The Addictive Hobby of Mail Art
Bring a whole world of creative expression to your door
My name is Chris and I am a mail artist. Though I've been on the wagon for years now, my past still haunts me. This week's unsolicited mail included a handmade postcard from Naples, a packet of Japanese grapefruit-flavored "shower candy" from a co-editor of the zine Sugar Needle, and a request from a German librarian "working privately on rats and mice in culture" to send, well, pictures of rats and mice.
According to some, mail art can be traced to Dada-influenced artist Ray Johnson, who used the post for creative exchange during the '60s. I'm skeptical. Although this official view is often repeated in books and art journals, it overlooks the fact that people have been making mail art for almost as long as they have been sending letters. Prisoners decorate outgoing envelopes with drawings; children affix stickers on letters to aunts and uncles. There's something aesthetically pleasing both in adorning the commonplace and in overturning convention.
My adventures began, innocently enough, with the Winter 1987 issue of Whole Earth Review, where I found several articles on mail art, zines, photocopier art, and "cassette culture" that captivated my imagination: Send away and get cool mail? I wrote to someone named Woman Ray at an address barely legible in the reproduction of a postcard on the magazine's back cover. Then the magic began. Woman Ray replied, with a note in a personalized "Dodge-o-Gram" envelope, emblazoned with rubber-stamped images. Ray also sent lists of names and addresses—labeled "Brain Cell 52 and Brain Cell 61"—of others to whom I might write. They hailed from places as remote as China, Romania, and Uruguay, but most were from North America, Western Europe, and Japan. Many of the names seemed to be straight from a '70s science fiction novel: Dogfish, Musicmaster, Leavenworth Jackson, Cracker Jack Kid. I chose John Held Jr. and took the plunge.
Good choice. A librarian then working in the art department of the Dallas Public Library, Held was compiling a massive mail art bibliography, putting him at the center of a large international movement of artists, rebels, and flakes who spurned the art industry's galleries, juried shows, and cash-for-art economics by using the world's postal services as a medium. Here was a network—more aptly, countless interlinked networks—of people mailing each other manifestos, collages, treasure chests, Band-Aid boxes, posters, unwrapped stones, 10th- generation photocopies, and (sometimes, fortuitously) precious ephemeral works of art.
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