Mail Art

By Carolyn Substitute

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 photos.

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 copy of my zine the Lime Green News. I had included 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.

collaged artistamp design

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. A good place to learn more about carving stamps is the Tabloid Trash home page. Check my links section for more rubber stamp 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 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 pen pals. Search for Mail Art web pages. They will often have listings of shows and calls. You should definitely look at Global Mail. There is something for everyone in there. You can choose from hundreds of listings for projects and exchanges.

Some Mail Artists rent a PO box and use an assumed name for security reasons. I don't know if this is necessary but I do it myself, so please use your best judgment. 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 fingers constantly stained with stamp ink.


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