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Mail-Art: Keeping My Postman Employed

Jan 15, 14 Mail-Art: Keeping My Postman Employed

It is difficult keeping politics out of any discussion. However, I must somewhat violate a redOrbit edict by stating my love of the US Postal System. No, not the incremental increase in the price of stamps.  No, not the pile of inserts and adverts that arrive every Tuesday.

I love getting postcards made out of cereal boxes.

I’m talking about mail-art (or mailart, without the hyphen, if you prefer). I do not recall when I first learned of The Network, the unauthorized and ungoverned (except by the limitations of the international postal services) collective of native artists, but I began trading postcards to addresses found in the muchly-missed catalog, FACTSHEET FIVE. F5 was primarily a review magazine for the various self-published zines (fanzines, etc.) of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but there was a section for personal correspondence, as well.

Whereas the world of zines consists of small-run personal-interest publications, mail-art is a broader beast. As simple as a postcard with a handmade illustration to a perfectly sealed salmon sent through the mail, it is the concept of dada’s found object art married to Grandma Moses’ untrained paintings,  with a side order of activism tossed into the mix. Like “real” art, there are also exhibitions throughout the world, both in brick-and-mortar galleries and in documented showings run personally by the organizers. A recent catalog/exhibition was shown by Cascadia Artpost, with the theme “Keep Our Post Office Public.” Some 60-odd (very odd, including myself) contributors, mostly from the US, sent various entries, mostly decorated postcards, in support of keeping the USPS open on Saturdays.

Not everyone has e-mail, after all.

Just this week, I received documentation for my contribution to a quarterly catalog of mail-art (Bellingham, WA), a reconnect with an artist from 2009 (Oneonta, NY), the two latest mailings from the oldest comic book fan group in the country (Scottsdale, AZ) and the most recent twisted art of the man called Haddock (Eugene, OR). Previous receipts include scientific philosophy from Japan (including a fifty-plus address list from the Far East to the former Soviet nations to Bangladesh), handmade postcard art from California and Michigan,  and untranslated poetry from Quebec.

Does it pay anything? Not hardly, but then this is an avocation (high class synonym for “hobby”) not unlike LARP, RPG, comics fandom, most sports and speed dating.

Does it cost anything? The answer depends on your level of interest and involvement. A postcard stamp costs less than forty cents. A standard envelope is less than fifty cents. (I am approximating, as stamp prices will go up a few cents this year.) If you have paper, a pen, glue or tape, and a desire to amuse your mail carrier, you are ready to go!

(Incidentally, my mailman LOVES when I send or receive mailart, as the envelopes are nearly always covered in drawings or stickers ‘n’stamps.)

What can you make? There are various types of art. The postcard is simplest: write a postcard, then decorate it. (I once stapled an orphaned mitten to a card.) You can use a standard postcard. You may recycle a greeting card by cutting it in half and mailing the picture half. (I cut up cereal and other food boxes, then write messages on the plain cardboard side.) If you are sufficiently patient, you can even make your own paper!

In a future installment, we’ll look at other types of mail-art and, space permitting, the history of it all back in the Dark Ages of the 20th Century!

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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