Pushing the Envelope

Forget curators. Beth Jacobs uses the U.S. mail to deliver her art to an adoring audience.
Deron Neblett

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."

Got that?

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.

On the living room table, near the Raggedy Ann, Jean keeps her all-time favorite piece: Beth's box of fake sushi. A pair of chopsticks is taped atop a clear plastic sushi box. Inside nestle six faux California rolls. Dark green paper forms the seaweed covering, bubble wrap substitutes for the rice, and cylinders of colored paper stand in for the various veggies. A packet of real soy sauce completes the effect.

The main joke is obvious: Mail-order sushi! Fresh from your postman! But in a way, that gag is only the most obvious, outside layer of a more complicated joke, the wrapper on the sushi. The rolls contain other, inner jokes.

For starters, there's Beth and Jean's history of exchanging food jokes. Jean has a thing about Spam. She owns a gajillion rubber stamps (she stopped counting ten years ago at 3,500), but the Spam ones are among her favorites: the can itself, in various sizes; a rectangular "slice"; word stamps that say things like "I'm pink, therefore I'm Spam"; and even a can held by a grinning Bill Clinton, apparently fallen from president to pitchman. Jean hangs Spam art in her bathroom, and she has made herself a Spam hat to wear to Spam-worthy occasions. After seeing the hat, Beth mailed Jean a pseudo-Spam sandwich, with corrugated cardboard bread and pink rubber meat.

Beth herself is fixated on Velveeta. On Jean's living room display table, there's a Velveeta box that Beth once mailed to her, its label and address stuck on the gray cardboard bottom. Six Velveeta-orange origami boxes snuggle inside, a perfect fit for the box. Each of those boxes contains a tiny gift: a catnip-stuffed mouse; an eensy blank-paged book; a balloon and a birthday candle; a bit of wire strung with shiny purple stars; a scroll of paper for writing a letter and, in the last box, four more origami boxes, each tinier than the last, nested like Russian dolls. The smallest is the size of a man's thumbnail.

If you think about it, the Velveeta box possesses a plot, a movement from coldly commercial to sweetly personal. The recipient starts with the Velveeta box, and naturally thinks of the stuff you usually find inside: a highly processed, highly commercialized product that's slightly gross and (ahem) inherently cheesy. Inside that box are the other boxes: orange like Velveeta, yes, but handmade, not mass-produced, created especially for the receiver. Inside those are the little gifts, special less for themselves than the thought behind them. (A present! For you!) And the contents of that last box -- the box of boxes -- hint of an infinity of tiny gifts, an endless supply of good wishes and small pleasures arriving by mail.

In '94, Ricë, the woman who sent Jean the Raggedy Ann, had written a rubber-stamping magazine article on faux postage, pseudostamps designed by artists to commemorate whatever the heck they pleased. Beth was inspired and sent Ricë a square of her TV Talk Show Host stamp (denomination: zero cents, what Beth thought the breed was worth).

Ricë sent back a letter -- wow! great stamp! -- plus a fat folder of other artists' stamps. Beth sensed a rare kindred spirit and fellow traveler, someone who'd understand why it's funny that she calls herself a "paper slut."

(An explanation, which like any explanation will suck the life out of the joke: Beth cherishes her materials, especially high-quality papers. She keeps a huge stack of her favorites close by her desk and crams boxes of the less-favored stuff into her closet. "I don't get off on construction paper," she says, scrunching her nose like a vegetarian contemplating veal.)

At any rate, Beth sent Ricë ever more work. Beth had launched many other correspondences with other mail artists, and as always, she started a bit cautiously: Nothing, say, with penises stamped all over it; nothing too political; nothing too dangerously intimate or honest. A little dark, but nothing too scary. Not at first.  

Even so, Ricë's replies were tentative. Beth teased her, writing that Ricë must be worried that she was a stalker, the type who'd follow her prey with the headlights turned off. Somehow, that must have been reassuring.

Ricë quickly shed her reticence. She and Beth enclosed letters in the pieces they mailed each other, and the letters came to mean as much as the art. "There's nothing we don't tell each other," says Beth, "and I mean nothing." Beth now counts Ricë as one of her best friends, even though they haven't yet met in person.

Late last year Ricë wrote Beth about a bizarre but beautiful Christmas ornament she'd seen at an artist friend's house: a stuffed white lab rat with real white bird's wings attached.

Beth seized the opportunity to torture Ricë ("you know, like best friends do"). In her backyard, she dug up an ugly black root and glued to it a long construction paper tail and the kind of googly eyes sold in craft stores. She stapled on a few black feathers and -- voilà -- she had created a hideous inversion of Ricë's angel rat.

Beth packed the satanic vermin in a pristine white box filled with packing peanuts; the official-looking return address read "Discount Mouse House." Ricë picked up the package at her post office, and as she carried it out, she worried that Beth had been inspired to buy her a too-expensive Christmas present, maybe an exact replica of the artist's angel rat.

She opened it there in the car, and later wrote Beth about her reaction: shock, then delight. The devil rat was revolting, but revolting in an interesting, personal way, a friendly kind of nastiness.

Around that time, Ricë asked Beth to send her a swatch of her hair and some small, personally significant objects. Beth complied -- she shaves her head twice a year anyway -- and besides the hair, she mailed bluebonnet seeds, sharks' teeth and clippings from her cat's claws. She threw in a little rubber stamp of the words "NO MICE."

Ricë sent back a wooden box. Inside glowered an evil-looking six-inch voodoo doll, stuffed and decorated with Beth's oddments. The lock of Beth's hair stood up straight, an exclamation point atop the doll's head. The stamp formed the doll's butt. If the doll sat down, it would leave an imprint of the words.

The doll exuded a powerful mojo: best-wishes voodoo from a friend who not only knew Beth's dark side, but liked it.

Beth immediately wondered what she could send back.

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