Last year I came across a documentary (that you can watch online for free) called Making Mail. It is about a group of artists who use the postal service to share their art with each other and with strangers, all over the world.
It’s quite fascinating because it seems as though every time a new generation discovers mail-art, they think they are the first and they think they are alone.
I mean here was I (and I’m no artist but go with me because I’ll get to my point) painting the mail I send to you guys just because it was fun and I wanted it to look nice, and not knowing that anyone else was doing this, let alone that there was a whole movement around decorated mail, called “mail art.”
And then you watch this documentary and you first see a group of university students who stumbled upon the same realisations. They would write to each other, and try to find ways to make the mail as creative and interesting and interactive for the recipients as possible, just because.
And just when you think “Ok! They are doing this too, and they stumbled upon it in the same unexpected way as me!” the documentary interviews an artist couple who discovered mail-art in the 1970s. Again, by accident, without realising anyone else was doing it.
“I thought I had discovered the wheel,” one artist said, but then he was put in touch with Ray Johnson, a man who is now, with the benefit of history and academic hindsight, considered the father of “mail art” as a movement.
The nature of mail-art is that it’s personal. Art, sent just from one person, to another person. There’s not a lot of exposure in that! So it makes sense that it remains a fairly underground movement, and it’s entirely possible that in this shrinking world, there could be pockets of people still “discovering” this fun way of using the post, without realising that it has been done elsewhere and before.
Of course there were exhibitions - still are - for mail-art. Submissions invited and sent from all over the world and, most often, there are no rules. That’s one of the beautiful things about “mail-art” as a form of creative expression: once you discover there is a community out there, you also discover that the community fiercely protects its anti-art dedication to “no rules and no refusals.” Do what you like. No-one can tell you it’s not art.
Maybe the relatively-secret, underground existence of mail-art is about to change. After all, there’s only so many people who can avoid seeing the Internet, as time goes by.
But in the meantime, try watching Making Mail. It’s entertaining, interesting, and above all inspiring. Once you finish watching this little film, you will be itching to bust out the paints and gel pens and craft supplies, and send somebody a surprise letter.