on mail art, disposability, and special occasions

(This is a short essay I wrote very quickly because I have capital-T Thoughts about mail that I wanted to share with you. I’m an academic and there’s no escape from essays, it seems!)

Mail art is a beautiful movement. If you love stationery and fountain pens, you probably send a letter or two once in a while. You only have to look on Instagram to see thousands of instances of absolutely gorgeous mail art. There are people who sink hours of labor and hundreds of dollars into a craft that—for all intents and purposes—is a hobby. Unless you share photos of your mail, few people view it other than its intended recipient. Some people make money off of it, but for others it’s truly a labor of love.

Mail art is, in my opinion, art for art’s sake. You don’t do it for attention; you do it because someone on the other end of the line would appreciate it.

However, mail disappears.

I think something we hold subconsciously in our minds—something we never quite acknowledge but is absolutely a character of the work mail artists do—is that the mail system has flaws. It is entirely possible that the art we create can so easily slip through the cracks and never reach its destination. We put a work into the mailbox and hope for the best.

This is what I mean when I say that mail art must be, in some fashion, disposable. We must be willing to part with it, and be okay with the fact that maybe something we put hours of work into never makes it out of the postal system. I don’t mean “disposability” in a bad way: in fact, quite the opposite! There is something lovely about how we create works for other people for the sole purpose of their enjoyment. Yet that work we create can disappear forever, for good, and the world goes on.

Mail art will always leave your hands. And soon it becomes the recipient’s mail art, for them to enjoy, for them to show off to other people, if they want.

A photo posted by c. t. (@pharaonis) on Jun 7, 2016 at 3:36pm PDT


I bring all of this up because I look through the bundles of stationery I own and I think, “It really is such a shame that I don’t use these.” I have stationery that I’ve never touched except to admire. Why do I keep them? It must be for my own enjoyment. It’s satisfying to know that I own it—but that satisfaction is marred by the idea that someone else doesn’t own it. Maybe I’ll use it for a special occasion, but when is an occasion special?

I think something we take for granted is that every moment can be a special occasion. We’ve learned over the course of our lives that we need to save something special for an equally fitting moment. It makes us think that we need to do work, a very specific work worthy of a reward, in order to enjoy ourselves. Why wouldn’t I use the expensive, letterpressed stationery on a random Tuesday? Or, rather, why shouldn’t I?

Mail art is special, but more importantly, mail art is a gift which you can share. I’m a college student who loves technology, but I do agree that snail mail and mail art is a lovely thing to find in the mailbox. The act of a work leaving your hands to a destination that it may or may not reach is you realizing that it will make someone happy; and that, in return, might make you happy, too—regardless of whether or not it may disappear.

Maybe today is the day you part with that really beautiful letter set you spent a little too much money on. Or that postcard from a scenic destination. Letting go can feel… great. Someone will really appreciate it, and if it never makes it to them, that’s the way the wind blows. Part with another piece of mail. That might feel good, too.

A photo posted by c. t. (@pharaonis) on May 10, 2016 at 7:39pm PDT



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