What exactly is ‘Mail Art’?

Human beings need social connections. They also need creative outlets. It’s not surprising, then, that these two necessities have come together in the visual art form known as ‘mail art.’ Colorful or subdued, artistic or crafty, or some weird and wonderful combination of the two – this kind of visual art is characterized by the way in which it incorporates the tools of written correspondence, by the way it uses the postal service to share finished creations, or both.

The term as we know it was coined during the 1960’s, and was used to describe the activities of a group known as the “New York Correspondance School” (note that the misspelling is intentional), who first exhibited their creations in 1970. These artists used the postal services to send postcards, stamps, and other forms of visual art connected to written communication. Over the decades since then, different groups have set down ideas about what constitutes mail art, but these philosophies have shifted and changed. Today, however, people still participate in this kind of self-expression, and mail art, like graffiti, remains a viable art form.

We can think of mail art as the ultimate forum for ‘outsider’ creators, or those who make and exhibit independently of established artist forums. One doesn’t need to have a degree or specific training to become part of a mail art network; anyone can pick up a piece of cardboard, draw or collage on it, and affix enough postage and an address on the other side. By mailing art to viewers, one doesn’t need a gallery or publication to share, and there’s no need to submit one’s work to a jury for consideration and selection. Mail art is therefore one of the most democratic of art forms, allowing anyone and everyone to participate.

Although it seems contradictory, the advent of the Internet only encouraged the development of mail art as a form, as far-flung artists were thus able to more quickly and easily connect. Consider the success of the “Post Secret’ project, which encourages individuals to write down a private fact or event and then share it anonymously. Then try a Google search for ‘mail art network,’ and be prepared to find a number of sites where artists organize swaps, issue calls for pieces, or otherwise communicate electronically to further analog projects.

Mail artists use a variety of media, from professional quality materials to craft sources. Want to keep things simple? Doodle with a ballpoint pen on the outside of an envelope, leaving room for the address and stamp, and fill the inside with confetti. Enjoy working with paint pens or with stickers? Collage on ‘artist postcards’, which are made by the same companies that produce drawing and painting paper. Don’t feel confident about drawing abilities? Try working with letterforms or calligraphy. The essentials are very simple – some kind of art that is sent through the mail to another person.

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