Most of this article was written in 1997, and edited slightly in 2000.
Part 1: Why Mail Art?
In the summer of 1989 I became aware of a phenomenon called Mail
Art from reading about it in a magazine. I knew I wanted to try
it but I wasn't really sure what it was. At the time I was a student
at St. Louis Community College majoring in art. I asked all my
friends at school what Mail Art was and how to start doing it
but no one I knew had ever heard of it. Finally I resorted to
putting up flyers in the arty part of town saying something like
"If you are into Mail Art, write to me." This tactic
actually worked and I was soon making contacts and exchanging
Mail Art with people all over the world.
After participating for a while I came to learn what Mail Art
is. It is a worldwide movement of artists who distribute their
work through the mail. It is traded freely with no money exchanged
or obligations attached. In addition to trading with each other,
Mail Artists often participate in shows. A Mail Art show is different
from a traditional art show. There is no entry fee and no work
is returned when it's finished. No work is excluded and none is
sold. In return for their entry, the artists usually receive documentation,
which is at minimum a list of the participants with their addresses,
so that other Mail Art contacts can be made. Sometimes the documentation
is more elaborate, containing artists' statements, reviews, or
Another way that Mail Artists interact is through projects. The
project host will think up an idea for a collaborative exercise.
For an example I'll describe one of mine: I wanted to collect
beads and pendants made by other Mail Artists and make them into
a big necklace. To promote it, I made little ads with the project
guidelines and my address and included bunches of them in my mailings.
It is customary for the Mail Artists who receive them to in turn
distribute them in their own mailings. In this manner, it is possible
for news of a project to be dispersed throughout the world. In
return for their submissions, each participating artist received
documentation, which in this case was a photocopied zine with a picture of the necklace
and a list of all participants within the pages.
What Does Mail Art Look Like?
It can look like just about anything, but I'll describe some of
the more common forms. There is the postcard,
for example. Most people embellish their postcards with rubber
stamps or collage elements, or a combination of the two. Another
popular format is the "envelope o' stuff". The envelopes
are decorated and stuffed with weird bits of paper, stickers,
show or project invitations, articles, or just about anything
that will fit.
Many Mail Artists are into faux postage, or Artistamps.
The artist invents a stamp design which resembles a real stamp
but is not intended to fraudulently masquerade as real postage.
The stamps are often placed alongside real stamps on envelopes,
and are traded and collected both in sheets and singly. Many different
techniques are used to create them, including pen and ink, collage,
rubber stamps, computer graphics, watercolor, and more. Often
the originals are photocopied. They may or may not be produced
on gummed paper or perforated just like a real stamp.
A favorite of many Mail Artists is collage and copier art. All
you need are scissors, glue, magazines, assorted interesting paper
bits, and access to a copier. Then run off dozens of copies to
send to all of your mail art buddies! You can copy onto cardstock
and make postcards or make sheets and fold them to make a self-
mailer or put them in an envelope. A favorite technique of mine
is to make a copier collage design on the postcards and then complete
the design with rubber stamps to give them that handmade touch
that Mail Artists crave.
Another common form of Mail Art is the "add to and pass on"
sheet or book. It is sent around for each artist to add to, and
when filled it's eventually sent back to the originator. Each
participant leaves his or her address on it somewhere, and this
can be a good way to pick up new contacts.
Most Mail Artists use rubber stamps on their art. This is a fast,
inexpensive way to create original art to send out and to embellish
envelopes and cards. You can buy rubber stamps that you like or
carve your own. Mail Artists often make
a stamp of their addresses or have address labels printed. We
often carve faux stamp designs or "cancellation marks".
You can have custom stamps made at some rubber stamp stores and
office supply stores. The piece of art is finally complete when
it goes through the mail and has real postal marks stamped on
it. A special project or event can be a suitable occasion for
having a new stamp or set of stickers made. Sometimes you will
receive a stamp for participating in a project or show. Check my links section for more
rubber stamp, carving and Mail Art resources.
Are You Ready To Try It?
Artists of any age, location, taste, or level of experience can
participate. Are you interested? Once you find other Mail Artists
and send them your work, you will be part of the network and you
will find yourself receiving all kinds of interesting things.
So how do you start?
I would recommend looking in rubber stamp magazines and on the Internet for invitations
to shows. Enter a few and in due time you will receive address
lists of all other show participants. The process usually takes
several months, so in the meantime look for individuals to trade
with. Sometimes rubber stamp magazines run ads for people requesting
Some Mail Artists rent a PO box and use an assumed name partly for security
reasons. I don't know if this is necessary but I do it myself,
so please use your best judgment. Remember that the Mail Artists you
meet are strangers, so use whatever caution you would normally use
when dealing with people that you don't know. An assumed name is also a lot
of fun, and you can change it whenever you want. I went through
a few names at the beginning (Mail Art Carolyn, Art HQ, Hit or
Miss Carolyn) before settling on Carolyn Substitute.
I must warn you that Mail Art is extremely addictive. If you get
involved I predict that you will soon be anxiously watching the
mail box each day, haunting the office supply stores for glue
sticks, stamp pads, mailing labels and the like, and going around
with your fingers constantly stained with stamp ink.
The Viva Lasvegastamps web site has a great introduction to Mail Art written with beginners in mind. It may help give you an idea of what kind of weirdness to expect. Just follow the above link, click the "Mail Art" link at the bottom, and then click "What is Mail Art?"
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Part 2: The Internet and Mail Art
The Internet has been revolutionizing many aspects of our lives. You hear
about it on the radio, on TV, in newspapers, it seems like everyone is
talking about it. My own life is changing, I can see. The Internet has led to a new career for me. It's affecting my
entertainment choices (I didn't watch much TV before the Internet but now
who needs it at all?), my shopping habits, even my eating habits! For
example, one day I was looking for something to go with the Israeli
Eggplant Salad I was going to make and wanted a recipe for hummus. I went
to the computer and in less than five minutes I had my choice of over a
dozen recipes that I could send to my printer. I probably would not have
bothered with the hummus and served Rice-a-Roni or something if I had to go
to the library and get a cookbook to find the recipe. We only have a
limited number of hours in the day and nothing beats the Internet for
getting the information you want directly to you FAST. Some people say we
are going through the biggest changes in lifestyle since the Industrial
Revolution right now.
As I stated in Part One, I've been into Mail Art since 1989. I got on-line in November 1995. I
started this web site in March of 1997. Enough time has passed for me to
see if the Internet has affected the way I practice Mail Art, and yes I can
see changes. They are not the kinds of changes I anticipated however. I
expected to do less mailing in the traditional sense and more sending of
images and other works through the modem. What has actually happened is
that I am still sending most work through the traditional mail stream, just
with a different group of people. Most mail artists on the Internet don't
seem to want mainly electronic art, they want the "real" thing. Apparently
there is no substitute for an actual tangible piece of art that you can pick
up, touch, feel, turn over, stick in a box to look at later, hang
on the wall, mount in a scrapbook, or whatever you do with it.
Although it might seem that way, I haven't dumped the mail art folks that are not on the Internet. I still
go through my box of unanswered mail from time to time and answer every single person with something. (Alas, I'm a couple of years behind! Maybe that's just as bad as dumping.) I never was particularly swift at replying to mail art but now it takes even longer before I'm caught up. I've found other ways to communicate with other artists and some of my mail art time is inevitably going to go to that.
How do mail artists get together on the Internet? One way is through chat
rooms, though I don't do much of that. I was disappointed with chat rooms. Most of the
time it seemed like people just wanted to insult each other or form sexual
liaisons. Once someone refused to talk to me because I wouldn't reveal my
age, sex, or geographic location. It got to the point where I would only go
the Christian chat rooms because at least people there were nice to each
other. I heard about regular chats for rubber stamp enthusiasts
and I'd be willing to bet that those were pretty good - there aren't too
many mean rubber stampers - but I never did make it to one.
Another way for Mail Artists to communicate is through newsgroups. I like
newsgroups. Sometimes they are infiltrated with Spam but there is usually good stuff there. There is a
newsgroup for rubber stamp people and that is a good place to find mail
artists. You are likely to find mail art calls there as well as lots of
information on techniques and sources of supplies.
Some people host electronic exhibitions of mail art on their web sites. Most of the time they accept entries both through electronic means or the traditional way. Don't forget to use my links page to find a small sampling of these sites. Follow the links and you can keep busy for days. You will see great work and learn a lot.
The biggest influence on me by far has been mailing lists, or Listservs. Right now I'm not on any Mail Art lists, becuase I can't read that much mail. The kinds of activities I got involved in on those lists were a lot of fun,
and just about all of them involved snail mail, not exclusively e-mail. For example, for one
project we all designed a letter of the alphabet or a number. We
received a cool booklet with all of the designs, and a corresponding set of
rubber stamps. For another project someone posted a poem and we each chose a line from it to illustrate. We made a set number of pages and sent them in to be collated into books.
All of the groups I was in do swaps and they are a great motivating factor. If you
have a deadline and a theme you like it gets you going. In this way the
Internet may have actually made me more active in mail art for a while than I was
before. There are enough choices of themes that you are sure to find one
that interests you. Here is a sampling of some of the themes I picked: Meso-American, Egyptian, Southwest, Carved
Faux Postage, Stamping on Clay, Surreal, Petroglyphs, Illustrated Haikus....
There is something for everyone, including Teddy Bears and Flowers if you're
into that kind of thing. And if you want to try a new technique and are not
sure where to get the supplies or how to do it, help is just a few clicks
away. Someone out there is sure to know the answer and you usually will
have the information you need within a day.
Every single one of these projects would have been possible without the
Internet. Where the Internet seems to make a difference is the time frame.
A traditional mail art project will probably take a year or more for the
complete cycle. Some last a lot longer than that. Promotion to collating
to documentation... it all takes time. You have to make up your little
ads, take them to the printer, cut them apart, mail them out, wait for them
to trickle throughout the network and fall into the right hands... With the
Internet you can turn around a project in just a few weeks or months, and
it's cheaper too. It's really seductive to keep starting and participating
in more projects when you can get such a swift response. It's also very easy to take on too much at one time and get really burned out - but that's another story!
Is all of this instant gratification a good thing? Are we so addicted to speed and convenience that we are losing the
ability to go after important long-term goals in our lives? I hope not!
I heard an interesting talk radio show once about "information
overload". We have so much information available to us now, from magazines,
TV, radio, and now the Internet. Never before in history have we had so
many choices, and at such speeds. We still have the same number of hours in
the day as previous generations but unbelievable options about what to do
with that time. A man on the talk radio show said
some people suffer from anxiety from not being able to handle all of this
information. According to him we have to be selective and organized so we
don't get overwhelmed. I can see myself doing that. One way I've reduced the amount of information coming in is by experimenting with different mailing lists and narrowing them down to those that
deal with what I'm most interested in and at a volume that I can cope with.
It's necessary sometimes to make a conscious effort to stop talking and
reading and writing and start doing some Mail Art! And then....I'll update my web site again, and add
a little bit more to the information overload out there...
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