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Special Delivery: Mail Art

One woman shows her love by sending stamped rocks, hand-painted envelopes, and other pieces of mail art to friends and family.
Martha Stewart Living, October 2012

By Kiera Coffee

Ever since childhood, I’ve been fascinated with mail. By the time it reaches you, just in the natural course of its journey, it has become an artifact of the place it came from -- stamped indelibly with the date and time -- and of the person who was kind enough to send it. When I was at summer camp, I used to receive letters from my parents and sisters (who are all talented writers and artists) that were rich with story lines, absurdist comic strips, or fine sketches. Some of these things were confined to the pages, but they often burst out onto the envelopes.

When I reached adulthood, I reflexively carried on the mail-art tradition. The post office is, as far as I know, obligated to deliver anything innocuous and properly stamped to its destination, and I have mailed numerous unwrapped objects to friends and family over the years: a small thrift-store doll with a stamp glued to its skirt; a vinyl record with a letter penned in white ink; and single rocks, sticks, and pieces of bark. I’ve sent painted, collaged, drawn, and sewn letters, and translucent prescription bottles holding curled messages inside.

Even as the allure of email weakened letter writing the world over, mail art has remained untouched for me. It requires no words, only sentiment. It would not work virtually; to be fully realized, it has to touch not only its addressee but also numerous strangers along the way, postal workers required not to disregard it as junk (which, frankly, it often looks like). It is as wondrous to me now as ever to get word that something I sent -- say a bendy elf with postage on its cap -- arrived intact. How often is such unreasonable behavior legal? (Not to mention federally supported and prompt.)

By coincidence, I live in the same apartment building as my mailman now. He talks to me sometimes about the unusual posts I receive (people often send me mail art in return). In the last few years alone, this has included an unwrapped God’s eye; an envelope made of heartbeat recordings from a medical test; a plastic bag of fresh hydrangeas; and countless painted, collaged, and embroidered envelopes. Recently my mailman stopped me on the street to confirm that a rock with a stamp had been delivered safely to me. I asked if he had put it in the plastic postal bag it arrived in. He nodded, saying, "I didn't want it to get lost."

Comments (1)

  • 18 Jan, 2013

    Kiera...Loved your interview last night on Martha's radio station! It prompted me to read your article and I just love this idea. My husband and I are doing a cross country trip this spring..camping our way through some of our beautiful national parks. My plan is to mail some interesting natural finds from our travels to our adult children. They'll love and appreciate it!