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.


Cristina Holm said...


Sharon Pfau said...

Interesting… selling received mailart? I think the thrill of getting mailart in the mailbox will be lost, when purchasing it at a thrift store.

Anonymous said...

The Universe owes you 13.50 in postage.

Monster A Go-Go said...

How odd. It never occurred to me that anyone would try to sell mail art on eBay. I've been to a gallery show where they auctioned off the received mail art pieces---but that was for a fundraiser and in a gallery. But eBay? How bottom of the barrel... And how sad for those who worked so hard on the pieces sent.

back.roads said...

Well said! It would be interesting to hear how it goes with future mailings to the seller.