[Jennie Hinchcliff] I am one of those people you’ve heard about. It all starts out very innocently: a postcard here, a letter there. A trip to the post office to see what kind of stamps are available. To the uninitiated, this behavior might appear a bit strange — the postal clerks know me by name, but heck, maybe they’re just friendly. There are any number of reasonable explanations for these postal-y things that may seem slightly odd to you, but are perfectly normal to me.
I’ll let you in on my secret: I am obsessed. Not only with airmail envelopes, postage stamps and ephemera of all stripes, but with mail art, artistamps and any other oddity that finds a way into my mailbox. And boy-oh-boy, have there been missives worth noting: a chunk of astroturf, cut to postcard size; a clear plastic coffee cup with a crocheted bird swinging around inside … just to name two.
Why do these things come to my mailbox? Well, that’s what mail artists do – send stuff to each other. And how? Via the USPS, of course. Who would possibly mail such … unusual items? Friends and artists from near and far. Can you even mail something the approximate size and weight of a coconut through the USPS? With enough postage, practically anything can make it through the mail.
I have been sending art through the mail for over 15 years; it all started with the book SWAK: The Complete Book of Mail Fun for Kids by Randy Harelson, checked out from the library when I was in the fifth grade. As an adult, I’ve built up a network of postal friends from both around the world and across town. Visiting the post office means that a world of surprise awaits — my mailbox is literally a museum, filled with ever changing artwork and a variety of personalities. I am an “on-the-fly” curator: constantly writing, educating and introducing people to this colorful, creative world, which has — for the most part —been hiding under the radar.
Logistically speaking, mail art is something that anyone can do, any time, anywhere. You don’t need fancy supplies or expensive schooling — often, the best mail art is created spontaneously, using things that are readily available. I myself am a hoarder and collector, so much of my mail-art aesthetic incorporates unusual papers (ledger books, dictionary pages, foreign language texts), bizarre rubber stamps (recently acquired: a set of pharmacist’s rubber stamps from the 1940s) and office supplies of all kinds (have you any idea the things you can do with staples?).
My budget for postage stamps is astronomical, it’s true. A handful of envelopes that other folks see as “all the same” find a way into my studio, because each one seems “uniquely different” to me. There is a constant stack of postcards on the kitchen table, waiting to have postage applied. Every piece of mail art I send out is one of a kind; no mass-production postcard printing for me! On an average week, I’ll send out anywhere from 10–20 pieces of mail … more, if there’s a holiday coming up, or if I’ve created a special edition of work. It is entirely possible that my mail-art friends and I will singlehandedly save the USPS, through our postage purchases alone.
What is it about mail art that keeps me going, constantly making, sending and archiving? Perhaps it’s the promise of something amusing waiting in my PO box. Maybe it has to do with the feeling that somebody, somewhere put something into the post, with me in mind. A good friend of mine, unversed in the ways of my postal preoccupations, summed up it up nicely: “It certainly beats the bills that I always seem to get.” And at the end of the day, I know she’s right: Who wouldn’t want a rubber chicken covered in postage stamps, addressed and waiting for them when they check the mail?
[Above and lead photo courtesy of Von Span Photography 2010]
Jennie Hinchcliff receives odd items at her PO box on a fairly regular basis; as a mail artist and co-author of the book Good Mail Day, she is constantly inspired by incoming correspondence. Her blog chronicles the myriad adventures and interactions she has with both the USPS and mail artists around the globe. For the curious, she suggests: