(RNS) Thirteen years after her death and just days after what would have been her 100th birthday, the U.S. Postal Service will issue a special stamp on Sept. 5 to commemorate the remarkable life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
The stamp, like Mother Teresa herself, hasn't been without controversy. Atheist groups, including the Freedom from Religion Foundation, complained about a religious figure being featured on a stamp. Postal officials said she was chosen for her humanitarian work, not her religious affiliation.
Colorado Springs artist Thomas Blackshear, who typically specializes in African-American themed art, was commissioned to paint Teresa for the stamp. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How do you portray Mother Teresa, the larger-than-life Nobel Peace Prize-winning humanitarian, in a tiny postage stamp?
A: It's all about finding the right graphic image. The postal service decided to go with a smiling image that has been seen everywhere. This portrays her as a happy person who loved life.
Q: How was the image chosen and created?
A: The postal service sent me a number of photos, and I created pencil drawings based on three of these photos. One drawing showed her as somewhat somber. Another one was more pensive. After the smiling image was chosen, I created the final 5x7 image by using water colors. I kept building up the layers over three or four days until I got the look I wanted.
Q: What was your feeling about Mother Teresa before you were commissioned to do this stamp?
A: I have always looked at her as a godly woman. In the 1990s, a friend of mine went to India on a missionary trip. When I know someone going on a mission, I often give them some of prints of my work to give away. My friend was able to meet with Mother Teresa at her compound and give her copies of "Forgiven" and "Coat of Many Colors, Lord of All." My friend said Mother Teresa cried when she saw the prints, and asked if she could hang them in a home for the dying.
After Mother Teresa died in 1997, my friend returned to Calcutta and inquired about the prints. A sister took my friend to Teresa's room, which was a shrine by that time. Teresa had hung the prints on the walls in her room, apparently so she could see them as she was dying.
Q: Mother Teresa has already been beatified and is likely to become a saint. You are an evangelical Protestant, and some Protestants aren't too happy about saints and sainthood. What do you think?
A: That's ridiculous. No one in the 20th century has done the kind of work she did by caring for the dying and the destitute. How can you not see the goodness and spirit of God in this woman who sacrificed her life for others?
Q: You've done nearly two dozen postage stamps. Which was your first?
A: It was Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable, who came to the U.S. from Haiti in the 1700s and founded a successful business in Chicago. I have since done other stamps for the Black Heritage series, including Rosa Parks and boxer Joe Lewis.
Q: You also make collectible figures for a series called Ebony Visions, including a small sculpture of President Obama.
A: That is now the best selling item in the Ebony Visions collection. I would have done a figuring of him even if he wasn't elected president, because history was being made. But he was not easy to do. His features look different from different angles. It was hard to get him.
Q: In general, do you find white subjects or black subjects most challenging to portray?
A: For me, either is fine. But you have to think a lot about color schemes and shadow areas because of the way light reflects off of white or black skin.
Q: You have done religious art, commercial projects, Star Wars plates, and much more. What do you aim for? What makes your work unique?
A: Impact and drama are the things I go for -- something that will grab you and will hopefully stay in your mind.
Q: What's next for you?
A: Throughout my career I have sought God's guidance and leading. Sometimes he just inspires me. Sometimes he slams images in my face that I can't get away from. I recently fasted for 40 days and that gave me a number of new images for Christian paintings that I will be working on in the coming years.