Thursday, September 14, 2023

Oh, the Places They’ll Go: The Afterlife of Paintings and Mail-Art

I was walking around the Jonestown Goodwill in Winston-Salem, when I spotted a painting I immediately recognized. Well, I didn’t recognize the specific painting, but I recognized the style of the painter. It was a large, square canvas. A quick “finger scrape” across the corner (to test if it was painted and not printed) confirmed it was real. No signature. The painting was an up close perspective of a bespectacled man playing the piano. Thrift store painting of a musician and a four-dollar price tag meant it was going with me. Strangely, Goodwill paintings, real paintings done by actual humans, are much cheaper than printed stuff you put on your walls from big box stores.
When I got home, I sent a quick message to the potential artist to do some digging. He’s someone I sort of know from around town. I love doing this sort of thing. I like finding things and then trying to get a story out of it. Not that this has worked well in the past since people rarely respond to my inquiries, whether they’re in N.Y.C. or South Africa. In both of those instances, I had tracked pieces directly to the artist. One of paintings was from the late 60’s. Even more impressive, that person had been selling their work ever since. I had something of theirs from their early days, something I would have gladly sent them but they didn’t respond to my messages. This leads to another thing I’ve learned, creative types love complaining about not selling their work, but are just bad at it. I contacted someone last week about buying a book, and they told me to attend a lecture in N.Y.C. to buy it.

Anyway, back to the piano man. The painter is named Patrick Harris. The painting in question, was made to be sold. I sent him a message along with a picture of the painting. This is what he posted on his Instagram page about what I found. “As a fan of thrifting, I always wondered what it would feel like to find one of my pieces in Goodwill. I didn’t find this one but someone who knows my work did and bought it real cheap and then offered to trade it back to me for a different piece. Feels like the art business isn’t really for me.” In our back and forth, he was somewhat sure who he’d sold the piece to initially. The painting was of Vince Guaraldi.

From his tone, he wasn’t clear how to feel about where the work ended up. It might be akin to a musician finding their record in the clearance section of their local record store. Honestly, I was surprised he hadn’t seen this happen before. He’s quite prolific and public with his art. Just on a hunch, I asked him if he had painted another unsigned piece I had hanging upstairs. He had. I didn’t tell him how I purchased that one for. He suggested I have an art show of paintings I’ve thrifted, which sounds like a great idea.

Personally, and this is something I’ve written about before, (maybe too much) I don’t mind seeing my things in thrift stores. I’ve seen them before and I’m sure I’ll see them again. Some of the pieces I made were made for specific people. While I don’t mind if they ended up in a thrift store, I only wish they would have given me the frames back. Actually, I tell people that when they’re done with something, I’d prefer them to give it to a thrift store. In my estimation, it’s better it lives on those dusty shelves than tossed in the trash. Whenever I’m going through frames at thrift stores, I look to see if something I made was there, and I look for other people’s work. Over the past 25 years going to thrift stores, I’ve amassed an extensive collection of paintings, prints, and various things in between.

Patrick isn’t the only area / local artist I have multiple thrifted pieces from. Over the years I’ve collected things from Laura Lashley, the last of which was quite large, and had handwritten mounting instructions on the back. In my current house I’m not sure if I have a wall big enough to display it. Maybe I’ll put it in the beach house? Figuring “why not,” I sent Laura a message about finding her work at thrift stores. She wrote back, “I LOVE finding treasure at thrift stores so it makes me happy. There are some paintings I would rather people give back to me rather than donate, but those are usually much larger ones that were commissioned. My smaller things may have been given as gifts and not everyone can keep all the gifts they get, and when moving I have donated art before.”
All of this is somewhat divorced from what I do. Although I try and sell stuff to get stamp money every now and again, this is a hobby where I expect no financial reward. Some of that is mail-art ethos and some of that is disinterest. When people say I should sell stuff I ask them directly, “How?” Not that I would be good at marketing myself. Not that I’d want to take away precious time for making in order to sale. So…I give it away, or at least try. The people I continually give stuff to don’t seem too interested in coughing up money.  I get it, I don’t think I’ve ever bought an artwork from someone at full price. Price tags on most art seems astronomically high anyway. No, I don’t want an $800.00 painting to go with brunch.

And then I ran across something I made selling on eBay.

Here’s the divide between someone making a piece to be sold, and a mail-artist sending a “gift.” Something I had recently sent less than a month ago to one of my correspondences, was listed for sale. It was in a lot with work form other mail-artists, most of which had been in the game a lot longer than me. I’m honestly not sure why the seller would have picked my piece in the first place. I don’t have any market value. Send me your address, I’ll mail you something for free…actually it’s worse than that, I’ll pay the postage.

The item in question was an envelope book with a collage glued to the front. The front and back cover was made from a cereal box and then spray-painted. Each page was a recycled envelope I had stapled to the much harder front and back cover. Over the years I’ve made dozens of these. The assumption was the recipient would add something to the book and then mail it to another mail-artist. That’s the idea, even if it doesn’t work that well in reality. Some people keep these things and never send them on, that’s just part of it. Some of them sit on desks or in piles for years, but never have I seen them for sale. Selling gifts is weird. Selling mail-art is often seen as the one rule a mail-artist shouldn’t violate. Selling mail-art is a maxim of this whole maligned network we continually pay tribute to. 

Sent in late August, 2023. For sale in September 2023.

The front cover collage.

While selling mail-art is seeing as a serious violation, I don’t really care that much. I don’t get bent out of shape about what mail-artists do. In my 14 years of seriously sending mail-art, I’ve only cut off one person. Even this guy I’ll continue sending to, although my content will be altered.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had a similar interaction with the seller. A couple years ago, I saw one of his mail-art listings and started thinking about the choice of selling mail-art. I tried contacting him but he didn’t respond. I wasn’t going to tell him what to do. I didn’t want him to shut down his shop, I was simply interested in his motivation. Nothing. I did, however, contact some of the mail-artists that he was selling. While I didn’t have an agenda about the selling of mail-art other than it was weird, it got complicated quickly. I didn’t post the piece I’d written because someone asked me not to. I didn’t want to hurt that person’s potential to make a few coins (I think they had a deal worked out) off their creations. But…that was when their work was for sale, when I saw my work for sale, I knew I had some thoughts to share. 

Content description on the eBay listing.
Intention and expectation. When we sale an artwork we expect the person to continue to love it. When we mail a gift to another mail-artist we want someone to physically interact with it. We want them to add to it, we want them to pass it along, we want them to make it into something else. When the expectations of that relationship, whether in a purchased painting or a gifted mail-art piece is subverted, the creation becomes something else. The painting exists without context. Mail-art loses part of it’s identity when the recipient decides to sale. In other words, the relationship has been broken and the item exists in a world well outside of our control. Some find this thrilling, others annoying, and in the case of mail-artist, it’s a contractual break. At least when someone donates a painting or sales a piece of mail-art, it continues to exist.

I decided not to contact the seller this time. I figured my response could be a little different. Instead of getting his thoughts directly, I figured I’d try and force him into selling really peculiar pieces of my mail art. From here on out, I’m going to mail him progressively weirder collages of myself. If he can find a buyer for those, I will praise him extravagantly.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Mail Art Zooming / ZMAG is Meeting / Here's My Notes


You guys want to talk about mail-art on a Wednesday.

In early December 2022, Joel Cohen in New York sent me an email. He wrote that he led a group of people gathered on zoom to talk about mail-art. This group had been meeting for about two years when he contacted me. He said my name had come up in previous meetings. Joel also informed me that part of the meetings involved members doing presentations along informal chats and a little show and tell. 10-15 people regularly signed on. Considering that I never talk about mail-art with other people, this was a wonderful opportunity. I, of course, accepted his offer.

Ever since January 2023, I have attended every monthly meeting except one. They’re a lot of fun and I’m learning a lot about these folks. In some cases, I’ve mailed to the people on the screen for over ten years. Many of the people I’ve never heard speak until we were in the zooms together. A good portion I had never even seen before. Being able to put a voice and a face to an artistic style is enlightening.

In the third meeting, I presented my board books. It wasn’t a high tech presentation. I simply held up some examples and talked through my process. A few people in the group had participated in mailed these around, but not everyone. The next week I mailed examples to the mail-artists I wasn’t that acquainted with. My presentation was just, OK. So far I’ve listened to great presentations about using A.I in creating art, a ton of presentations about current mail-art projects, a personal tour of someone’s museum-like house, and a presentation by an artist in Spain about their DIY art space, among many others.

Seriously, I’ve never talked so much about mail-art before, never interacted with so many people that actually care about it. I’m about 15 years in (consistently sending most weeks) and there’s no one that I talk face to face about this stuff. I’ve met a few mail-artists, but no one lives anywhere near me. No one cares. No one has a context for this silliness. Being in that group solidifies my motivation even if I’m quiet while it’s happening. During the meetings, I don’t have that much to say. I mostly sit and listen and try and find ideas to steal for my own work.

While listening to the presentations and random conversation on August 16th 2023, I jotted down a few things I wanted to expound on. What follows are random thoughts that occurred to me during that meeting. Consider this me speaking up.


Other Z.M.A.G. folks (that’s what the group is called) feel free to add your thoughts about the group, or not, I can’t force you do to anything.



-          I never know that important mail-artist, yeah you know…that person.

Someone needs to make a list of the “important” mail-artists along with all the “important” mail-art projects. You know, a who’s-who of past projects. I feel like everyone else knows the important works by this person or that person, but not me. “Oh yeah,” someone might say, “You haven’t heard of Bob? He sent rubber stamp copies of all his tax returns in the mail…it was great. He did it for decades.”

-          I love trying to match on screen identities to what they create.

Many of the people in the meetings I’ve sent to for over a decade. In that time, I’ve developed a short hand of what I thought they were like as real human people, not a name attached to an envelope. In the meetings, I like to challenge those assumptions based on how they present themselves during the zoom meetings. Often the person they appear to be in their mail, feels like the person they are on a tiny screen. You know, someone that’s a little wacky in what they create, seem like an equally wacky person on screen.

What I’ve been most surprised by are the people that come off quite serious in the meetings, even though their creations are dynamic and colorful.

-          Political mail-art isn’t my jam.

As much as I admire folks willing to do what they feel is important, I often think of that Patton Oswalt observation. You know that bit, the one where he mentions how the world’s biggest finger painting cannot change the powers that be.

-          I’ve never built strong mail-art relationships

There’s that cliché, the one where people come together in groups and forge strong relationships. You learn later, or at least feel, that everyone in that group is super close, that they talk on a regular basis, and even have a covered dish dinner every other Sunday. But they’ve never invited you to that casserole laden party. I kind of feel that way. Although I’ve sent thousands of things, and corresponded with hundreds of people, I don’t feel like I know any of those people as well as I should. If I lived in L.A. or San Francisco, (one of out every ten mail artists are from S.F.) I might not feel better connected. I don’t even have a go-to dish I’d take to the party.

At the same time, I do love the quick conversations made possible through mail-art. Just this morning I talked with someone in Hungary as I had my morning coffee. We were sharing thoughts about a piece of mail art sent to him from someone in San Francisco. It was quick, but invigorating. He went back to his job in Budapest and I made the drive to work.

-          No matter the context, “Please mute your microphone” will be uttered.

Zoom meetings, whether intended to be fun, or contractually done through work, often have the same technical glitches. No matter what the context, someone will have their microphone on when they shouldn’t. No matter the context, someone will comically fumble around with the buttons before muting themselves.

-          Joey P. is my guy.

You know those people in school that would get you in trouble because you two made too much noise, created too many distractions…yeah, I feel like if Joey and I were in the same room, the teacher would separate us.

-          I’ve never thought about supporting or denouncing major art institutions.

I think of what I do in terms of punk rock. I think of my creations like punk shows performed in small basements in say…Madison Wisconsin. When I think of attacking (critiquing) MOMA or some similar institution, it feels like I’m critiquing arena rock shows at Madison Square Garden. I don’t think we exist on the same planet. 

-          I’m not art ambitious.

I can’t sell my work. I can’t even give it away. All I want is to be able to see my ridiculous ideas appear in the world, that’s it. Would you like to put a magnet show in your town? Of course not.

-          The age of most mail-artists is a problem.

I’ve been consistently sending things since 2009. At that time, I was 28 years old. When I was 28 I noticed the age of most mail-artists was quite high. Now that I’m in my 40’s, I’ve slowly started to become part of the problem.

So many of the people I’ve sent to over the years are in their 60’s, or 70’s, and even their 80’s. While many have stuck around the whole time I’ve been sending, I don’t know that others have filled in the gap. So often younger folks pop up, make a strong impression and then disappear. These are the folks that we need to stick around and engage everyone. If I have any worries about this whole project, it’s this.

-          My hair never looks great on Zoom.

By the time the meetings take place at 7:30 pm, my hair has been through a whole day of challenges. It’s been somewhat de-poofed. My face is always there in that tiny rectangle, reminding me of my follicle mishaps.

-          I love watching people making things during the meeting.

When people are talking, I’m mostly watching their screen. If things are going on a little too long, I’ll start clicking on people’s little rectangles. I especially like it when people are clearly making things as they’re listening. The past couple of times I followed their lead by putting together a few collages. The next day I went upstairs and cut up what I created. I ended up with four new things. I felt like I was getting away with something.

-          I’m firmly pro-DADA.

Mail-artists seem to align themselves with some third party. Some folks are all about Fluxus and whatever that means, others seem to be devotees of Ray Johnson. I’m firmly pro-Dada. I’m a pro-DADA / punk. My jokes are clearly jokes and they’re often done on monochrome xerox copies.

-          Mail-artists love artist stamps.

Maybe it’s just Z.M.A.G. but so many mail-artists love artist stamps! I rarely think about them but these people are totally immersed. I’ve received hundreds of stamp sheets over the years, but I’ve never thought about making them myself. At one meeting, we were alerted to a company in India that was making the stamp perforating devices in 2023. Everyone in the group seemed to know the name and year of their own perforating machines, a device that would be completely useless for 99.9% of the world’s population. This sort of thing, the focus on the minutiae, the specific devices and applications used to aid creating things, I love.

-          Still, like always, no one likes add and passes. Me neither!

For a while I glued a piece of paper to the back of my large envelopes. The paper read something about how the collages were THE thing. It was the main event; the other stuff was just as important but not what I was proudest of. That other stuff was often stickers, smaller broadsides, and of course add and passes. I put the note on the back because I was annoyed at how people would only see the add and passes when they looked through everything. It was like they opened the envelopes, which were sometimes filled with over a dozen things, and would pull out the add and pass as evidence that they were all I made. I imagine them tossing everything else in the fire and holding the two add and passes and saying out loud, “See, he’s an add and pass guy.” No the fuck I’m not! It’s only one of the things I create, and not all of the things I create.

I make add and passes because they’re somewhat fun and I can create them and then print them at work. During the summer, when I’m able to work at home, I end up making more collages. Once I’m back at work (I’m a community college instructor) I end up writing more, printing broadsides, and making the occasional add and pass. Right now, as in August of 2023, I have not made a new add and pass this year. The only add and passes I send are the 4x4’s that I put in large envelopes. The 4x4’s will continue indefinitely as my longest running mail-art project.

-          Bold mail-art statements are routinely met with open hostility.

Of course, many people like add and passes.

When a network such as the mail art one has no central body, no particular rules, folks are scrounging to create a structure. Many try and defend some portion of this thing simply because they have a stake in that unique part of this weird universe. Fine, do your thing.

I make stuff and then send stuff, that’s what I care about the most.



Thursday, August 10, 2023

Magnet Art Shows Coming Near You

There’s that story about Keith Richards writing most of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” in his dreams. You know that story, it’s one that’s popular with musicians and artist types. In the middle of the night they have a great idea that is so strong that it wakes them up. To be ready for such inspiration, there’s always a tape recorder or pen and paper conveniently beside the bed. The idea is so good that it wakes them, they document it in some way, and then the next morning they create a piece of art that changes humanity.

That’s exactly how the idea for the magnet shows came to me.  

To be honest, it was nothing like that. I have no paper beside my bed or a tape recorder. If I do any late night changing of humanity, I generally do it before I sleep; that short period of time when I’m unable to sleep and my mind is drifting. When it’s a good night I fixate on things to make the next day, but most of the time it’s just garden variety anxiety. 

Greensboro North Carolina magnet show. Low odor.
Also, it’s not a new idea to create something and then unwillingly foist onto the public. This sort of thing has been around for decades, nothing new. It’s well-meaning littering at worst. I’m sure other folks have done exactly what I plan to do. I’m sure Ray Johnson did it in the 1970’s and theirs some fancy name for it. There’s always someone willing to point out how an idea isn’t new; I’m just waiting for that part. Collage isn’t new and neither is mail art. But guess what, it’s an idea that’s new to me so why not make it happen. I doubt I’ll ever create the visual equivalent to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” but I’m sure I can come up with a decent “Sing This All Together.”

So far I’ve put up seven different magnet shows. I’m calling them magnet shows. I’ve put them in parking lots in Winston-Salem, near a marsh in Carolina Beach North Carolina, as well as both triad creative reuses stores. Some folks have even been nice enough to volunteer to put up shows in their towns. I’m going to send shows to people in California, New York, Illinois, Virginia, and Asheville North Carolina. If I can find magnets that are light enough, I want to get them overseas. Either the magnet has to be very light or the art has to very small.

I’m also doing group magnet shows. I have the first one ready to go. Each show, whether consisting solely of my work or others, is done in editions of five. No reason for this number, just sounded like a good one. Group submissions have showed up from folks in Nevada to The Netherlands. I’m going to pick “better” spots for the group shows. You know, put them up in places that are visually a little more arresting than attached to the bottom of a light pole in a Food Lion parking lot. I know where the first group show is going to go, I just want to put it up at the perfect time. 

Carolina Beach North Carolina. Saw a guy take the Nixon collage live. Low odor.
Each show comes with a small sign saying what people are looking at, and that sign encourages people to take the art with them. I saw a guy do the latter with the show in Carolina Beach. He took a collage I made glued to wood disparaging Richard Nixon. All shows will be documented on my Jon Foster Mail-Art Makings page through Facebook. A written list is ongoing. The project will continue as long as I’m interested in doing it. If you want to participate get in touch. Either you can put up one of my solo magnet shows or you can participate in a group show.