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Early on overcast mornings, Beth Jacobs bundles up and drives to the West University post office on Weslayan, the most broad-minded one in town. She knows the clerks by name -- Shirley, Miss D., Brenda and Juretta -- and they know her. Beth used to be embarrassed when they'd call out to her while she was standing in line. She already felt conspicuous, covered like a Muslim woman in a chador and carrying her weird-looking mail art, and here would be one of the clerks greeting her like a long-lost friend: "Beth! How are you? Feeling all right?"
"Yeah," Beth would say. "It's cloudy today, so I'm here."
The clerks would understand the answer. They know about Beth's lupus and the photosensitivity that makes sunlight her enemy, allowing her out only on gray days or during "vampire hours." Beth's lupus is old news around the post office. Beth's outgoing mail, though -- that's new every time.
Most people used the Breast Cancer Awareness stamps to mail their letters, and that was that. Beth viewed the stamp as a starting point, the beginning of an envelope rubber-stamped with a detail from Botticelli's Birth of Venus. The familiar blond goddess rises from the waves on her giant pink seashell, making only a halfhearted attempt to hide her perfect naked self. One hand covers her groin; the other is bespread over her right breast. Above Venus, Beth sponge-painted a blue sky accessorized with puffy stenciled clouds. Below, she glued the paper insert from her birth control pills: "Now Is the Best Time for Your Monthly Breast Exam." The overall effect was signature Beth: trashy and funny and strangely beautiful. And that was only an envelope.
Often Beth sends larger, weirder objects. For a while it was license plates, with the addresses and stamps affixed directly to the plate. Then there were fake shoes, elegant sandals that she constructed from cardboard and paper. Her favorite, a flat-soled slide, sported an insole covered with more of those stenciled clouds and a strap dotted with plastic flies -- imaginary footwear for a surrealist picnic.
Lately she has been sending cheap old cameras. She rubber-stamps a roll of adding-machine tape so that it mimics film, then illustrates each frame: tiny snapshots of her life at the moment. She inserts this pseudofilm on the spools where the real stuff would go, sticks postal stamps and an address label directly on the camera, and entrusts the carefully prepared object to the U.S. Postal Service -- either to the clerks at Weslayan or to Johnny, the mailman who comes to her house.
"I have this amazing personal delivery service," Beth says. "My own personal delivery service. Most people take it for granted." Beth doesn't. Other post offices and other postmen might give her a hard time about the weird stuff she sends through the mail. And besides, they're Beth's fans, and Beth adores an appreciative audience.
Jean Ruggles's Bellaire living room doubles as a mail-art mini-museum, and several of Beth's pieces command prime space. Jean has sent a little mail art herself, here and there, though not as much as she'd like, and not as much as she used to. Besides being a dental hygienist and a mom, she runs a rubber-stamp business and teaches stamping classes. She and her business partner, Beckah Krahula, are also writing a book about a nifty technique they developed, a method for transferring color Xeroxes onto polymer clay.
It's odd, Jean thinks, that her stamping business has cut into her mail art. She has given mail-art talks and read mail-art histories, and she knows that rubber-stamping and mail art have been hopelessly intertwined since the '60s, when the Fluxus art movement began disseminating its oddball, neo-Dada work via the mail. In Fluxiosity, artist George Maciunas offered a kind of mail-art manifesto, declaring in rubber-stamped ALL CAPS that "amusement forgoes distinction between art and nonart, forgoes artist's indispensability, exclusiveness, individuality, ambition, forgoes all pretension towards significance, rarity, inspiration, skill, complexity, profundity, greatness, institutional and commodity value. It strives for monostructural, non-theatrical, non-baroque, impersonal qualities of a simple natural event, an object, a game, a puzzle or a gag. It is a fusion of Spike S. Jones, gags, games, vaudeville, Cage and Duchamp."
Yoko Ono and Christo were part of Fluxus. Andy Warhol sent mail art. Marcel Duchamp sent a series of proto-mail-art postcards, an intentional piece of work called "Rendezvous of 6 February, 1916." Joseph Cornell, the reclusive box maker, later included a whopping 118 postcards from Duchamp in an assemblage called The Duchamp Dossier; it's not clear whether either Cornell or Duchamp considered them art.
And that, Jean might tell her classes, is the important thing: If you consider something mail art, it is. If you affix a stamp at an angle, you've made your envelope a little more interesting. She'd consider it mail art if you dignify the recipient's name with calligraphy, as Dixie Rodkey did on a Christmas card envelope.
But Dixie's swooping, gorgeous calligraphy represents the stately, conservative faction of mail art, and Jean leans more toward the Beth end, the wild, weird side, the kind that Duchamp would love. (There's also a large cute 'n' cuddly faction, big on teddy bears and hearts. Jean will teach the cute stuff to the sweet ladies who want it, but that's her business, not her art. Admitting it embarrasses her.) Of the weird stuff, Jean especially loves a piece by Ricë Freeman-Zachery, from Midland: a three-foot naked Raggedy Ann doll. Ricë wrote Jean's address in permanent marker on the doll's stomach and drew a speech balloon emanating from her mouth. "Dada," it says.
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