North Adams Transcript
NORTH ADAMS -- Artists don’t always distribute their work in galleries or museums -- with mail exchanges, the post office becomes the focal point of showing the art.
A mail exchange is a simple way for artists to send each other small works, test ideas and be challenged. The Postal Pinacotheca project was initiated by book artist and printmaker Tara O’Brien as a casual way to bring together five artists and friends, all whom did strong work that she admired and she had always wanted to collaborate with. O’Brien also saw it as a way to bridge the gap between her artistic friends in the United States and those in Australia.
Postal Pinacotheca opens at the PRESS Gallery at 105 Main St. on Thursday, Aug. 30, as part of Downstreet Art.
Participating with O’Brien were two Americans -- Japanese wood block printer Katie Baldwin, PRESS founder Melanie Mowinski -- and three Australians, lithographer Anne-Maree Hunter, book artist Heather Matthew and experimental printmaker and book artist Babette Angell.
O’Brien had participated in a postcard exchange earlier, but her real introduction to mail art was as a teenager.
"I have always loved mailing stuff, even pre-email days. I had friends that, we lived in the same town, but we would write each other letters just to get it in the mail. And because I’m artsy-craftsy, I was making envelopes myself, I was choosing envelopes
Postal Pinacotheca stems from O’Brien’s good memories of that period, and her continual joy at getting mail, but added more structure to the process in order to keep things moving. Themes weren’t originally part of the plan, but O’Brien thought it might be easier for the group to get started using one, and the consensus was that each artist should pick a theme for a round.
O’Brien started things off with the theme of money -- additional themes used were indoor/outdoor, weather, habitats, among others. Each round took two months to complete before the mailing. This gave the artists a decent amount of time for conception and realization of their pieces -- they wanted to make it manageable, and also allow the opportunity to do more than works relegated to postcard size paper.
"We did try to push the boundaries and we definitely did different sizes. Anne-Maree sent a very large, long postcard, and so did Melanie, a very big 81Ž2 by 11 sheet of paper, a thicker sheet of paper, but that was the postcard. Heather also ended up sending a block of wood. Melanie sent a book wrapped in cellophane. We did try to break out of the mold of the 4x6 postcards. It’s amazing what you can mail."
Katie Baldwin’s work often came in a more standard size, but she fashioned it to be opened and unfolded, sometimes with pockets, an object that blossomed from the its initial appearance in the mail box as a regular postcard.
"She had tri-folds and one opened up really long, another one, there was a sticker on the sticker on the side, and you opened the sticker and then opened it up like a book and there were two pockets with the piece inserted into it."
Hunter created a piece that was smaller than 3x5, but enormous in other ways -- it was a fake passport book, complete with funny travel stamps.
O’Brien started the project with some digital graphic design on paper, but strove to move beyond the standard presentation of image on flat paper.
"One of my pieces is actually an mailing tube that’s empty. I printed out on a piece of TyVek an image of the earth and then what you do is you look in the tube at it and hold up the tube to the light, a very primitive kaleidoscope-type thing. And it got mailed."
Getting the piece stamped and sent became part of the artistic process -- any given work could offer some aesthetic challenges.
"I completely irritated the guys at the post office with the mailing tubes. They wanted to print out the postage and I said, ‘absolutely not, it has to be real stamps,’ and they looked at me and said ‘You’re kidding, right?’ That’s part of the experience - how do you get what you want when you need someone else to get it. What I like about that, is that I had to put a customs form on it even though there was nothing in it. I had to write ‘artwork’ on the customs form."
For the indoor/outdoor theme, O’Brien created a small Plexiglas box with an origami snowflake inside, which raised some eyebrows.
"When I took it to the post office, the clerk that I had grabbed somebody and said, ‘Look at this, look at what she’s mailing!’"
It also, in O’Brien’s mind, got some whimsical conspiracy theories flowing about the reaction to the work behind the scenes.
"I always wonder what some of the postal carriers thought about some of the pieces. With the outdoor/indoor one, Katie Baldwin got hers in New York the next day and I didn’t get mine for three weeks. What happened to it? I imagined that someone just said, ‘Well, I’m going to hang onto this for a couple weeks. I’m going to set this right here and we’re going to look at it for awhile, then we’ll mail it.’ I don’t know. They would never admit and it would be completely illegal, but you never know."
And on the opposite end of the experience, sometimes the artists were amazed when the postal workers took no notice at all that there was anything unusual about the object they were processing.
"Anne-Maree said that when I mailed her the mailing tube, the delivery guy stopped and she said, ‘Did you look at this?’ and he said ‘No,’ and she said, ‘You have to look at this,’ and forced the mailman to look through the mailing tube. Who’s got a relationship like that with their postal carrier? It’s kind of neat."
Mail art is about much more than creating art to be sent through the postal system -- it’s about the process of sending it on its way and the emotions behind imagining the object’s journey, and facing the reality of its experience once it arrives on the other end, if it arrives at all.
"Part of getting something in the mail is that it’s like a little gift, and you have to be generous to put your work out and allow it to go through the postal system. You have to accept that it might get scratched or ruined or something might happen to it. It might even get lost. It might be understood that this is a personal sacrifice, to give it up to the whims of the world, which is something I’m really fascinated by."
The show at PRESS was not in the plan, though O’Brien is grateful for the chance to show others the result of their efforts, since the group was surprised that the output far exceeded the initial expectations, and it seemed a shame to keep it private.
"It was supposed to be a venue to work on some ideas, sketch some ideas, try things out. Not every idea is successful, and yet it still got sent out to everybody. It was supposed to be casual, but what we ended up with was really great because of the quality of the people that were in it, we ended up with wonderful work. We took cues from each other about the level of work and the quality of work we were doing and thought, we can’t let people down. That was a really nice aspect to the project."
O’Brien hopes that sharing the work with others might inspire further mail exchanges from other circles of friends and acquaintances.
"I hope that other people say, ‘We could totally do this, I have a bunch of friends, I would like to get together and make a commitment to each other and share this thing.’ It can be completely casual and fun."