Mail in the time of COVID
The formal contours of ‘mail art’ developed in the 1960s through the work of pop collagist Ray Johnson and the New York Correspondence School. Autumn Wetli, undergraduate collections librarian at U-M’s Shapiro Library, and Mariah Cherem, production librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library, have added a contemporary spin. They are asking ‘mail artists’ to create and send postcards to their future selves, expressing the emotions and experiences of these challenging times. The art (sampled here) will be compiled into a book as part of the Artists’ Books Collection in the Book Arts Studio at the U-M Library. (Click on each image to enlarge.) Submit your mail art by Sept. 30.
The artist provokes the reader to think critically: “Is ‘We the People’ an empty slogan or a unifying principle?”
Project co-organizer Wetli reacts: “Everything that’s been going on these past six months is tied to the political — COVID, police brutality, the systemic racism rampant in our country. I think politics are at the forefront of everyone’s mind and people have never felt so involved and yet have never been so divided. Art is often political and mail art is no exception.”
“The Rich Man’s Wife”
Aesthetically this piece calls to mind fine art practices in abstraction, says U-M’s Wetli. “Mail art is inclusive, embracing both the fine artist and the novice,” she says. “The 2020 pandemic has created conflicting scenarios: One in which select individuals have become massively wealthier and another where people face uncertain employment, housing, and income – often for the first time. It is interesting to see the ways individuals with different artistic backgrounds and interpretations tackle the subject of the pandemic and the greater times we live in.”
Adopt more cats!
Mail art can be serious in subject or execution, but it also can be silly and lighthearted. “I adore this postcard because of its sheer enthusiasm. It reminds us that mail art is democratic and accessible for all people to make, view, and use to process their world,” says AADL’s Cherem.
This assemblage of stickers and its message highlights how important our relationships with pets can be when we can’t safely spend time around people. Animal shelters, rescue organizations, and breeders report increasing demand for adoptable animals in 2020, and a greater than usual willingness to permanently adopt fosters.
This card appears to be a repeated relief-print/stamp pattern, hand-embellished with color. “Here, again, we see evidence of how mail art can be created with regular household materials,” Cherem says. “It’s possible these forms were carved into something like a linoleum block, but it’s equally possible that the artist carved into a material like a potato or large eraser to make the circular stamp pattern. The repetition and variation within a familiar pattern seem to echo the ways that many days can feel all the same and distinctly different from each other, all at one time.”
Since March, many of us have been ‘stuck’ in place with limited mobility. “The significance of mail and mail art during this time is the transportation of thoughts and feelings across geographical boundaries during a time of stay-at-home orders and limited travel,” U-M’s Wetli says. “For me, these floating feathers represent our current lack in mobility, while also symbolizing the fact that life — and the self — continues to ‘float on,’ regardless.”
Stress, anxiety, racing thoughts — these are all very real in the everyday lives of people experiencing the current moment. And 2020 seems relentless. “I think this project gives people a chance to express themselves and where they are emotionally and mentally in an anonymous way, if they want,” Wetli says. “They can put their fears, hopes, and worries out into the world, getting some release, but not with it necessarily being tied back to them individually.”
“Constant pressures weigh on so many of our actions and decisions, and it’s hard for some people to fully let go of the lurking suspicion that no matter how careful one is, death or illness might be lurking around the corner,” says Cherem. The more you look at this piece, the more you see. ‘Call me!,’ a stamp implores. There’s even a hidden flower. Cherem points out the microphone: “The idea of singing, which is often joyful, feels sinister now given what we know about choirs and droplet transmission. Still, there’s a playfulness here, with a giant smiley face and a gleeful, goofy skeleton jumping amid these inscrutable layers.”
“Help More, Not Less. Scrimp and Share. Outdoors is Best.”
“I think a lot of people are re-evaluating what matters to them,” Wetli says. “Especially in Michigan, we have all been taking advantage of the good weather while we can to explore the outdoor world around us. I like this piece because it combines a collage of drawings and timely newspaper clippings. Together we bike, hike, and move toward an ‘unknown’ future, but despite uncertainty, there are still bright spots like family and caring about others.”
3.11.20 My birthday. WHO announces a pandemic
3.13.20 Everything is shutting down
9.1.20 We are still doing this. Masks and social distancing are the common words
Between the dates on the left and the date on the right, a lot of things we celebrate went missing — travel, seeing people, live theater, birthday parties — represented by the words pasted over spring and summer flowers. “Now that we are into fall, missing those things takes on a whole new feeling of ‘still doing this,’” Cherem says.
What have you been up to?
The flip side of the previous card highlights the ways this artist is adapting to our new and ever-shifting reality — by cooking, walking, listening, watching, reading, and even ubiquitous Zoom meetings.
Escape from it all
COVID-19 interrupted a number of annual traditions, and in Michigan that includes trips Up North and to family cottages. This card conveys the artist’s longing for “the cottage and the beach and the lakes.” It’s not clear if this card was painted from memory, imagination, or a specific photo from the family’s cottage. “Either way,” says Cherem, “the peace, warmth, and comfort of the location shine through.”