Putting a stamp on the 'Herstorical Women of Oakland, California'

Maureen Forys calls herself a book designer, a mail artist, and a hand book binder. The Oakland resident has been designing books since 1993. As an avid fan of the mail-art world, she took a class on faux postage at the San Francisco Center for the Book.  

This was where she learned the niche art form of making fake postage stamps. Forys' stamp series, the 'Herstorical Women of Oakland, California' celebrates the historical achievements of women from the East Bay town. 

"I was feeling frustrated by a lot of the women’s rights being taken away, not in California but on a national stage. I believe we were sitting at one of these events where we were vending some of our artwork where I came up with the idea," Forys says. 

The event where she was selling her artwork was a mail-art show called ‘Mail Art Book’, put on by her and her good friend, Jenny Hinchcliffe, for whom she designed a book

Some of the women Forys highlights in her stamp series are lesser known and somewhat unsung.   

"Some of the more famous women, which I started with Julia Morgan and Ina Coolbrith; they’re very well documented. There’s a lot of information at the library. There’s a lot of information online, so they’re very easy to research, find old pictures of. Things like that. Some of these folks, I really have to dig through like the archives of the newspapers and go to the library and spend some time."

Maureen Forys, creator of the Herstorical Women of Oakland, California. 

The Toni Stone stamp from Maureen Forys' 'Herstorical Women of Oakland, California' faux stamp collection. 

Morgan, a Berkeley grad, was an architect, best known for her work on the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. Ina Coolbrith, whose life spanned the mid-19th century into the 1920s, was California's first poet laureate and Oakland's first public librarian. She has her own park in San Francisco's Russian Hill considered a "hidden gem."  

Forys explains why she's passionate about her hobby and how she got involved in this niche genre of art.

"They're called faux postage. They're called Cinderella stamps. They're called artist stamps." 

Cinderella stamps are pretty much anything resembling a postage stamp, but aren’t issued for postal purposes by a government postal administrator. Often times they are political in nature, including some that Forys makes.  

"People make them for all different reasons, some people make them to celebrate holidays. Some people like to make them to commemorate a certain date," she says. 

She explains how these types of stamps are connected to the Dada movement in France. 

Maureen Forys, creator of the Herstorical Women of Oakland, California. 

"People were testing the postal system to see what they could get through the mail." Mail art, or correspondence art, developed by artists sending practically anything through the postal system, included items like books, food, and even bowling balls.

According to the Museum of Modern Art, this artistic and literary movement was an irreverent response to the disasters of World War I and to an emerging modern media and machine culture. Artland Magazine calls it "anti-art," in short, nonsense and irrationality, or mundane objects presented as art. Think of urinals or other ordinary objects taken out of their normal context. Marcel Duchamp's Fountain from 1917 is a perfect example. 

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The Esther Mabry stamp from the 'Herstorical Women of Oakland, California' faux stamp collection. 

"The Dadaists in particular were like, ‘Oh, what can we do? Can we make fake stamps out of ridiculous things and send them through the post office and see if they can get through?’ And they usually did." 

Up until around the 9/11 terrorist attacks, that is. 

"After 9/11, so much of the post office’s security was upgraded that it got harder and harder to do," Forys said. 

She speaks lovingly about some of her favorite stamps, but says they're all amazing in their own way. 

"I'm really digging my latest one, which is Toni Stone." 

Stone is the first woman to play professional baseball. She played for Negro League baseball and was on the team for the San Francisco Sea Lions. Forys demonstrated her artistic prowess by creating a baseball diamond-shaped perforation for Stone's stamp sheet. 

"I really love Delilah Beasley too, because she was somebody that I think kind of got forgotten into history. Lately I’ve been concentrating on women who maybe were…made big impacts at the time they were alive. All of the women so far that I have made stamps for have passed, but somehow have been forgotten to history. So I’m trying to write their ‘Herstory’ a little bit." 

Beasley lived from 1871 to 1934. She was the first Black woman to have her own column in a major American newspaper – The Oakland Tribune. 

"I was actually a writing major in college, so when I started reading about her, I was like, ‘Wow, she’s amazing.' Not only did she have this column, she also wrote and researched all on her own penny, with no support from anyone else; a book that went up and down California and documented all the Black folks who had moved out here and what they were doing. And she published it herself. She self-published 100 years before people were self-publishing."

The book she's referring to is The Negro Trail Blazers of California, published in 1919. She says it's fortunate UC Berkeley got a hold of this and has it in their archives.  

Forys' labor of love also involves some really cool retro machinery. 

She's self-sufficient in making the stamps on her own, but in the early days, she'd make the designs while her friend, Hinchcliffe, had to do the perforations for her. 

"She had a Rosback perforator in her studio." She explains that's an American perforator, but now Forys uses an English perforator. 

She reflects on the political atmosphere during these divisive times. The spirit of activism sparked her to create stamps in the first place. 

"Just remember to look for the positive in a time and place that can sometimes be real troubled and look for the example that these women could set. There are so many wonderful people doing wonderful things, both alive and passed that there's always a way to celebrate them and realize that you're living in a pretty awesome place." 

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