They paint it, they mail it, and they often never see it again. It’s called “mail art” or “postal art” and includes postcards, envelopes, paper or anything that can be mailed.
Mail art has become a populist movement in which artists share their work without having to secure exhibition space in galleries and museums. In the process, they create an inclusive community of artists bonded together by being able to show their work.
Art students at Wright State University have been creating mail art for several semesters under the direction of adjunct art instructor Colleen Kelsey. Last year, the students sent their mail art to a retired art professor who displayed it at an artist community in Kent, England.
“This is anti-establishment because the art doesn’t go to a white gallery cube; it goes to someone’s home. It’s more intimate,” said Kelsey. “I appreciate the fact that it’s about a community — breaking down the structure of a form that keeps us apart.”
Kelsey is also organizing Pop-Up art galleries in Dayton, using warehouses and other spaces to display the works of artists. Her first Pop-Up opened Nov. 17 for a week at the Front Street Warehouse. The art included abstract paintings, collages, bronze sculpture and other work from 16 artists, including three art professors from Wright State.
In her teaching of the 2d Foundations course, Kelsey uses the gestalt system of visual principles. She slowly introduces design, patterns and color, enabling students to build their skills layer by layer within guidelines. She says that when they get to the final capstone project — mail art — “slightly anything goes.”
Kelsey said her students often have trouble dealing with the fact that they don’t get their mail art back. Once they mail it, it’s gone.
“But as an artist one needs to learn to be part of the larger creative collectiveness. And that means letting go,” she said. “I want them to learn to let go and be part of something bigger than themselves.”
Kelsey herself has several mail art collages at the United Nations in New York City as part of the “He for She” women’s rights and equality campaign by the Women’s Caucus for the Arts.
“I’ll never see them again, but that’s fine,” she said.
Kelsey loves teaching at Wright State, in part because of the variety of students.
“I have students straight out of high school, I have students who have retired from military service,” she said. “It creates this beautiful dynamic in the classroom.”
Kelsey grew up in Centerville and became interested in art as a very young girl.
“That was my world. I would sit and draw for hours,” she said.
She attended Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky, where she bridled a bit at the school’s conservative culture.
“I loved to draw nude figures, and they didn’t allow that there,” she said.
So Kelsey would do it at the University of Kentucky on the sly.
“I was breaking all the rules,” she said.
Kelsey met her future husband, associate Wright State art professor Jeremy Long, at the Chautauqua Art Institute in Chautauqua, New York. Both got their master’s degrees at American University in Washington, D.C., before landing at Wright State.
Kelsey’s Pop-Up art gallery project is part of what she calls “Activating the Space,” where she uses warehouses and other venues to display work. The space is transformed into a gallery for several weeks, enabling artists to show and sell their work in an inexpensive way
“There are so many great artists here,” she said. “It just makes sense as far as a viable business form for a gallery.”
Kelsey’s next Pop-Up will be devoted to mail art by artists who work or live in Dayton. Titled “The DIG,” it will be presented in a mosaic fashion, with each work hung tightly together on the walls. The exhibit will be presented in the lobby of the Kettering Tower, 40 N. Main St., Dayton, on March 6-26.
“It will be about showcasing Dayton art as a community,” she said. “A lot of great artists are sending stuff already.”