Rob Walker | Essays

The Medium Is The Mail

#271, to Ariel, NY; “Norman with Some Other Guys Named Norman.” Photomontage on resin coated print.

Earlier this year I received something unusual in the mail: actual mail.

What I mean is, mail that wasn’t a bill, solicitation, promotion, or form letter. It was a postcard — but not the mass-printed variety. A collage incorporating multiple materials, the object included a Web address, artisinalpostcards.tumblr.com. The typewritten note said I was “receiving this from the Random Acts of Mail Art project.” While I wasn’t expected to do anything as a result, I was invited to pass along snail-mail addresses of anybody else who might like to get such a card. Elsewhere it said: “ARTISANAL POSTCARD #289.”

I was interested. Obviously mail art has a long and rich history (I can remember participating in at least one mail project back in my college years). But here I was curious about the decision to tie this analog and personal form to a regularly updated blog, which functioned both to publicize and extend the project. I also liked the actual work — both my physical card, and the many digital reproductions on the Tumblr. There wasn’t much information on the site at the time, but when I checked again more recently some detail had been added, and I got in touch with the project’s creator, Jill Stoll.

#332, Amanda, MA; “Etude.” Collage on drugstore print, origami paper, National Geographic.

Stoll (not someone I knew), declined to reveal who gave her my mailing address, but cheerily explained how her Random Acts of Mail Art came about. Based in New Orleans, she described herself as “a disenchanted artist,” who loves the process of making more than the process of, say, hustling for gallery contacts. (She has, however, shown work in a variety of media at a variety of venues.) The postcard collages are partly a way of finding creative uses for materials that had accumulated in her studio — photos, magazines, various paper types, and "abandoned art projects" of past students. “Artists are hoarders,” she explains.

She also concluded it would be interesting to distribute the works through a different “system that already exists — the postal system.” Many of us, she knew, have come to think of the mail as little more than a daily nuisance ritual. Perhaps there was an opportunity here to play with that, and maybe affect it.

At first she sent cards to friends and contacts, and then she started asking around for addresses. The original hope for the site was that it would serve partly as a mechanism for happy recipients to suggest others who might enjoy a postcard-art surprise, in a kindred-spirit domino effect.

#304, to Amy, GA; “The hot air rising.” Photomontage on drugstore print with National Geographic bits.

 #320, to Cesar, CA; “Fun with Bill Cunningham, from EVENING HOURS, Dec 2, 2012, New York Times.” Photomontage on drugstore print.

But that’s not quite what has happened. Evidently, Stoll says, many people feel uncomfortable sharing a friend’s mailing address. But plenty of people do submit addresses: their own. When we spoke, Stoll said her waiting list has about 100 names on it.

Stoll’s previous work has addressed creative ritual before — notably a year-long series of 2-inch-square collages, made daily. In this case she makes the postcards in batches, usually over the weekend. The upshot is that she is producing hundreds of original pieces, most of which she is unlikely ever to have access to, or see, again.

The Tumblr, then, serves as a de facto gallery that goes on forever and unfolds over time; one of the intrigues of following along is watching as Stoll goes on particular stylistic jags, working through a visual idea — or through a given batch of materials. My card, for instance, was made during a phase that involved many images of Mitt Romney, frequently cut into stripes. A more recent motif has involved circular elements, the result of using a laser cutter on old stacks of magazines.

#372, to Lidia, Chile; “There is a smattering.” Photomontage on drugstore print by Jill Stoll.

Surely this is a useful creative challenge for Stoll. But her quiet project is also a lovely example of what I’ve previously referred to as “dancing about ruins:” transforming undervalued, easily overlooked materials at hand — and here I would include not just her leftover magazines and the like, but the lately-unloved postal system, too — into something striking, special, memorable. And although the way it’s unfolded differs a bit from her original vision, Stoll is clearly enjoying herself (and would, I am sure, be happy to send a postcard to you, or a friend whose address you're willing to share). “I love it,” she says of the way that Random Acts of Mail Art has worked out. Me, too. 

#289, to Rob, GA; “Norman and Mitt.” Photomontage on silver print by Jill Stoll.

Posted in: Arts + Culture

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Carl W. Smith

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