Correspond(a)nce Caravan: An Ex Postal Facto Field Report
Forward: It was with great pleasure and surprise that I opened my electronic mail to find this article written by the esteemed John Held, Jr. He is a mail artist and stamp maker extraordiare. Why, he even has a Wikipedia page and I have written about him here on the blog previously. What follows is his account of the wonderful Ex Postal Facto from this past week in San Francisco. I am so happy that he chose to share it with us. I've added some helpful links in case you need more elucidation on various personages. Now, on to the report!
Correspond(a)nce Caravan: An Ex Postal Facto Field Report
by John Held, Jr.
In the summer of 1968, Fluxus artist Robert Filliou conceptualized the idea of an “Eternal Network,” promoting the idea of a community of international artists drawn together by common interests in cooperation, divorced from competition. In this network, some would be entering and some would be leaving, but a core group would remain to impart previous concerns and history. Mail Artists, an international band of postal based artists, were quick to adopt this concept, fusing it with Ray Johnson’s New York Correspond(a)nce School, and using it as the foundation of a commodity free community based activity.
Mail Art is obviously a time delayed, geographically diverse operation, but there is a long tradition of participants meeting their correspondents in real-time site-specific situations. The latest of these meetings took place in San Francisco over Valentine’s Day weekend 2014 bringing together well over two hundred correspondents from six countries in a series of events that highlighted the evolution of the medium over a fifty-year history.
Organized by San Francisco book artist Jennie Hinchcliff, the author (with Carolee Gilligan Wheeler) of “Good Mail Day: A Primer for Making Eye-Popping Postal Art,” published in 2009, and the founder in 2011 of the San Francisco Correspondence Co-op, Ex Postal Facto was held in various venues throughout San Francisco from Friday, February 14 though Sunday, February 16, bringing together an enthusiastic gathering of both Mail Art veterans and those newly arrived to the field.
The festivities began at a reception at Arch art supply store on Missouri Street, Potrero Hill, and quickly moved to The San Francisco Center for the Book, for the opening reception of two exhibitions, “The History of West Coast Mail Art,” curated by John Held, Jr., and “mail/art book,” curated by Hinchcliff and Held. The two shows, like the weekend itself, brought together both the old and new in Mail Art.
“The History of West Coast Mail Art,” featured selected works from the archive of the late Oakland Mail Artist Patricia Tavenner. From Wallace Berman’s “Semina” magazine published in 1961 to work received just prior to her passing in the spring of 2013, the exhibition covered a range of correspondence, artist publications, artist postage stamps, rubber stamp works, exhibition and event documentation collected by the late artist over a fifty years period. In so doing, it showed both the evolution of the medium and common threads of activity spanning the years. Invitations to the “Deccadance,” an early 1974 meeting of Mail Artists in Los Angeles, and programs featuring “Interdada 80,” and “Interdada 84,” in San Francisco, acquainted those newly come to the medium with previous gatherings of correspondents.
“mail/art/book,” was organized in the manner of a traditional Mail Art exhibition, encouraging open participation (no fees to enter, no curatorial selection) to those inclined to contribute. Invitations to submit work on the theme of the book were sent throughout the Mail Art network, eliciting responses from over 300 artists from 30 countries. A number of auxiliary events coincided with the opening reception, including a cancelling station for weekend “passports,” manned by Burning Man Postmaster James Cline from Berkeley. Collage material and rubber stamps were provided by the Center for the Book to make Valentine cards and Mail Art, and there was a hearty contingent at work throughout the opening. Passport holders were busy throughout the evening collecting rubber stamp impressions and artist postage stamps from the participating artists. A full color catalog was printed to accompany the exhibition by the Center for the Book, with essays contributed by curators Hinchcliff (“Our Path is Strewn with Words and Letters: Making, Mailing, and Postal Modernism”) and Held, Jr. (“A History of West Coast Mail Art: Artwork from the Patricia Tavenner Archive”).
On Saturday, the caravan of correspondence transpired to the historic Elk’s building on Post Street. Tables were provided to those wishing to sell and exchange self-produced work and Mail Art collectibles. A number of Mail Art “legends” participated, including Anna Banana, former San Francisco resident, now residing in Vancouver, Canada; buZ blurr from Gurdon, Arkansas (the subject of a current exhibition at Adobe Books in San Francisco’s Mission district); James Felter, also from Vancouver, who curated the first show of artist postage stamps in 1974; Carl Chew from Seattle; E. F. Higgins III from New York City, and Harley from Forestville, three pioneers of the artist postage stamp medium; Leslie Caldera and Neal Taylor from Los Angeles; as well as the indomitable V. Vale of San Francisco, publisher of Re/Search books focusing on alternative culture.
Vale, who is a maven on manning booths at all manner of underground events (and a former organist for psychedelic sixties rock group Blue Cheer), writes of his participation in Ex Postal Facto:
'Twas truly one of the most BEAUTIFUL events I've ever attended - super-well organized, thoughtful attention to miniscule details, immediate help when needed, and - all the time I've been in San Francisco, I never knew such a beautiful Elks Club environment EXISTED - may it remain as it is FOREVER! Hope there will be another event there again...(AND, they had a grand piano which I got to play twice...)
This was a true outpouring of alternative culture at its grassroots finest. Jennie Hinchcliff and a support crew drawn from the San Francisco Correspondence Co-op, San Francisco Center for the Book and the Special Collections Department of the San Francisco Public Library, provided organization free from mainstream cultural support. Although Mail Art is a growing phenomena (as witnessed by the large turnout for all the weekend events) and central to the contemporary critical concern of “social practice” in the arts, Mail Art’s acceptance by the gallery and museum establishment is practically non-existent. Therefore, Mail Artists, like Hinchcliff, do-it-themselves, self-producing and distributing; providing an alternative to artistic competition, focusing instead on cooperation.
The last day of Ex Postal Facto took place at the San Francisco Main Public Library. Two panels marked the culmination of the weekend activities. “A Brief History of West Coast Mail Art,” featured panelists Anna Banana, Carl Chew, Leslie Caldera, Lowell Darling, and was moderated by John Held, Jr. Organizer of the 1974 Los Angles Deccadance, Darling provided an important touchstone to an important moment in Mail Art 40 years ago. Carl Chew provided insight on the history of Mail Art in the Seattle area; Leslie Caldera expounded upon the scene in Los Angeles; while Anna Banana narrated the growth of the medium in Vancouver and San Francisco.
Jennie Hinchcliff moderated the second panel discussion on, “Artistamps and Their Makers: Seeing the World in Miniature,” featuring panelists James Felter, James Cline, Harley, and Ginny Lloyd, formerly of the Bay Area, appearing via Skype from Jupiter, Florida. Felter talked about the organization of the first artist postage stamp show he curated in 1974; Cline discussed the evolution of his yearly Burning Man Post Office; Harley traced the evolution of his Terra Candella local post; while Lloyd reminisced about her organization of “Interdada 84,” a direct forerunner of Ex Postal Facto.
While major Mail Art past gatherings like “Deccadance” (1974), “Interdada” (1980 & 1984) and the “Mail Art Congresses” (1986 & 1992) attracted large gatherings of artists, none exceeded Ex Postal Facto in number of attendees or diversity of participants. Former events convened long time participants of the field, while Ex Postal Facto drew from both legendary practitioners and those recently drawn to the medium on the heels of Hinchcliff’s, “Good Mail Day,” and proselytizing via the San Francisco Correspondence Co-op. Mail Artists both old and new were invigorated by the encounter, while those previously unaware of the field, came away with new appreciation for a mediated social network preceding the Internet.
Thanks again, to John Held, Jr. for this summary of the Ex Postal Facto weekend. I do hope it can become an annual or semi-annual event in some capacity. It was so energizing and fascinating. I'll have some more posts on Ex Postal Facto coming up next week. If there's something you have a particular question on, let me know in the comments!
In this era of instantaneous communication, a handwritten letter is a rare and wondrous item. The Letter Writers Alliance is dedicated to preserving this art form. Prepare your pen and paper, moisten your tongue, and get ready to write more letters!
May 3rd (Sunday)
World-Wide Virtual Social
See our faces, listen to us nerd out on mail, enjoy the silence as we scribble letters, and ask us mail questions live. Live Video via Google Hangouts. Participate with #LWASocial on Twitter & Instagram. Video will be recorded and put on YouTube if you can't make it live. Event Page
May 28th (Thursday)
Chicago, IL Letter Social
Uncle Art Gallery 7-9pm 1359 N Maplewood Ave
Join us and our typewriters to write some letters together. We will have mail art supplies, stationery, and a few of our old-fangled typing machines available for your use. Free!
May 30th (Saturday)
Chicago, IL OBSCURA DAY 2015
L.W.A. Clubhouse Several time slots available
Enjoy exclusive access to the Letter Writers Alliance Club House in celebration of Obscura Day. You'll see the inner sanctum of operations for the letter writing organization and have an opportunity to write letters and postcards using vintage typewriters.
Your ticket includes free supplies and typewriter time. Donovan, the Letter Writers Alliance typewriter expert, will be on hand to answer questions, troubleshoot cranky machines and make pithy comments. Come join us and type a letter or two!
Tickets: $5 Purchase options available soon!
June 7th (Sunday)
Chicago, IL Mix & Mailology
L.W.A. Clubhouse 3:30-5pm
Old Fashions and Wax Seals, two old-timey things we love. Learn the secrets of mixing an excellent Old Fashion and making the perfect wax impression on your envelopes. We will also have other wax-like experiments for your mail art pleasure. Our solutions, both alcoholic and artistic, will surprise you. All materials, including liquid forms, will be provided.
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July 12th (Sunday)
World-Wide L.W.A. Book Club
Join Kathy, Donovan, and a special guest Margaret Haas (of Paper Pastries) via live video while we discuss Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. Discussion and further info can be found on the Goodreads book group page. Event Page
The L.W.A. was established in 2007 by Kathy Zadrozny & Donovan Beeson. These two ladies manage every aspect of the Alliance, from design, to packing orders, to maintaining the website. The L.W.A. is a labor of love and we are happy you have joined us in sharing a love for letters.