Paghat Does Mail Art:
Why & for How Long?
I. When I Got Started
I first sent out mail art consciously as mail art in 1972; I remember the year only because I did it before I moved to Seattle in January or February of 73. My very oldest mail art is postmarked from a town called Zenith which all but literally had an "Entering Zenith" sign on both sides of a crosswalk. The "town" consisted of an old folks home & a post office. The post office closed. I'd love to see some of my earliest works mailed from Zenith, but I don't suppose I ever will; it was never the sort of thing I attempted to document as I never took it the least seriously.
However, without too much exaggeration, it is just about possible to place my mail art origins as early as seven or eight years of age, circa 1958. I was fascinated by postage stamps & even secretly started a stamp collection without knowing there was any such thing as a philatelic hobby. My method was to try to tear stamps off the corners of household mail, which of course ruined most of the stamps. I would then glue the stamps into a photo album, & when I wanted to rearrange my collection, I had to peal them out of the album, wrecking them again.
When adults noticed what I was doing, a step-aunt came over to visit me, bringing her own stamp collection to show me, which simultaneously delighted & horrified me, because I thought I'd invented the hobby. From my aunt I obtained my first real stamp album, many stamps from all over the world, & I learned all the ins & outs of stamp-collecting, the best part being that I learned how to get stamps off envelopes without wrecking the stamps. It wasn't a hobby I was going to stick to into adulthood, but it was great at the time.
But before the getting of wisdom, at age seven I was all on my own with my furtive hobby. And just as I had independently invented philately, so too I invented mail art as an outgrowth of my fascination for envelopes & stamps. I wanted to test the boundaries of what I could send through the mail. My first mail art idea was to cut postage stamps into triangular parts & mix & match them to look like very novel sorts of postage stamps. I sent several of these to myself, & they all came back to me with cancellations on my jigsaw-puzzled stamps, to my great delight. My second trick was to find a stamp worth twice as much as first-class postage, cut the stamp in half, & use one stamp for two letters. That worked too!
Then one day the mail deliveryman came to the door & instructed my grandparents that I had been doing something illegal & from then on the postmaster would be on the look-out for my antics.
In retrospect, I can see that the impetus to do mail art can start very young without any comprehension of mail art as an established methodology or community.
II. Waylaid by Fanzines
But I was in my early twenties in the 1970s when I first traded art with self-styled mail artists per se. Very soon, though, I got more interested in fanzines for the sake of the written word & stopped doing mail art within the community of mail artists. My 1970s correspondents continued to receive wildly decorated envelopes, & I created custom letterheads either photocopied or made with rubber stamps, to type on at my Remington Silent antique typewriter. So I was still doing mail art, but not for fellow mail artists. And that leads to a question rather like "If a tree falls in the forest & no one is there to hear it," i.e., "If a mail artist stops sending her mail art to people who know what mail art is, is it still mail art?"
If the answer is "yes," then there are millions of mail artists who never heard of mail art! Decorating one's outgoing mail is as old as the idea of national postal systems, & I've seen "mail art" dating to the 1870s in philatelic collections that prize stamps left on interesting envelopes.
So there I was doing fanzines in the 1970s & early 80s, but also during that time I would occasionally do fake fanzines inspired much more by the Dada spirit of mail art than by the serious efforts of "faneds" i.e. fanzine editors.
My fellow faneds weren't always amused. The fake fanzine issues were called FLYER! & they always had a front cover drawing of a winged woman, with the implication that I, the editor of the fanzine so titled, liked to fly, or thought of myself as a winged demon or angel; but in effect this cover provided the instant impression that it was a big nice fanzine one had just received in the mail. Alas, stapled inside the lovely covers were all sorts of recycled sales pitches, punk rock mini-posters & music announcements, hideously bad poems friends had sent me, & anything else I'd gotten in the mail that was the right size to recycle as pages of a newly bound issue of FLYER!
I remember famed faned Jerry Kaufman demanded I stop sending him FLYER! as it disappointed him to get something that looked & felt like a fanzine but when opened was just a shitload of junkmail. Well, to quote George Carlin, I don't care what you say, I think it's god damned funny.
In the early 80s, I had begun publishing serious works as a short story writer contributing to fantasy & horror anthologies, as a major-house paperback novelist, as a small press poet, & as a critic at large. I'd won awards for my writing or editing, & was making as much of a living as many dare hope from the writing game. But by 1983 I was already being pulled back to the spirit of Dada. I began publishing strange pamphlets such as In This Vent featuring a true story of someone who was blown up by a friend who poked him in the ass with an air hose; Young Tyrone describing surreal warfare between the titular character & the violently territorial Bunthorn; & The Ten Magnificent Peonies Present SLIDE SHOW! a collection of bizarre word-collages & comedies.
These were essentially cut-&-paste jobs that mixed & mangled the concept of poetry, prose, & visual arts as though they were all one thing, presented in the forms of chapbooks in limited editions of 100. Locus Magazine gave Young Tyrone a four-word review, which ran, "Stranger than science fiction!" I read it aloud at a convention & it got people laughing so hard they farted, but perhaps only because it got me laughing so hard I farted.
There was then & remains today a lot of overlap between mail artists & fanzine fans. My mail art pal Ophelia Swanshitte issued fanzines in the 1970s, to which I contributed "Lessons for Birds," consisting of instructions for how to pull worms out of the ground without them breaking, or avoiding cats. Ophelia's sweety Rudi Rubberoid collected & sold vintage post cards & would have a huckster table at science fiction conventions selling wonderful cards. He was also a fanatical mail art sender, & later did a fanzine mostly for mail artists, which included several of my goofy poems, such as my poem "Drawing Pictures with My Snot."
But for the greater part, the zine community & the mail art community are distinct with overlapping pockets, & not invariably aware of each other.
III. Back in the Saddle Again
I was again sending out mail art post cards, but with greater ferocity than formerly, in the mid-1980s, & somewhere around 1984 or 86 I began using the name Paghat the Ratgirl (originally hyphenated Pag-hat the Rat-girl), & began issuing Moochy Post cinderella stamps, the national slogan of Moochy being, "Death, not spatulas!" That was also a time when I was selling "Pagpins" (collages in the form of broaches) & "Pagnets" (collages as refrigerator magnets) in Seattle craft shops & bookstores, sometimes for real money, sometimes in trade credit so I could get artworks or books.
I'm not specifically certain when I began using the name Paghat, but I remember I lived with another mail artist, who sent out her art under the name Our-Lady-of-Serpent-Skirts. We lived together until 1992, & the last cool thing we ever did together was participate in the First Mills College Women's Book Arts Fair, after which it was all down hill for us. We did lots of mail art separately & together & were sometimes mistaken for the same person, since we used the same address until I got a post office box, plus we both made artistamps copied onto the same drygum paperstock, so some of our stuff looked similar. Our-Lady-of-Serpent-Skirts also did enviably brilliant rubber stamp carvings & induced me to try to make them too, but she was great at carving, whereas I stank at it. Nowadays she does serious printmaking & creates amazing artist-books at her little publishing firm the Street of Crocodiles Letterpress, & has dropped out of mail art.
My significant other today occasionally sends out mail art under the name Granny Artemis. But she's not as much into the full spirit of the thing as I've been, because if she makes a really wonderful piece of artwork, she doesn't want to risk it to the mail & get cancellations all over it, doesn't want to send it to someone she doesn't already know very well & who might throw it away, & in the main hates to part with her originals. When she does part with an original, she dwells upon it & wishes she still had it, so nowadays if she sends something out, it is a color print-out copy with a few personalized touches.
Granny Artemis has her own website where she displays her mail art & her extraordinarily cool artist-books. You really should Visit Granny Artemis so you'll know I'm not just being partial to note how good she is.
IV. Why I Like Mail Art
For me, if I make a little collage that is unusually good, I don't mind parting with the original. It's the rarest event that I ever see one of them again, but when I do re-encounter some of my own artwork reproduced in a documentation catalog or in someone's collection of mail art, or passed around the mail art community a few years until someone alters it a bit & returns it my way, it is always intriguing to reconnect with an image I made long ago & hadn't seen in the meantime.
When I send out these collages, I merely hope whoever I send one to notices if it's not entirely crappy, & gets at minimum a momentary pleasure from having found a piece of colorful mail in their box. There are a few people who save everything I send them & it makes me very happy that they do so, but I'm aware most people even if they like mail art don't save much of it. This is an ephemeral sort of art to be doing, & if an awful lot of it ends up in someone's garbage, well hey, that's fate for ya.
But it's always nice to have one of those unexpected encounters with people who've saved & valued my mail art. I've more than once gone to underground art exhibitions that I had not intentionally participated in, & there'd be a whole wall devoted to my old art cards on display. It'd turn out someone involved in the show is someone I have traded art with for years, who saved it all, & whenever involved in underground exhibitions shows bits of their archived collection. I've gotten photographs of exhibitions from Missouri to Poland showing a wall dedicated to my postcards, & sometimes I had no idea I'd sent so many of them to one person until a photograph of all of them together in one place comes my way.
Now what an amazing thrill it is when something like that happens. It is almost enough to make me think, by gum, I'm a "real" artist after all. But brief moments of recognition or the illusion of achievement is hardly the purpose of mail art, & should not be an expectation from having created mail art. I suspect it would break the heart of Granny Artemis to discover something she had made & sent someone was thrown away, but I'm much more into the gamble of it. I take for granted that very little of my artwork will survive for posterity, perhaps none of it at all, but if someone saves a bunch of my stuff for even a couple years, that's pretty nice. And as long as they keep sending me their art, I can continue to take for granted they like receiving mine.
Today I tend to do mail art only in the evenings when watching a film on DVD or video or something on the telly, so that I don't feel too much like a couch potato since I can get artwork done simultaneously. Of course if its a foreign film, as it often is, then I have to just be an attentive couch potato & can't be making post cards. But generally I'll be sitting on the floor beside a foot-high Japanese card table, with miniature wooden chest-of-drawers & boxes & trays of collagable paper bits in them. I sit amidst a chaos of cut-out images & papers, selecting & gluing & creating ephemeral artworks. For this reason I do understand why it is that one of the recurring symbolic images of crazy people shows them sitting on the floor cutting out paper dolls.
Rarely a week goes by that I don't send out a considerable pile of mail art, which means that on most days I find my mail box stuffed with artworks sent to me by mail artists round the world. I don't save a lot of it, but I also throw none of it away. It gets recycled in various ways, primarily through "Paghat's Mail Share Service." I'll cram around fifty pieces of mail-art into an envelope & send it on to someone I suspect would enjoy it, who I hope will mine the pile for addresses of people they can trade artworks with, so that I am thereby always putting mail artists in touch with one another.
Ultimately, making a postcard-sized piece of artwork & mailing it to people some of whom are friends & others complete strangers, is an act of faith. Faith that the post office won't entirely destroy one's creation before it reaches its destination. Faith that the recipient will enjoy having gotten it & might save it or attach it to the refrigerator rather than throw it away. Faith that a high percentage of recipients will honor the tradition of sending back artwork of their own. And faith that what one gets in return will be fun to have gotten & occasionally worth saving forever. Yet it must be done with sufficient selflessness that in cases when none of these good outcomes provably occurred, it was even so loads of fun.
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