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I. A Little Introduction to Mail Art:
If you don't already know what mail art is, my telling you quickly won't explain it, & in any case, explaining mail art is a boring occupation. Without resorting to too much definition or manifesto, here's a rough feel for it:
The primary slogan of the Mail Art Community is "Sender's Receive!" Mail Art can be anything the individual making the art thinks of as art, whether or not anyone else agrees, & which to varying degrees of success can be sent through the mail. I've gotten stuff like fuzzy dice with address & stamps on it, regular grey rocks addressed to me, plastic jars filled with trinkets, even bark off a tree -- all sorts of silly things mailed to me as mail art. But the most typical forms of mail art is a hand-made postcard, or anything stuffed in a hand-decorated envelope.
Post card as mail art may consist of anything from an elaborate original drawing on a postcard-sized piece of cardstock, to images made with handcarved rubber stamps or even with commercially purchased rubber stamps, to original collages, to fully or partially photocopied collages, to a mixture of all that. Or something else altogether. The majority of the mail art I send out consists of one-of-a-kind original collages.
The other common mail art item is a fake postage stamp. These are categorized by philatelists as "Cinderella Stamps," a postage-stamp-like object that is not really a postage stamp. Cinderellas include not only stamps made by artists for the sake of art & whimsy, but also such things as Christmas Seals & stamps from children's toy post office sets. Mail artists like to distinguish their cinderellas more specifically as "Artist Stamps" shortened to "Artistamps," though occasionally terms like Faux Post are used.
Here at the left is an example of a mail artist's artistamp, shown as a detail from a postcard sent to me by Rik Selby aka Studio Crispy Bug. The stamp is a 1994 Lime Green Post issue commemorating, ahem, Paghat the Ratgirl. Lime Green Postage Stamps are issued by the fabulously beloved mail artist Carolyn Substitute.
II. How Much Talent is Required?
Some mail artists are extremely talented, as revealed in Honoria's painting of a rat shown above; that piece is one of the great treasures among the "keepers" I have received along the years. Other mail artists work around their lack of technical skill to create marvelous things even so. And yes, many have no talent at all & their sole charm is they keep trying anyway.
Strangely enough, I can enjoy even a badly done bit of mail art, much as I can (sometimes) enjoy a really trashy movie. If there is ever a time I fail to return art for art, it means the post office scraped your address off or I couldn't read the return address or you forgot to put your return address in the corner. Because I do respond to everyone who sends me their art, whether what I received was extremely good or extremely bad.
So some mail art conveys an amazing degree of talent; some conveys no talent at all. But it's a very democratic art movement, & the general principle of the thing is, if you send mail art to a fellow mail artist, they have to send you a piece of mail art in return. Of course some old-timers at it are a bit burned out or have become insular in their old age, or have transferred far too much of their energy to the world wide web & would rather talk about mail art on the web than actually do any. They will disappoint you by never returning the favor of your having sent them your art work. But a few disappointments have to be taken in stride, indeed they are part of the game. There are other old-timers who'll just never let you down. You can start with me if you like. Send me some mail art through the postal service, whether superb or half-baked, & I'll send you one of my collage postcards oh you lucky dawg.
You can't dislike the idea of getting cancellations & scuffs on your artwork. Some people put their artwork inside envelops, then decorate the envelops as "secondary" mail art though sometimes I like the envelop better than the art protected within. To me, a really choice piece of mail art is that which shows the marks of having actually been mailed. With luck the cancellation will add an unexpectedly artful element. If some puzzled post office employee cancels the cinderella stamp but neglects to stamp the real one, or stamps cancellations on all the fake stamps just as adamantly as the real one, now that never fails to amuse me. If you're the sort who would make mail art & never mail it because you can't part with an original or you're afraid it'll get wrecked by the cancellation machine, well, in that case, you are probably not a mail artist born.
If you create mail art for any length of time you'll end up in exhibitions in coffeehouses, shopping mall hallways, & even major galleries & museums in a half-dozen or more nations, as it is a widely recognized art movement datable to the Beatnik era if not to the Surrealist & Dada movements early in the 20th Century, & there are several important mail art repositories in public & private collections around the world. Many of those collections of mail art are selectively exhibited from time to time. Several people continuously document the movement; many make "Mail Art Calls" & promise documentation catalogs (not always living up to the promise). Sociology & art professors have written about mail art & its community either with great understanding because they were mail artists long before they were scholars, or with absurd lack of comprehension because they once looked at it from the outside & imposed some personal sentiment that runs further off the mark than they can ever realize.
It's an odd & friendly movement that anyone can join, whether a child, a bored housewife with a collection of store-bought rubber stamps, a pompously self-conscious artiste who has committed his or her life to the allegedly noble calling of doing art, crackpots & wiesenhiemers, average janes & joes, anyone & everyone. From the best of it to the worst of it, it is rarely harshly judged. But if one enters into it expecting the "larger" rewards of selling limited edition aristamps for profit, or getting name recognition, or being highlighted in gallery exhibitions, well, that person likely will never be much rewarded nor deserve to be.
You have to on some level really not care if someone receiving your art thinks its crap & immediately throws it in the garbage, or receives something really well done from you & sends you something simpleminded or sends you nothing at all. Be glad when something better happens, but don't get your ego all caught up in needing more to happen. It's a tremendous thrill to find out someone who has saved artworks of mine includes them in a public exhibition, & the name of Paghat in consequence gets mentioned in some big-city or small-town newspaper, or to participate in a public show & see the name of Paghat in the documentation catalog afterward. It is hugely rewarding when someone sends me a particularly elaborate eternal-keeper piece of artwork in trade for my humble paste-together cards. Still, people who send mail art exclusively to "shows" that promise documentation tend to be the least remembered mail artists of all; the visual communications are between artists, good ones or bad ones all treated as equals & peers.
At base, sending out mail art is a random act of kindness, as well as a selfless act of faith. More might be built upon the foundation of kindness & faith. But if all there ever is is that foundation, that's quite a lot.
If you want fuller explanations of What Mail Art Is & who does it & how it all began, do a google search of "Mail Art" & "Fluxus," by which you will find mail artists with websites all over the web. You will find continuous paraphrases of the usual explanations that Marcel Duchamp did mail art, or that it began with Ray Johnson who was a marvelous but ultimately suicidal lunatic faggot pal of Andy Warhol, & so on. But all that can be tiresome stuff after a couple decades of hearing it repeated as cant. Still, if it's all rather new to you, a google search will fill you in. Just bear in mind, the more significant "serious" mail artists attempt to make of all this, the bigger their own self-deception. The only self-deception that counts for squat is the one that supposes Mail Art is the route to world peace.
If you want to send me mail art, follow the navigation bar to the "Send Mail Art to Paghat" instruction page to get my address. Always remember that once you're a sender, you'll soon be a receiver.
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