The forthcoming Frida Kahlo y Sus Animalitos features work by alumnus John Parra. Courtesy of Simon & Shuster.

profile / alumni / illustration
June 07, 2017
Writer: Jessica Donath

Alumnus John Parra Cooks up a Mailable Feast for the USPS

Folks having difficulty shopping while hungry may encounter problems at a rather unexpected place: the post office. In April 2017 the United States Postal Service's (USPS) stamp program issued a set of Delicioso Forever stamps devoted to Latin cuisine. 

Bright and colorful illustrations by ArtCenter alum John Parra (BFA 97 Illustration) celebrate dishes that have shaped and influenced American food culture. The six plates hail from Central and South America, Mexico and the Caribbean. 

“This project was perfect because I love food and I love art. How could I not have the best time with this,” said the award-winning children’s book illustrator. Both his Mexican father and Slovak-American mother influenced his career choices.

“My father was kind of an artist too, but he never got a chance to develop it because his parents took him out of school along with his siblings to work in the fields,” he said. 

“My mother was a schoolteacher for 32+ years and always talked about how important reading is for a child’s imagination.”  

John Parra's Delicioso Forever stamps, created for the US Postal Service. Courtesy of the artist.

I love food and I love art. How could I not have the best time with this?

John Parra

Parra’s style is inspired by American, Hispanic and Latino folk art. He says his time at ArtCenter helped him figure out his artistic path. 

“You learn so many different techniques, but then you settle on something and say, ‘Hey, this is the kind of art I really like.’” 

The California-native feels a deep connection to food as a cultural element that can bring people together. 

“Latino food is a celebration that we all enjoy; it doesn’t matter what background you come from or how you feel about certain subjects,” he said. 

The stamp program “commemorates positive contributions to American life, history, culture and environment,” states the postal service’s Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee. Its eleven members sift through tens of thousands of suggestions and select subjects for recommendation to the Postmaster General. 

The USPS assigns approximately 25 projects each year. It can take two to three years for the design process to be completed. And while the Postal Service takes pride in honoring a wide spectrum of contributions to American culture, it was weary to issue stamps devoted to food.

John Parra's Delicioso Forever stamps, created for the US Postal Service. Courtesy of the artist.

“Food is a tricky subject to cover in a one inch by one inch space,” said a spokesperson for the USPS’s stamp service. “I have seen examples from many other countries of food photography on stamps. On a rare occasion it works, but more often it ends up looking very unappealing.” 

That’s why the USPS went with illustrations instead of photographs. Parra, too, was aware of the special constraints. He drew the originals in a 10 x 13 inch format on textured boards by applying layers of acrylic paint. 

Art director Antonio Alcalá was in charge of the Latin food stamps. Based on his research, they came up with a short list of about 15 dishes. 

“Some food plays out visually better than others,” explained Parra. “I’ve been a professional illustrator for 20 years and you kind of know which is working well and which would stink.” 

The finished images of tamales, ceviche, flan, sancocho, empanadas and chile relleno look worn because Parra used sand paper to reveal some of the hidden layers. Then he scanned and shrunk them to compare. 

“This whole project has been overwhelmingly wonderful and the people have been wonderful and amazing to work with," he raved. "And to be on a stamp has been incredible!” 

“And not just a stamp. Six stamps! Six Forever stamps. You can use them as long as you want,” he added.

John Parra's Delicioso Forever stamps, created for the US Postal Service. Courtesy of the artist.

Parra himself already went to the post office and bought “hundreds of dollars worth of stamps.” “I just want to use them as much as I can,” said the proud artist.

He enjoys the positive feedback from friends and future letter writers alike. Some people who saw previews of the designs immediately recognized his style. 

"They said, 'Hey, it’s John Parra’s art on stamps!' way before I told anyone," he chuckled. Others have indicated that they are going to use the stamps to send letters to their abuela (grandmother) or for wedding invitations. 

But since the 20-stamp booklet could only immortalize six dishes, Parra also received ideas for future culinary stamps. “I have had wonderful suggestions for other stamps. I could probably do stamps for the rest of my life," he said

Parra’s next children’s book comes out in September 2017. It's about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and her pets. In the meantime, fans can buy 20 one inch by one inch John Parra prints for under $10 at a nearby post office.