Mail Art

Mail Art

In the 1980’s I was involved with an art movement that involved sending things through the worldwide postal system. The movement and the objects sent in the mail are both called Mail Art.

Remember, there was only a fledgling internet back then, no web like we have it now and the postal service was our network.

There were hundreds of mail art shows happening each year in various parts of the world and lists of them circulated in mail art "zines" (magazines) that were many times a few pieces of photocopied paper stapled together.

Those of us who took part would make a card or put a piece of art or a letter in an envelope and send it off. I was involved in many hundreds if not a thousand of these shows and I hosted my own for many years. I loved producing cards with stamps, photocopy collage and more and it was fun to send things off to places that I’d never even heard of let alone been.

Over the years that I was involved I kept a box, then two, and now many full of the mail art that found its way to me. I haven’t done a thorough sort of these boxes but because I wanted to start documenting my experience with this fascinating movement, I scanned a few interesting things.

Opening one of these boxes is like opening a time capsule on a part of my life I’ve not thought about for many years.

I decided to dig into this to take part in a project National Public Radio is putting together on the U.S. Postal Service.

Mail Art from Angela and Henning Mittendorf

Mail Art from Angela and Henning Mittendorf

Mail Art from Ryoskuke Cohen

Mail Art from Ryoskuke Cohen

Mail Art from Ryoskuke Cohen

Mail Art from Ryoskuke Cohen

Mail Art from Doc 5 cents

Mail Art from Doc 5 cents

Mail Art from Suzanne Nuttall

Mail Art from Suzanne Nuttall

Mail Art from Santa Barbara, California

Mail Art from Santa Barbara, California

Mail Art from CW Summers

Mail Art from CW Summers

Mail Art to Gary

Mail Art to Gary

Many years ago, before there were weblogs, web sites, the internet as we now know it or other ways to do social networking online there was a network of artists and artist wannabees who partook in something called “mail art” or “postal art.” I was heavily involved in this network for about eight years: about 1978-1986.

Mail art took place in an area where rubber stamps, photocopy art, fanzines, handmade books, cheap gallery space, and the post office intersected. Various fanzine-like mags and fliers were circulated with hundreds of mail art shows all over the world one could mail a “piece” to. In the years I did this I was in many hundreds of shows all over the world. I also exchanged mail art with hundreds of other artists all over the world and I have a large collection of this stuff in my basement, just waiting to be photographed.

During this time I hung out in a bookstore in Eugene, Oregon called “Koobdooga” (A Good Book spelled backwards). I hung out in the store thinking that it might improve my terrible reading skills to just be near books and people who read them. Well, I was right because the manager of the store, Gary Sharp, helped me learn how to read by recommending good books to me and encouraging me to become more “literary.” I eventually even learned how to spell his last name but this is photo evidence of my typewritten spelling at the time. I might have had an Apple II at this point but didn’t use it for this kind of printing.

I eventually merged many of my interests together and made small boxes decorated with photo collages, rubber stamp art, and sometimes lined with old maps and put in them shards or small pieces of ceramics I’d made years before in another art life.

This is a piece that I sent Gary a long time ago that he kept, photographed, and sent me a digital copy of the photo. The idea that he saved this piece is amazing to me but given that I sent out hundreds, maybe even a thousand of them makes things as interesting as knowing that people in other countries read this weblog. Not to assume that anyone else might have saved this stuff, but maybe a few did and my work is all over the world, not via this weblog (which puts it there) but via the US mail, in solid form.

Someday I’m going to set up a macro stand and start photographing my collection of other people’s mail art and post some of it here. It is every bit as visually interesting as the best designed web sites and it travelled around the world at the speed of people, trucks and planes and got archived right here in my house.

I have no idea if the mail art network is still alive or what the web, weblogs, RSS, digital cameras in phones, flickr, etc. have done to it, but for me it was the beginning of thinking about social networking, sharing broadly, and a kind of work that this weblog allows me to continue to experiment with.