced her final cachets in 2004 – a set of four covers for the Cloudscapes issue. Eleven of her 2004 cachets appear in the ‘Carol Gordon Cachets’ Flickr website created in 2009 (Figure 19).
I particularly love the way Carol incorporated Native American imagery into many of her cachets, drawing on the art, history and cultural practices of tribes from all geographic areas of the United States, Canada and the Caribbean (Figures 3-5).
The Ries Chapter
Gordon also displayed an extensive and eclectic knowledge of art, searching the entire span of recorded human history for inspiration. She displayed a particular fondness for the late Middle Ages with cachets based on medieval art, literature and life (Figures 6 and 7).
Honoring her Memory:
In her advertising from the early 1980s Carol described her covers as “strictly limited editions … a new and unique experience. No pre-conceived formats. Distinctive cachets [that] combine the vivid color of handpainting and the craftsmanship and design of fine printing ….” Her goal was “to produce covers of strictly limited editions … intended to provide an alternative to the typical mass-produced cachet … to add an unusual dimension to your FDC collection.” Each issue became “the occasion for extensive research … winnow[ed] down to the hand-lettered facts and narratives on the front and back of each cachet” with texts and artwork that “often bring a critical perspective to what the Postal Service celebrates.”
In short, we should remember Carol as a different kind of cachetmaker. She was a talented artist capable of exquisite subtlety and understated elegance who could also imbue her cachets with bold images and thought-provoking words. Some of her covers are amazing for the depth of research she put into them. Others are startling with the vehemence of her messages. Some are just plain gorgeous. I wish I had known her.