The Addictive Hobby of Mail Art

Bring a whole world of creative expression to your door

| September-October 2000

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.

Thanks to my new pen pal, I quickly picked up the protocols and techniques of the mail art world, not to mention its informal rules. "Mail art and money don't mix" these artists often said, but even this basic standard could be bent if not flouted. Why shouldn't Anna Banana charge for her full-color, gummed, perforated, commemorative artist's stamps? Another thing I learned was that not only did many mail artists use pseudonyms, but the concept also could be turned around, with multiple people sometimes appropriating a shared alias such as Karen Eliot or Monty Cantsin. In fact, anyone can be "Chris Dodge."

A certain pluck, if not downright hubris, goes with the mail art game. With my partner, Jan DeSirey, as enabler, I declared myself a mail artist and ordered return address labels for DeSirey Dodge Peace Post. Thus identified, I felt obliged to organize a mail art show. I sent out flyers requesting physical representations of artists' head sizes and soon received several dozen responses ranging from half a centimeter ("Can you measure a nail head?") to a roll of paper 105 feet long, marked with a line of green ink to depict "King Kong's head size!" Common mail art etiquette for such projects boiled down to a simple dictum: "No rejections, no returns, documentation to all." In fact, I did send everyone a list of participants' names and addresses, along with a description of what they sent me; but then I bent the no-return rule slightly and mailed them someone else's entry.

Pay Now Save $5!

Utne Summer 2016Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.

Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $5 and get 4 issues of Utne Reader for only $40.00 (USA only).

Or Bill Me Later and pay just $45 for 4 issues of Utne Reader!

Facebook Instagram Twitter