In 2020, Temple University Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) issued an open call for quarantine mail art to document this unprecedented time. We received 381 submissions from 158 artists from around the world. Mail artists, representing 25 countries and 24 of the United States including Puerto Rico, sent hundreds of pieces of art through international and domestic postal services to Temple’s campus over the course of the summer of 2020. The submissions, many in the traditional postcard format and employing elements of mixed media and collage art, directly reflect our shared experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic through images of masks, healthcare workers, the virus itself, and through references to sickness and social distancing. Some are overtly political while others are abstract expressions of the artists’ personal experience of quarantine. The submissions are on exhibit in Charles Library this summer, and some are being featured on the SCRC’s social media accounts as well.
What is Mail Art?
The term Mail Art was used as early as 1971 to describe a genre of art that had been making its way through the art world for over a decade. In the 1950s, American artist Ray Johnson (1927-1995) began mailing small drawings, collages, and prints to constituents in the art world, including his close friends, mild acquaintances, and even non-acquaintances such as artists, gallery owners, and curators. Through this form of correspondence art, a network of mail artists formed who utilized the postal system as part of the art-making process, embracing and often pushing the boundaries of that system. Artists would embellish the envelopes with drawings, rubber stamps, and collages, and some would manipulate the addresses with creative phonetics. Others experimented with the shipping container by using unconventional materials for postcards and envelopes. The physical apparatus of traditional correspondence became a playground for these artists. Opposing the mainstream art world, mail artists adhered to egalitarian principles. Their exhibitions were not juried, all submissions were accepted, and no fees were required of the artist for entry.
The Call Goes Out in May 2020
In Spring 2020, Jill Luedke, Temple’s Art and Architecture Librarian, noted the reemerging popularity of mail art during the COVID-19 pandemic. She suggested that we do a new call for mail art that would create a unique record of the first summer of the pandemic when people around the world were in quarantines or lockdowns and officials were urging everyone to stay at home, wear masks, and socially distance. We announced the open call for quarantine mail art on May 18, 2020, and it ran until Labor Day, September 7, 2020. There were no limitations on medium or content. We just asked that submissions be in the mail art genre, specifically small scale works of art sent through the postal service. The call was open to all ages, all artistic abilities, Temple community members, and the general public.
All submissions will be added to a new collection within the Special Collections Research Center’s existing Mail Art collections and made available in the SCRC for future educational and research use, including publication. Artists were asked to consider applying a CC-BY license to their submissions to facilitate long term access and use, but it was not required. We initially planned to exhibit submissions in late Fall 2020 around the Libraries’ planned programming theme of “Interruption,” but the exhibit was subsequently delayed until this summer. The call was publicized through social media, reaching out to local artists, and by submitting information about the open call to websites dedicated to mail art.
Temple, Tyler, and Mail Art
This is not Temple’s first mail art call, and the submissions sent to Temple Libraries this past summer join an existing mail art collection housed in the Special Collections Research Center. The original Mail Art Collection was built as a result of two separate calls for entries for mail art exhibitions in 1980 at Temple University. The Spring 1980 call was part of a class project with Tyler School of Art faculty Bilgé Friedlander and her students. Later in 1980, Friedlander invited Paley Library to participate, resulting in an exhibit in February 1981. The collection contains over 230 separately posted pieces of mail from over 170 artists, not counting anonymous contributions. All of the Mail Art collections, including the collection formed by the 2020 call, will be available for research use in the SCRC and will be used in instruction and outreach for years to come.
The Mail Art Exhibition Ethos
The only standard policy for mail artists, informally agreed upon within the community, relates to the required exhibition of materials received in a mail art call, whether they are sent to an individual mail artist or to an institution. The rules for mail art shows are 1) no fees 2) no jury 3) all works are displayed, and 4) the exhibit must be documented, usually in a list of exhibited artists distributed to participants after the exhibit. Accordingly, we are exhibiting every piece of physical mail art that we could in the exhibit space on the 1st floor of Charles Library, and any work that is not able to be shown due to space restrictions will be featured on the Special Collections Research Center’s social media accounts. This exhibit was curated by staff members of Temple University Libraries’ SCRC: Kimberly Tully, Curator of Rare Books, and Ann Mosher, Bibliographic Assistant II, with assistance from Jill E. Luedke, Art and Architecture Librarian. A list of exhibited artists will be made available online shortly and upon request. Please send inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
-Kimberly Tully, Librarian and Curator of Rare Books, SCRC