pen pals

The pop-up letter shop

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This is the best idea I've heard of in a long time. In Seattle, USA, a woman named Rachel Weil has launched a snail-mail truck, known as The Letter Farmer. Like a food truck, you know, but serving up food for the soul (awwwww).

She has fitted out a beautiful, red truck with all kinds of carefully selected stationery supplies - pens, paper, cards, stamps, even sealing wax, and hits the road every day. Wherever she stops, she sets up some tables and chairs outside, provides free postcards (and postage!), and invites people to start writing. She keeps a stack of prompts - people to write to and things to write - for those who are stuck.

When they're done, folks can even pop their missives into the post box attached to her truck.

Rachel says, "Sharing the narrative of our life through pen and paper as they meet and the nuances of our handwriting, paper selection and an envelope is addressed, stamped and mailed is priceless and timeless. Letters can be reread over and over, giving us the opportunity to have voices of our past speak again. Holding and touching something that someone who is either no longer with us or geographically far away is a way that we can feel physical connection with that person."

Can you imagine how fantastic this would be in your city, turning up at parks and carnivals and open spaces? How perfectly would it fit in at a food-truck festival! The Letter Farmer would be my dream business, except that I never have managed to master the art of hook turns in Melbourne. Maybe Australia Post could launch a fleet of these mobile shops, and bring their business to the people...

Here's an article about The Letter Farmer in the Seattle Times

Image credit: all photographs are from The Letter Farmer website

Snail-mail: outgoing lately

img_4303I've been quiet on here but loud on life lately. Thanks for sticking around! The photo at the top of this page is of a stack of antique (100 years old or more) birthday-themed postcards I sent out to folks on Instagram, to help celebrate my own birthday last week. Here's some of the other mail I've posted during the past couple of weeks...

img_3925 ∧∧ This great big stack of letters and aerogrammes

img_4109 ∧∧ Putting Australia Post's flower stamps into a vase

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA ∧∧ I was painting King Kong mail and my daughter begged me, "Make him gold?" So.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA ∧∧ Dear Australia Post: I am probably your biggest fan and definitely one of your biggest customers, but sending parcels overseas is getting ridiculously expensive. Thankfully, pretty stamps for the win. (Personal budget for the loss)

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img_4225 ∧∧ Herbal mail-art for an aromatherapist

img_4142 ∧∧ A little bluebird carrying a message to Estonia

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA ∧∧ All those herbs and flowers I've been painting... I thought it was about time to try my hand at some Australian natives

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img_4331 ∧∧ This was my attempt at a four-seasons envelope: summer, autumn, winter, spring. Winter was tricky: the white gouache paint I used for the snow-flakes kind of melted into the envelope and turned out more blobby than bright. Onwards and upwards

img_4041 ∧∧ I planted ranunculus corms in my garden in May, and to my delight (and surprise, if I'm honest), they actually grew, and are blooming in abundance

That's all, folks!

Mail art - prehistoric post

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA We cut our way through a tangle of vines, each one thicker than a man's arm. Heat prickled our skin. The air was humid, tropical, and thick with floral perfume: something like frangipani, with a less-pleasant undertone of... what was that? Sulphur?

When at last we pushed aside the final curtain of vines, we could barely believe the evidence of our eyes. A volcano, forcing its way up out of the ocean, and, around it, a flock of pterodactyls carrying mail bags.

We had discovered it at last: the lost island of the Prehistoric Post Offie.

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Mail art - prickly post

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Yawwwwwn. I was up until 1am last night making mail-art gifts for some friends. Those parcels (three of them) are not pictured here, because there wasn't any natural light in which to photograph them once I'd finished, and Mr B took them off to post when he left for work at five o'clock this morning. We are a sleepless family!

After two weeks of viruses rolling through our family, taking us down one at a time and working through each of us and then having the audacity to try and start all over again... after two weeks of being more up at night than down, and washing more sheets and towels and little pyjamas than I ever thought it was possible to wash, this weekend finally offered the hope of a reprieve. Nobody was ill, everybody kept down their meals, and we managed to wash and dry and fold and put away the mountain of laundry that had become so big that at one point we entirely lost sight of our couch.

Free from family sickness (but in my weakened, possibly hallucinatory state haha), I began noticing things around me again, especially in my little garden.

All too often, I have failed to give spring the love it deserves, the love almost the entire rest of the world gives it. It's not spring's fault that it is the harbinger of the harsh Australian summer, that's just the order of things, after all. But this year, for the first time since high school, I have a garden again. And that makes all the difference.

In the minutia of my tiny garden, I watch the seasons come in and out with new eyes and new appreciation. The ancient turning of planets and sun and growth and death, all played out in miniature in my little garden: a living diorama, kept alive by the clockwork mechanics of Nature and Time churning silently but relentlessly outside the four tall walls of my green little oasis.

And I, peering in, stepping in, and watching.

* The sage bush has grown at least 10 centimetres since last weekend, in the heady potion of warmer weather earlier in the week followed by soaking rains later on

* There was a honeyeater in the Chinese Lantern tree. We never see honeyeaters in the city! Also, on a warm but windy Wednesday, two little doves happily sunbathed on the grass out the front of the children's cubby house

* The coriander that I thought had died last year is once again alive and flourishing and ready to season big bowls of summer guacamole

* All the dormant trees are budding into life. The pomegranate tree is beyond budding - it has exploded into spring green

* Bluebells! Bluebells everywhere!

* One of my original camellia bushes has gone to god

The warm spring-rain was way too persistent for my tiny little cactus-in-a-pot, so I brought it inside, and that's what inspired this round of prickly mail-art. Once I got onto a cactus-and-succulent roll, it was hard to stop. These little guys are just so fun to draw!

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A recipe for mail-art

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I have been so busy making mail lately! Cutting out little packets of handmade stickers and labels, collecting vintage stamps, hunting for postcards old and new, photocopying old recipes and household tips that once belonged to my great-grandmother, then bundling them all up together in handmade envelopes from old catalogue pages, melting green or red wax over the fold, and sealing them shut with a big, bold N.

Lately I've noticed that a lot of you guys have been using the comments section of this blog to ask for tips and tutorials on how to create mail-art. So I'll do my best to oblige you in this post but, to be honest, the beauty of mail-art is that there are no rules and no standards. No tests to pass, no clubs to join, nobody to judge the "artistry" or talent of your work. Or mine. If you put some creative effort into it, and if you call it mail-art, it is mail-art.

That being said, here's the process of how I personally choose to whip up a batch of mail-art (and if you're new to this blog, samples of the finished products are here).

Ingredients: 

* Brown kraft paper * Scissors * Glue-stick * Pencil (I use 2b) * Eraser * Pencil-sharpener * Black felt-tip pen (waterproof) * Watercolour paints * Gouache paints * A variety of watercolour paint-brushes * Postage stamps * "Via Airmail" stickers (if applicable) * Sticky-tape * Washi-tape (optional) * Sealing wax and seal (optional)

Method: 

Step 1: Most of the time I hand-make my envelopes out of brown kraft paper. To do this, I open up an existing envelope and use it as a template, to trace onto the kraft paper. Cut it out, and glue the sides together. Use a glue-stick or paste rather than liquid glue, so you don't end up with lumps and bumps in your envelope.

TIP: I like to make the envelopes so that the rough side is facing outwards, rather than the shiny side, because it takes paint better later on when you come to that

Step 2: I roughly draw my design onto the front of the envelope, in pencil. This means sketching a drawing - a plant, an animal, a cup of tea, and working the address into the design. Sometimes I write the recipient's name and address next to the drawing, but if possible, I try to fit it into the actual drawing, such as onto the petals or leaves of a flower, a mug of coffee, a speech bubble, the pots of a series of house-plants.

TIP: In your design, leave enough room on the top right of the envelope to fit one or more stamps later on

Step 3: Now I go over my drawing with a firmer hand, using a black, felt-tipped pen. I use the Sakura Micron brand, and have a pack of pens that range from point 0.1 to 0.8 in thickness, depending on what kind of line I hope to create.

TIP: Always use water-resistant ink. This way when you paint them the ink won't run, nor will the essential details (addresses, for example!) run if the letter gets wet in the rain

Step 4: Next, I paint my design using a mixture of watercolours (Winsor & Newton) and gouache (Reeves). Gouache creates a thicker, chalkier, brighter colour than watercolour, especially on the brown paper, so I use these paints where I need the colour to stand out. I use watercolours when I want more subtlety. To help the postie read the address in my mail-art, I aim to make the parts of the picture containing addresses brighter and lighter in colour than the others.

TIP: When sending mail overseas, it's important that the destination country is big and clear and, if possible, in the same area or colour as the rest of the address, so it won't be missed

Step 5: Once the paint is dry, I pull my felt-tip pens back out, and go over the outlines again to give the drawing definition. This is particularly important to ensure the address is clear and stands out, even more-so if I've used gouache, because if applied thickly it can be quite opaque, and the writing needs to be reinforced over the top.

TIP: If I feel the postie may need more direction to send this mail where it is supposed to go, I draw little arrows pointing to the start of the address, and write the words "Kindly deliver to" above the recipient's name

Step 6: Now I put the stamps on the front-right. Rather than use those ugly Australia Post printed labels, I prefer to use lots of stamps to make up the postage. If they won't fit on the front without ruining my design, I continue them over onto the back of the envelope.

TIP: If you need to do this, too, make sure that there is at least one stamp where it is supposed to be, and write the words "More stamps over" to ensure your postie knows to look there

Step 7: If I'm sending my letters overseas, I affix a "Via Airmail" sticker to the envelope. It's supposed to go on the top left-hand side, but fitting it anywhere is usually enough to alert the postie to the fact that this is international mail.

TIP: If your mail is travelling domestically, don't stick a "Via Airmail" sticker on it. I've made that mistake before, and the postie has confused my letter for international mail and not known where to deliver it

Step 8: Almost done! Next, I clearly print my return address on the back of the envelope. I had a stamp custom made to do this and I don't know why, but it gives me a lot of primitive pleasure to ink it and stamp it onto each letter.

TIP: If you've needed to add extra stamps to the back of your envelope as per Step 6, make sure you write the words "Please return to" or "From" above your return-address, so the postie doesn't mistake it for the destination address, surrounded as it is by all those stamps

Step 9: Finally, I fill the envelope with all the contents I have created and collected, then close up the envelope with sticky-tape. This doesn't look very good so, if possible, I then cover the tape with something pretty, like wash-tape, a handmade sticker label, or another wax seal.

TIP: Make sure there are no loose parts of your envelope that could catch on things and tear during its long journey through the post. Tape everything down  

And that's it, my process for making mail-art from start to finish.

How about you? How do you like to decorate your letters? What ever you do, please know this one thing: if you get creative with your mail, you are a mail-artist.


ps. If you're in the mood for even more letter-writing inspiration, I want to remind you about my letter-writing and mail-art e-course, "The Most Beautiful Letter You Have Ever Written." 

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Over four weeks, I will guide you through multiple methods of making beautiful mail-art and creative, handmade stationery; teach you the art of writing and storytelling; help you forge personal connections in your letters and find pen-pals if you want them; and share time-management tips so even the busiest people can enjoy sending and receiving letters. There's also a host of downloadable resources, and access to my own private mail-art pen-pal group. Registrations are open right now, and you can find out more here

Mail art: while on holidays

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While we were in Sydney on our holidays, I painted these handmade envelopes to send out into the world. A pair of animals, books and coffee, but mostly wildflowers. I have a lot of fun painting wildflowers.

Also while we were on holidays, Scout made mail of her own. She asked to send a postcard to her best friend, chose the postcard, wrote her friend's name, signed her own name, and dictated a message for me to write. Mostly, it was a love message. "We rode a train," she said. "We went to the zoo." But mostly Scout wanted me to write "I love you" and "I love you more." She put the stamp on herself, and posted it herself.

I feel absurdly proud that this little mail project of mine has inspired my daughter to remember others in such a tangible and loving way. Scout and her friend are only four, but already they understand the joy that comes from sending and receiving letters. Long live snail-mail.

Onwards to the wildflowers.

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A handful of letters

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My postman, Patrick*, told me last week, "You get special mail. Very special." I like to think that decorated mail puts a smile not only on the face of the recipient, but on each and every person who handles it along its journey.

Here is a handful** - a very big handful - of the letters and postcards that Patrick and I have been enjoying lately, from all over the world. I don't always share incoming mail on my blog, but I thought today I would take a moment to celebrate some of the wonderful, generous, creative people who have taken the time to write to me.

Their letters are sometimes funny, sometimes musical, always heartfelt. Each one contains insights into the writers' worlds: tiny moments, glimpses into another way of living. Do you want to meet them?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA↑↑ Luci from Oakhurst, USA, loves to walk in the Yosemite National Park, and hiking up to Mirror Lake is one of her favourite climbs

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA↑↑ Pia from Strallen, Germany, loves how Instagram puts her in touch with people she calls "beautiful souls"

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA↑↑ Sara from Carlton, Australia, just finished a botanical art course, and quit her job to apply for a Masters in Urban Horticulture

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA↑↑ Jen from Bossier City, USA, says "The Sound and the Fury" is her favourite Faulkner novel

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA↑↑ Camilla from Fonnes, Norway, told me about the Norwegian Constitution Day, on which (among other things) children can have as many hot dogs and ice creams as they want!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA↑↑ Ally from South Hobart, Australia, once cycled around Brugge in the snow

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA↑↑ Joy from Nottingham, UK, is an artist, crafter, crocheter and sewer, who wants to write and illustrate her first book

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA↑↑ Esmerelda from Tustin, USA, designs cakes, greeting cards and chalkboards

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA↑↑ Andrea from Philadelphia, USA, loves the beer, food and museums in her city

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA↑↑ Wiebke from Dusseldorf, Germany, is starting a business with her sister, making postcards

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA↑↑ Roxanne from Carole Park, Australia, never got the mail I made for her, but saw it on my blog. I'm so sorry Roxanne. It didn't return to me so I hope it reaches you one day!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA↑↑ Máiréad from San Mateo, USA, painstakingly embroidered this card herself

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA↑↑ Charlene from Oakland, USA, is about to have her second child, and is readying herself for two under two (I remember how that feels: equal parts excitement and terror!)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA↑↑ Jessica from Hamburg, Germany, found this in a shop in Florence at the end of the Ponte Veccio Bridge

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA↑↑ Kay from Pleasanton, USA, is about to exhibit her art at a local venue

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA↑↑ Monica from Lake Michigan, USA, discovered a beach in the middle of America while on a holiday, and she and her husband loved it so much they moved there

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA↑↑ Cheryl from Perth, Australia, quotes St Augustine ("The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page")

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA↑↑ Jessica from Hamburg, Germany, found this postcard in an old album at a flea-market

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA↑↑ Rae from Chicago, USA, is an architecture geek who likes all those house-hunting and renovation TV shows as much as I do

 

The Minions plaster (thanks Ralph!) that I'm wearing is keeping salve on a particularly nasty burn, sustained when the sealing-wax I was using caught fire. I attempted to blow it out but was a little too enthusiastic, and the melted wax still on fire spilled over my finger. It's ugly and blistered and has been hurting for two days. Which is all to say, don't let anyone tell you snail-mail isn't a blood sport!

* Oh my gosh, I only just saw that. Postman Pat!

** If you have sent me mail and you don't see it here, please don't think that it didn't arrive or that I didn't love it. It's just that my filing system is pretty chaotic. I don't share every piece of mail I receive on the blog, and I chose these particular letters to photograph based on the fact that they were in the pile closest to my hand when I picked up my camera! Each of the lovely letters you see here and the lovely letters you don't thrilled me to the core when I found them in my letter box.

54 letters, 22 countries

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Estonia  ::  United States of America  ::  Singapore  ::  Scotland  ::  Italy ::  Portugal  ::  Canada  ::  Indonesia  ::  Morocco  ::  United Kingdom  ::  Philippines  ::  Australia  ::  Japan  ::  Germany  ::  Norway  ::  The Netherlands  ::  Arab Republic of Egypt  ::  Mexico  :: Malaysia  ::  Russia  ::  Vietnam  ::  France 

 

I sent a tiny letter to each of these countries last week. To most, I sent more than one. Each and every envelope was sent with love, and it gave me such happiness to imagine the journeys these simple scraps of paper were about to take.

To anyone who says snail-mail is dead, just look at that list. Between sunrise and sunset on a single day, 54 people from 22 countries gave me - someone they don't know and have never met - their addresses, so that I could send them a little something in the mail. There would have been more, but I ran out of letters. Why did they do it? Because each of them knows this: a letter in the mail brings joy.

Also - and I can tell you this from personal experience - sending a letter brings joy, too.

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Tangible texts

postcards Yesterday I brought home a small, fat parcel from the post office. It had Mr B's name on it but upon opening it, he handed it across to me, saying, "This is for you."

He'd ordered for me a stack of late-Victorian postcards, all used and most of them still carrying their stamps. We spent the evening looking over the wonderful illustrations, reading through the spidery, handwritten messages, and marvelling at how far these postcards had travelled in distance and in time. The connections they represented.

"Your cat is OK," one of the writers said, "sleeping every day in the sun." Others spoke of holidays, of family, of the weather ("How do you like this snow and weather we are having? I haven't had a sleigh ride since Christmas...").

But what really struck us was how little was said on several of the postcards.

Sometimes, people simply wanted to say "I'm thinking of you," and a postcard was the best way to say it. Postcards were the late-19th and early-20th Century versions of SMS: simple words that reinforced "You are loved," or maybe, simply, "You are not forgotten."

In the backlash against the cold, digital, instantaneous messaging of today, there is often a whole lot more weight given to those who write a lengthy letter. And I love a good epistolary chat as much as the next person. But sometimes I don't have time to write a long, newsy letter. Sometimes I just want someone I care about to know that they are on my mind and in my heart. Likewise, when the people who love me are busy it is still nice to know they are thinking of me, even if they don't have time to sit down and write five pages about their lives.

I think the fact that I hold these tangible texts in my hands today is a testament to the reality that our words have power. Because a simple "Thinking of you" can mean so much to someone that they hold onto it until they day they die.

∇∇ "From a friend guess who" postcard-1-front postcard-1-back

∇∇ "All is O.K." postcard-2-front postcard-2-back

∇∇ "Wish you many Happy Birthdays" postcard-3-front postcard-3-back

∇∇ "Faithfully" postcard-4-front postcard-4-back

∇∇ "From your sincere friend" postcard-5-frontpostcard-5-back

Mini mail-art

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Hello, dear friends. This is just a little something I've been working on, to give to the subscribers I write to via this blog: mini mail-art. I've made a series of 12 water-colour botanical stickers that people can use to decorate their next mail; and another 12 "return address" stickers for them to personalise with their own addresses, and then colour if they want to.