Last fall, Barbara Lazarus Metz put out a call for mail art. The response has filled the window of Chicago Book Works with an array of postcards, foldouts, altered envelopes, rubber-stamped messages, and other objects having one thing in common: they were sent through the mail. Metz, founder and director of Artists Book Works, says, “We asked for entries of all sizes dealing with the topic ‘Winter in Chicago.’ People mailed things in from all over the world, and we kept with the unwritten law of mail art: you exhibit everything you get.”
Hardly stringent criteria, and while some of the pieces are amateurish in both concept and execution, a few splendid samples of mail art are on display. The largest piece in the exhibit resembles a giant pizza carton. One side is covered with a brightly colored illustration of a snowman, complete with carrot nose. The flip side bears the Book Works address and rubber-stamped proof of a little cheating by artist R. Whitlock: not trusting his painting with the U.S. mail, he sent the snowman-on-a-box care of UPS.
A more delicate piece of mail art is a seven-panel foldout depicting the buildings, trees, and people of the city in cut-paper silhouette. Barbara Aubin mailed in a collage using pictures cut out of magazines with bits of lace and doily to suggest falling snow. Another construction features three-dimensional paper “snowflakes” suspended fr om a platform that spells “S-N-0-W.”
Several likable items seem to have ignored the winter theme. A German collective contributed a “stamp” collection, tiny images xeroxed onto a blank sheet of perforated postage paper. A plastic pouch with a “Made in Taiwan” label contains a piece of string, and another envelope folds out to reveal a sketch of a dog with the caption: “I am half-wolf, half-Labrador -my name is Blackie.”
Mail art has survived on the fringes of the contemporary art scene ever since its heyday after World War I, when dadaists, in the cause of subverting standard artistic genres,,’ began having fun with the postal system. Artists Book Works’ program coordinator, Myra Herr, says, “They liked to send each other strange little things in the mail. A lot of it had to do with text and alphabet, like ‘concrete poems,’ where words were supposed to be poured like concrete onto the page. 77 The mail art exhibit is one of several projects organized by Artists Book Works. Courses in bookbinding, letterpress, calligraphy, and the making of artist books are offered through the year by Metz, who became interested in the subjects while -taking a bookbinding course at the Art Institute with ,Gary Frost and Joan Flasch. A visit to New York’s Center for Book Arts inspired her to try something similar here, and in 1982: Artists Book Works was born. I Browsing through the storefront, one comes across all sorts of handmade books and paraphernalia. A wallet-size booklet called “Pets on Parade” shows a rubber-stamped menagerie marching through 20 or so pages. Some volumes have pouches, like those found in library books, that hold other pieces of paper. The pages of a book by artist Sara Cushing has cutout “windows” onto water-colored scenes framed by bits of ribbon. Several books are made with Japanese wrapping papers. Metz says, “Japan has always been advanced in its use of paper — they have special paper for special purposes; for instance, a certain kind of poem must be written on a certain kind of paper.” The most vivid display of the bookmaking craft is the marbled papers, commonly used to line the inside covers of books in Victorian England. The marbling process is somewhat similar to dying Easter eggs, Metz explains. Photo trays are filled with a solution that allows the dyes to float on the surface, undiluted. The dyes are then combed with a pronged paddle to create patterns. When a sheet of paper is dipped in the pan, it picks up the dye pattern and is hung to dry. The swirling, concentric designs that result are nothing short of psychedelic. A variation on this technique — sumi-nagashi– creates gorgeously detailed designs that look like row upon row of pheasant feathers.
Most of these hand-crafted books are held together with “long stitch binding,” wherein the thick thread is visible on the outside of the, book. It’s a method dating from the 12th century and looks simple enough for a child to do.
In fact, a group of kids at Lincoln Park’s Hawthorne School have just finished a series of bookmaking classes taught by Myra Herr. In four sessions, Herr had her students make tools, fill in the pages with stories and poems (or in one case, a foldout treasure map), and stitch up the contents . “The kids were pretty amazed that they could actually make a book of their own,” Herr says. “Because of the printed word, books have a kind of strange authority. They were real excited.”
When she’s not teaching, Herr puts together her own artist books. “I’m really interested in the way you can appropriate language from other sources,” she says. She lifts bits of text from old grammar books and weapons manuals, and juxtaposes the words with diagrams from anatomy charts and microscopic slides of insect body parts. The results are unexpected, to say the least. She made a book construction by painting over most of the words. The remaining words formed a poem. This was put in a box with other objects.
Metz, who also makes her own artist books, concludes that “artist books are structures that people can investigate — taking from the old and applying it in new ways.”
“Mail Art — Winter in Chicago” can be seen, free, through January 15 in the window of Artist Book Works, 1422 W. Irving Park Road. In late winter and early spring, Artists Books Works will resume conducting eight-week courses and weekend workshops in bookbinding, calligraphy, and artist books. For more information call 348-4469.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.