Mail Art

What is it?

So much of the time, we feel helpless in the face of what is so big…like a declaration of war or climate change or personal events in our lives. We can feel dwarfed and ineffectual.

Lately, I am asking myself a few questions:

  1. What’s going on? i.e. What’s the problem? or What’s bothering me?
  2. Is there anything that I can do about it?

An elderly friend was given notice to vacate the rental that he has occupied for over twenty-five years. He started putting the word out to his friends, acquaintances and clients. In this small community, there aren’t that many housing options for seniors. The two senior housing apartments have two-year waiting lists. He had a friend post for him on Craigslist. He also called me to be on the lookout for a room or apartment for him. As spring approaches, housing becomes even more limited with the arrival of tourists.

So to answer the first question, I could easily see the situation. My friend needed to find housing. I asked myself if there was anything that I could do. There were a few things. He is computer-illiterate. I told him that I would post his rental need on a local hub online. I also inquired at the local Community Center to see if they had any ideas or leads. I reported back to my friend what I found. Whether or not those things bear fruit is irrelevant. I could be satisfied that I did something to help a friend in need.

On a larger scale, we are faced with being witnesses to war (probably throughout human history). For me, this brings up a lot of feelings–everything from sadness, to anger, to frustration, to feeling inadequate in the face of it all. Then, I try to sit quietly with it, allowing the feelings to be fully felt. And I do what is called Focusing as drafted by Eugene Gendlin, Ph.D. in the 1950’s. I try to find a word or a few words that distill what I’m really feeling. I try to deeply describe it and go beneath the layers of my initial reactions. When I feel somewhat satisfied with what the word or words are, then I sit with them quietly.

Checking in with myself in this way, I ask if there is anything that I can do to lift myself up and feel like I have something to contribute.

That’s when I remembered Mail Art, also called Correspondence Art. Mail Art is flooding the post office with handmade or painted art in the shape and size of a postcard. The origins of mail art can be traced “back to the Dadaists and Italian Futurists in the early twentieth century. However, the New York artist, Ray Johnson, is considered to be the founder of contemporary mail art. In the 1950s, he began sending out small-scale collages he called “moticos,” some of which included simple instructions for the recipient.” (Wikipedia)

My most recent mail art below was intended to bear witness to the war in the Ukraine. As this little postcard travels to its destination through the system, others who handle it see it along the way.

photo of woman and sunflower

There was one other time when I did this. It was following “911.” When that feeling of helplessness swamped me, I bought several postcards, wrote little poems on them and sent them anonymously to family and friends. This act/action helped me and I hoped that the the recipients felt comforted like receiving the benefits of a prayer.

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I’m curious to hear how you respond to challenging things in our world. Do you have a go-to resource to guide your process in instances where you feel helpless?

Seal is too a Power Animal!

The seal as a power animal is both a land animal and a sea animal, symbolizing adaptability to the water and earth elements. Seal Energy taps into the intuitive while helping you to stay grounded. Some of the other qualities that it represents are playfulness, protection, imagination, strength, good luck, dreams and movement.

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My brother said that this seal looks “somber.” He added “…but who wouldn’t be with one’s habitat being destroyed and population dwindling.”

I told him that if he could see her in person he might think that she embodies power.

“The canvas is 24-inchesx24-inches,” I replied

He texted back, “Yes, I might have misspoken by using the word somber–maybe defiant (which could imply power) would be a better adjective.”

I texted back: “Interesting. I posted the photo on my artist page on Facebook. A friend wrote back: “He is so cute. He looks like he came out of a child’s story book. Beautifully done.”

I guess it is in how one sees it.

I didn’t plan to paint a seal. I didn’t plan to paint an animal. I mostly paint intuitively. I painted what emerged from the canvas and today, it is this seal.

I grew up by the ocean in San Francisco, CA. There was a big rock that we called Seal Rock because that’s where the seals loitered. There was a coin-operated tower viewer through which we could watch the seals as they clambered over the rock, as the waves dashed the rock, as the fog drifted in over the rock and hid it all from our sight.

According to Wikipedia

Seal Rock (or Seal Rocks) is a group of small rock formation islands in the Lands End area of the Outer Richmond District in western San Francisco, California. They are located just offshore in the Pacific Ocean, at the north end of the Ocean Beach, near the Cliff House and Sutro Baths ruins.”

As I type these words from Wikipedia, a nostalgia washes over me like a soft salty ocean wave. And then drifts across the sand into ocean’s memory. I knew these places and like the seals we grew up beside, we took them for granted. It’s often in memory that things take on a lovely patina and sometimes we linger there over the words and the images that they conjure. Lands End, Sutro Baths, Cliff House, Ocean Beach, Seal Rock–all in my backyard as we lived four blocks from Ocean Beach and The Great Highway that ran the length of the beach from the Sunset through the Richmond District. We rarely could see sunsets in the Sunset District. The fog was so thick! The foghorns played our nightly and daily lullaby.

We weren’t allowed to go to the beach on our own. As I got older, I got permission to take my younger siblings there. We walked from Moraga Street, crossed Lawton, Kirkham, then Judah where the streetcars ran. We turned down the street from 44th Avenue to 48th Avenue. At Judah and 48th, there was a tunnel which ran under the Great Highway. We ran through the tunnel, screaming, our voices echoing. The tunnel smelled of urine and the ocean. We probably ran and screamed to chase off any unsavory characters who might be lurking nearby. And then, like a light at the end of life’s tunnel, there was the ocean big, bold and vast. We were so small beside her.

When I was a young mom, I used to take my daughters to Ocean Beach and we’d sit on a cement wall gazing out to sea having our hot chocolate in thermoses with doughnuts. We would sit beside the mesmerizing ocean. The constancy of the waves, the intrusion of the foghorns, the taste of salt on our lips mixing with the bittersweet chocolate. People of all ages and sizes bundled against the cold, running, walking their dogs, walking with a companion or alone. I never really felt alone when I walked solo beside the ocean. I considered the ocean like a mother to me. Familiar and all-embracing.

Memories…a friend is writing her memoir. Mine would be wrapped in sea salt, waves, barking seals, my siblings, fog, and yearning.

This painting of a seal has taken me back in time and conjured up these memories.

Symbol of Woman’s Emancipation

I learned to ride a bicycle when I was about twelve years old. I rode my bike around the neighborhood in the Sunset District in San Francisco where I grew up. I didn’t travel very far or wide. I had six younger siblings and a lot of household responsibilities. In her late forties, my mother got a bike as a birthday present. It was maroon-colored and called Indian Princess. It seemed somehow exotic to me. My father put training wheels on it; my mother never took them off. It never left the garage.

When I married at age 19 and moved to southern California, I wanted a bike but my young husband didn’t agree. After I had my first daughter, I pictured myself riding through the flat neighborhood of Lemon Grove Estates with her in a bike seat behind me. Again, my husband thought I was being frivolous.

For a long time after that, I thought that I had outgrown bicycles…that I was now too mature to ride a bike. The notions that we have. At 36-years old, I bought myself a Schwinn mountain bike for women…blue, shiny, sturdy, I took up bike-riding. I rode around San Francisco. I never did get a helmet although I would advise my younger self to wear one now. I rode from Daly City, partway around Lake Merced, down Sloat Boulevard to Great Highway beside Ocean Beach. Along the Great Highway past the Sunset and Richmond Districts, then up into Golden Gate Park. Past Queen Wilhelmina’s Windmill and tulip gardens. Up through the park to ninth avenue and the Big Wreck Baseball Field…and then back again. This became a regular route for me.

I brought my bike with me when I moved to Mt. Shasta. I thought I’d ride it often. I rode it sometimes, but rarely. Mostly, it’s been in storage. When polled recently to see what their most valuable possession was women responded…their car keys. I would agree with that. However at one time, the bicycle was a symbol of freedom for women. It changed fashion and gave them mobility at a time when they were definitely constrained.

“One hundred years ago, Alice Hawkins, a suffragette, cycled around Leicester promoting the women’s rights movement, causing outrage by being one of the first ladies to wear pantaloons in the city. During the fight to win the vote the bicycle became not only a tool but also a symbol for the emancipation of women.”

The American civil rights leader, Susan B Anthony, wrote in 1896:

“I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammeled womanhood.”

This little collage turned into a woman riding a bicycle.

Santos Dolls–Sort of Although Not Really

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Santos Dolls take their name from the Spanish word for Saint.  In the 17th century, these dolls became popular.  They were originally carved by priests as a tribute to a saint.  They embodied a virtue or a quality that you wanted to bring into your life.  They were used for in-home altars.  If a small village didn’t have a priest, the in-home altar with the Santos Doll sufficed.  Also, during times of war, especially in the 1700’s and 1800’s when people were unable to travel to church, their development flourished.

Julie Ann Lee taught a class on making Santos Dolls.  Her dolls are more authentic with crackly faces to make them appear antique.  I veered off course to make my own meaningful dolls.  I enjoyed creating these little dolls so much that I decided to make several.  They are not strictly Santos Dolls.  This was where my creative impulse lead me.  A ballerina with red galoshes for instance.  A mermaid queen.  A woman with a purple dress.  And the androgynous figure with a magenta jacket.  What’s it all mean?

Carl Jung would certainly have something to say about these figures who emerged from my own subconscious.  None of these dolls was planned.  For me, they were a very intuitively guided process.  Entering into that place of being guided, is somewhat like being in a shared dream…you and your creation in communion.

 

 

The Backstory

The elephant shows up in my art more and more frequently.  I’ve posted this mixed media painting from 2018 a few times.  I don’t think that I mentioned the entire backstory for this piece.

I cut my little purple elephant from a photocopy of an earlier painting.  Whimsical, right?  But the actual photo of an elephant that I used as a model was an orphan in Dame Daphne Sheldrick’s Wildlife Refuge for traumatized baby elephants.  Many of them were orphaned due to poachers taking down their mothers and harvesting the ivory tusks for profit.  A very sad story that continues to this day!

I could see the trauma in the eyes of the little elephant.  A glazed, dazed look of dread.  For he had witnessed the violent death of his mother.  And then, he was left to wander in this confused and fearful state until he was rescued by a helicopter team and brought to the sanctuary.  Once there, it took these tender experts time to help him overcome the initial effects of the trauma.  Gradually, he was integrated in with a group of older elephants to help him with further recovery…to the degree that he could recover.

Dame Daphne Sheldrick and her husband, David, started the shelter for orphaned animals, especially elephants, many years ago.  He passed away in 1977 and Dame Daphne  continued the trust in his name.  She died in 2018.  I wondered if the work that she and her husband had so passionately lived was being carried on.  I am relieved to see that their daughter, Angela, who worked alongside her mother for twenty years, continues this heroic work with the help of her husband, their children and the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust team.  This is really a huge task as the poaching continues.  It occurs to me (and to others) that if there wasn’t a market for ivory, then the elephants might have a chance.  However, there is a market.  How does one address such greed?  I read recently that if someone is bragging to you about their ivory collection or even a trinket that they have…show them a few photos of whose life was taken to add ivory to their collection.  In other words, shame them.

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There are 415,000 elephants remaining in Africa.  Recently 350 elephants died in Botswana.  Cause unknown.  So far, these deaths have not been connected to poaching–no tusks were removed.  Elephants are deeply feeling animals.  Some have said that they are mourning the loss of lives in their community.  I can believe this to be true.

 

VOTE!

This painting was a passionate plea for women to vote in the 2016 election.  I had been painting for nearly two years.  I’m thinking of revising this piece with what I’ve learned since then.  Regardless, the message is the same.  The woman in the lower right hand corner represents the women who were part of the women’s suffrage movement in the early 1900’s in this country.  We are a melting pot of many nationalities.  Women united in the vote are a powerful force for change.

 

vote

Here we are coming up on another election this year.  How are we going to vote?  Are we going to consciously exercise this hard won right?  The American film, Iron Jawed Angels was released in 2004.  I don’t remember it receiving a lot of press.  When I first viewed it about five years ago, I wondered why I hadn’t heard of Alice Paul when I was in school.

 

This is a powerful film about our own suffragettes and the fight that they fought for us, the future generations.

Reminder to self:  Don’t waste your vote.

Backgrounds

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Backgrounds…creating one can be a boon or a bane to an artist.  Do you create the background first and let the image arise from that?  Or do you begin by painting your subject first and then try to figure out a background to support and enhance the central image?  This painting was all about designing a background first.  As taught by a wonderful artist, Jenny Grant.  PAINT BIG is her way of painting on a large cotton canvas (from a roll) that you later cut into portions and then paint the canvases individually.  You extract a central image from each canvas and embellish it.  Interesting process.  Really!

Creating the background first can be a fun and freeing exercise.  Almost anything goes…except perhaps that you try to use colors that are complementary to one another… or not.  Collage is part of the process as is stamping, mark-making, stenciling, writing, etc.  Once the background is to your liking, you might get an impression of an image that wants to come forward or you might decide to impose an image on the painting.  You don’t typically start off with a subject in mind.  That central figure or image emerges once the background is complete.  This is very much an intuitive process.

Then, there are those who are fearless when it comes to painting a background.  They start with the blank canvas, paint the central image, portrait, figure, whatever it may be. Afterwards, they develop the background around it…again, it could be anything, a complementary or contrasting color, symbols, stenciling, stamping, mark-making, abstractions, etc.

Do I have a preference?  For me, it sometimes depends on what I want to convey.  Creating a background first, in a sense, is easier for me.  The blank canvas is intimidating to many.  And then, sometimes I want the challenge of diving right in to that white of white that is a blank canvas, taking the dare to start there.

Try both and see what your preference is.

As far as this particular painting goes, I was in my painting angels phase.  And they don’t always have to wear white draping garments.  And their wings can be cloaked under a royal purple cape.  I want to stress the freedom to follow your own bliss as an artist.

Enjoy.

Butterfly Offering

Butterfly

Once upon a time, I walked along a sandy beach, depressed and not clearly seeing the way through.  The proprietor of the motel where I was staying happened upon me in this state of being.  He said to me “We’re here this long,” gesturing a miniscule amount between his thumb and forefinger.  “We’re as insignificant as a grain of sand on this beach, so enjoy your time here [on the planet].”

For me, in the moment, that was what I needed to hear to bolster myself.  And, it was only part of the story.

I love the principle of the butterfly effect.  “The Butterfly Effect” is not a thing in and of itself. It is just a metaphor for the principle of Chaos Theory.”

Following is an excerpt from Wikipedia:

The term is often ascribed to Edward Lorenz who wrote about it in a 1963 paper in the New York Academy of Sciences.”

“Chaos theory is an interdisciplinary theory stating that, within the apparent randomness of chaotic complex systems, there are underlying patterns, interconnectedness, constant feedback loops, repetition, self-similarity, fractals and self-organization.  The butterfly effect, an underlying principle of chaos, describes how a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state (meaning that there is sensitive dependence on initial conditions).  A metaphor for this behavior is that a butterfly flapping its wings in China can cause a hurricane in Texas.”

…In The Vocation of Man (1800), Johann Gottlieb Fichte says “you could not remove a single grain of sand from its place without thereby … changing something throughout all parts of the immeasurable whole”…

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We are all looking for meaning to our lives, singly and collectively.  That “a very small change in initial conditions [even from a far away location] had created a significantly different outcome,” gives me hope somehow.   Considering the times that we are living in and that we cannot see the whole that is unfolding, how can we find comfort in considering The Butterfly Effect?

We cannot know the effect we have on others, on life, on weather patterns, planetary momentum, even politics.  On a microcosmic level, was there someone along your life path who said just the right thing at the right time in a moment of your life where their words caught somewhere in your psyche and turned you around?  Was there an action you took one day, that looking back, was pivotal in the whole of your life?  And then, you cannot determine how a word you spoke or an action you took affected another person or perhaps a weather system.  What is true for us personally, is true for the macrocosm.

Everything is connected in such an intricate way that it is hard for the mind to comprehend.  It’s truly beyond logic and has been labelled quantum physics.  To my way of seeing, that’s another term for mystery.

Mastery of Illusion

Art is that, the mastery of illusion.  You’ve created a world on a canvas.  Can you get your audience to believe it?

When I look at my paintings, I realize that this is exactly what I’m doing.  I inhabit the canvas for awhile creating a story.  Whether it’s from an actual photo or my imagination is irrelevant.  In any painting that is being viewed, there is a sense of being transported.  If you love where you go, if you have the purchasing power, if you deeply desire recreating this experience and the concurrent feeling again and again, you buy the painting and place it in your home or office where you can see it regularly and renew the feeling that you enjoy and the illusion that it implies.

In any painting, there are things that are left to the imagination.  For example, I could paint a landscape and the viewer automatically extends the landscape beyond the canvas and sees more.  If I decide to only draw or paint a portion of the human face, the viewer completes the face in their mind’s eye.  When there is an imperfection, the human eye makes the correction in some way.  It’s interesting to witness myself doing this and to consider that you, the viewer, also do this.

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The title of this painting is Lost in the Woods.  The story is based in fact of a time when I was literally lost in the woods on the mountain.  It’s also about the ways we get lost in our own inner worlds at times, in our thoughts, in our fears, in our own self-doubt.  I created this illusion on a small substrate, a wood panel.  Your imagination takes over when you see this piece and you add to the illusion or story that I’ve initiated.  Can you find the three figures as she makes her way through the woods?

Fascinating that we embellish what we see, don’t you think?  In your own life, in what other illusions are you participating?

Adventure of Another Sort

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Making art is available to anyone!  The only vehicle you need is your imagination and a bit of daring.  I’ve said it before and it bears repeating, we are all artists.  We are all writers with a story (or more) to tell.  We are all poets because we each have a voice.  We each have an imagination.  We can engage fantasy worlds if we allow it.  And, there is value in this.

I had a special friend, now gone, with whom I could engage a sort of time travel–imagining places we’d never been, people we hadn’t met, odd creatures, other times, alternate realities, outer space, the vast universes.  We had enlivened conversations.  We wrote poetry together.  He always rhymed–it got annoying at times.  I asked him if he could try not rhyming.  I don’t think that he could.

It is true that writing, poetry and making art, whether it be painting or crafting or knitting or sculpting…these provide the means and opportunity to access deeper ways of being and seeing.  When we take the time.  When we make the time.  We give ourselves excuses that we aren’t an artist or poet or writer.  I beg to differ.  It is perhaps that we don’t dare ourselves to explore these aspects of ourselves.  Some of us have more time on our hands these days, forced as it is.  One young man has decided to systematically learn to read and write Japanese during this pandemic!  What challenge could you give yourself?  Something that you’ve always wanted to do, but haven’t had the time to explore.

And it is an exploration.  And it is an adventure.  It involves discovery of the inner landscape.  The one where we don’t dare go…might we not return?  There truly are universes within.  We are a reflection of the macrocosm, our little inner microcosmic world that we often overlook because we’re outward oriented.  Which is good–actually a balance between both is better.  These days, with the virus dictating our movement in the world, what an opportune time to take this journey.

Who is in there after all is said and done?  Who wants to be seen and heard, primarily by yourself?  Do you give yourself this time and space?  Are you going to make it happen?  Get a journal, write, draw, splash color, cut and paste.  Express what’s been untapped on the blank page or canvas.  It’s a good thing.  You might discover–yourself.  Begin.