In November, I wrote a bunch of letters to strangers as a volunteer letter artist for Snail Mail My Email, an annual week-long event during which you can submit an email to be handwritten, doodled on, maybe even sealed with a kiss, and snail mailed to anyone in the world.
I come from a letter-writing family (my dad is a postal worker), have had pen-pal friendships all my life, and loved The Jolly Postman and Griffin and Sabine books as a kid, so when I first heard about this project, I got it instantly. So did a lot of other people; I was one of over 200 volunteers who collectively drew 2,000+ emails (the first Snail Mail My Email, created by Ivan Cash in 2011, is now a book). However, I was surprised by the number of people to whom I had to explain several times what I was doing.
“Wait, you’re sending whose emails where? Why?”
The why for me was at first simply that letter-writing is cool, and how novel to put an anonymous collaborator in the mix and be surprised by the result. Ostensibly, the project promotes letter-writing as a more intimate form of communication than email, though I don’t agree that email is inherently less intimate. Communication is about words, the sentiments behind words, and the relationship between the people using them. The device matters but not that much. Email and handwriting just allow for different sensory expression. I love how email enables me to communicate with audiovisuals, but only through snail mail can I include tactile ephemera and maybe even scents. Half the time, my left hand is on a keyboard while my right is scribbling in a notebook or on a post-it, so I don’t need to be sold on the value of handwriting my thoughts. I think letters are equal to email, just different.
It only took my first assignment for me to realize the project’s value is greater than novelty. The first request to arrive in my inbox was a love letter. Over the course of the week, I was floored again and again by the earnestness of the messages I got to relay (and by the eerie tendency of my randomly assigned letters to bear names and locations of personal significance to me). Every request was a sincere gesture of love or goodwill. Rereading and writing each one was like offering metta, the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness extended to all and recited like prayer. When I received a request to answer a little girl’s letter to Santa, I melted. It felt so good.
Being included in two people’s private correspondence felt like a gift and a grace. It made me think about the goodwill we keep inside, the love we don’t say out loud, and how this project encourages everyone to share a private intimacy with more people. I was at a talk tonight about loving-kindness, and the speaker quoted a Mary Oliver poem: “I watched while, secretly / and with the tenderness of any caring woman, / a cow gave birth / to a red calf, tongued him dry and nursed him / in a warm corner / of the clear night / in the fragrant grass…and…I knelt down and asked them to make room for me.” Writing those letters felt like that–making room, being made room for.
There is another yearning this project gets at, which is the human need to make art. As an extreme perfectionist, I worried my letters might not be good enough. It reminded me of when I helped an artist friend paint a mural two years ago. When I started helping, my friend had already painted the outlines, so my job was to mix colors and slather paint on the wall like it was a giant coloring book. At first, I filled in her lines painstakingly, coloring with a uniform thickness so my brush strokes were nearly invisible. As I worked, however, I noticed that where my friend had filled in the mural, there were drips, overlaps, and obvious brushstrokes traveling in haphazard directions. I loosened up a bit, started allowing my brushstrokes to look like brushstrokes, and really enjoyed helping her with her project without fear of messing it up. We talked about perfectionism, and my friend said that sometimes she wishes she was more of a perfectionist because her work would be better. I said, “No! If you were, it would be more likely that your work would not be at all.”
Perfectionism is an armor that shields us from vulnerability and therefore also connection and joy. I am trying to to let go of it, and being a letter artist was a good exercise in that. As I saw other letter artists’ work, I delighted in the little imperfections, like misspellings and smudges. I realize now that maybe the delete button deletes a little bit of our humanity, and I would rather make every mistake with love.
You can see the full photo set of my letters on Flickr. These three were my favorites to draw:
The first week of summer, I took a writing workshop for teachers and worked on a piece about a trip I took to Joshua Tree two years ago. The second-to-last day of the workshop, I got food poisoning and spent the night throwing up, so I didn’t get to finish my piece, which I started right after I got back from that trip. I never have been able to get Joshua Tree out of my head, and I am still trying to finish my piece. It starts like this:
I almost didn’t want to go to the museum. I thought about the nine-hour drive home and how when I went to sleep that night, I’d still feel in motion, like I was driving through my dreams. We read about it in a magazine at the house we rented and decided to stop by on our way out of town.
Everywhere in the desert seems far away from everywhere else in the desert; it’s hard to find your way, even though Joshua Tree, the town, is more or less a grid. We didn’t get lost exactly, but it’s hard to track city blocks that don’t look like blocks. The parcels looked more like campsites with address numbers marking clearings in the sand.
We found the museum and parked across the street. There was a big welcome sign made out of tires, but the letters W-E-L-C-O-M-E were partially jumbled and there were two W’s and two L’s. A newspaper dispenser offered us rudimentary maps and brochures proclaiming Noah Purifoy’s assemblage sculptures “a critical and pubic [sic] success.” We were the only pubic there; it was a self-guided tour.
I said, “…”
He said, “…”
My companion and I went off in different directions. We had a lot to say, just not to each other. For the next hour, I only heard strains of his voice on the phone carried by the wind, fabric whipping around in it, the swish of sand and clatter of wood planks under my feet, a dog barking. The air smelled vaguely, subtly like herbs. It was late March and though the sun looked blazing, it was only almost warm enough. Everything in the desert looked hot–the glittery sand floor, the pointy leaves on the Joshua trees, the few wispy clouds in the sky–but the heat was a mirage. I couldn’t take my hoodie off, but if I stood still in the sun for too long I couldn’t leave it on.
I had to talk him into coming on this trip in the first place. He said the space-like vastness of the desert scared him and nothing was meant to live there. I hate space and knew he was right–I can’t imagine living in a place I couldn’t grasp or grow vegetables in–but for some reason, the desert didn’t scare me, maybe because the lawns of my elementary schools couldn’t be watered in drought years, which were all the years. It got so bad there was talk of trying to desalinate seawater. So chaparral, the color orange, and sand make sense to me, but when I’m in the desert, I can’t stop looking for the ocean.
It’s said writing is thinking, and I want to write about the desert to figure out what I think about it. I don’t remember what I thought about as I wandered in and out of, under and through Purifoy’s sculptures that day, down labyrinthine outdoor hallways of corrugated tin, under old clothes and mannequin heads hanging from low ceilings, inside a gazebo made of electronics parts, past stacked bundles of weathered newspaper, a Newton’s Cradle of bowling balls:
It seems to me now that the desert felt motionless but also moved by something other than wind. Heat moves things imperceptibly, the way glass is a liquid; it just moves so slowly you can’t see. The desert, the sculptures, the whole museum, my life are like this, moving invisibly, like those revolving restaurants I’ve never been to but in which I imagine suddenly looking up from my salmon and seeing a different view. Like the movement of a relationship and how in hindsight you think you can pinpoint when you knew it would or wouldn’t work, but that motion is actually perpetual and gradual.
The day we arrived in Joshua Tree, we visited The Integratron and had a sound bath from a blonde woman named Joanne who wore black-and-white striped arm warmers and rang Tibetan singing bowls while we lay on our backs on the floor of the dome. When the ringing stopped, I didn’t know how much time had passed or if I had been asleep. I wonder if the desert’s space-like vastness is not really a perception of space but of time and movement? If what makes people uncomfortable or enthralled is that its seeming stillness makes you aware of your own constant, imperceptible motion, what your heart feels like beating, your mood as it changes.
A few years back, the author Zadie Smith wrote an interesting article (actually a combined movie and book review of The Social Network and You Are Not a Gadget) in which she reminds readers “that Facebook, our new beloved interface with reality, was designed by a Harvard sophomore with a Harvard sophomore’s preoccupations….Do you like the right sort of things? (Make a list. Things to like will include: movies, music, books and television, but not architecture, ideas, or plants.)”
It got me thinking about all the things there are to like, who determines what is likeable (in the public list-making sense), and how. Someone else has already set the parameters within which we create identities for ourselves on social media. How would our social interactions and the world be different if we were more often (or ever) asked, as Smith suggests, to list our favorite plants or ideas or buildings?
Or artworks. Artworks affect me. Not all of them, but I have seen enough that I think I can list my top 10 favorite pieces. What I like about visual art that I think distinguishes it from the media (movies, music, books, and TV shows) we are commonly asked to catalog on the Internet is that I am free to spend as much or as little time as I want experiencing an image or object. In a gallery or a museum or on the street, I have control over what I look at, within the parameters of what is displayed. But the parameters are trickier to restrict there–all those venues are also good for people-watching, and at the museum, I sometimes look at my reflection in the frame’s glass to see my own face superimposed on the iconic. I don’t claim to have any special knowledge about art. I’m just a layperson who likes to look at it and think about it. This is a list, in semi-particular order, of what I like, what I still think about years after seeing it for the first time.
10. Rufino Tamayo, The Window
I think of SFMOMA as my local museum, and I’m really sad that it’s about to close for a two-year remodeling project. I’ve been going there since I was 18 and visiting San Francisco during college vacations. I’m pretty familiar with its permanent collection, and The Window is a piece I look for every time I’m there. I’m probably supposed to say I like it because of the intrigue (I do tend to prefer art with an imaginable narrative), but I’ve never imagined a story here. I don’t care why that gun is on the windowsill, who did or didn’t shoot whom. I like this painting for its simplicity of forms and the full moon.
9. Marcel Duchamp, Fountain
Art can be fucking funny. What else can I say? I especially love that there are eight of these damn things!
8. David Hockney, Scrabble
Of course, this piece marries my love of Scrabble with my love of photography. I first saw Hockney’s photo collages in high school or early college, and I guess it was the first time I realized there was a wider range of what photography can do (or what one can do with it).
This goes along with my more general interest in post-WWII America. I once read–probably on a card written by some museum curator–a description of another artist’s (Ed Ruscha’s) aesthetic as “relentless deadpan banality,” and that’s what I get out of Owens’ work as well. His pictures are fairly straightforward depictions of real people in everyday settings, which is reason enough to like them, but it’s hard not to read any kind of cultural criticism one wants into images of suburban housing developments and tract homes. I don’t think that’s the point, but it’s something I could think about endlessly, and that’s why I keep coming back to these photos.
6. The Brown Sisters series by Nicholas Nixon
I’m really interested in how people change over time, in making everyday life into art, and in art that spans time and is unfinished. Nixon’s yearly portraits of these four women (his wife and her sisters, I believe) deal with all of that.
5. Any On Kawara date painting
Speaking of art that spans time and is unfinished, this series is unfinishable and has unlimited yet specific meanings. What happened on that date? Where were you?
4. Diego Rivera, Man, Controller of the Universe (AKA Man at the Crossroads)
I was in Mexico City for a few hours on a layover a year-and-a-half ago, and this was the one thing I made sure to see. The original version was destroyed in the ’30s because those in power at Rockefeller Center didn’t like how Rivera included Lenin in the painting. The story behind this work, everything that’s going on within it, and its dual titles fascinate me. Crossroads indeed.
3. Richard Diebenkorn, Coffee
Another piece from SFMOMA. I identify with this painting a lot. I imagine that I’m that woman, drinking coffee in front of a window that looks out onto the ocean. I feel like it represents some kind of original root or foundation of who I am, where I come from.
2. Michael McMillen, Aristotle’s Cage
The photo above does not do this installation justice, but this cool video starts to. Here are some other angles. It’s in the Oakland Museum of California’s art collection. When I walk into the installation through a screen door and hear its staticky soundtrack, it’s like a world I want to be in.
1. Any photograph ever taken by anyone
Growing up, I noticed the care with which my dad took family photos. The idea that picture-taking is serious business was somehow instilled in me at a young age. Composition matters and you must be thoughtful about it. I would love to do more with my own photography someday, to learn how to exploit or manipulate my environment and equipment to achieve desired effects. For now, I just take a photo a day with a crappy point-and-shoot and post them on Flickr. I like joining communities where other amateurs post their photos a day too. I could stare at almost any photo for hours. It’s hard to explain why, for the vicarious experience, maybe.
I can’t believe I just made a top 10 favorite artworks list that doesn’t include Chuck Close, Joseph Cornell, or any women. Such are the limitations of top 10 lists. What are your favorite artworks? Or what have you been dying to make a top 10 list of that you are never asked to?
“The bookbinders,” she said “have always been the illiterate ones.”
The teachers I’ve had at the San Francisco Center for the Book have all been women with nicks and scars on their hands and a style of dress I’ll call “indie rock librarian.”
It’s odd I would take up bookbinding at a time in my life when I’m also renouncing perfectionism–it’s an exact art. We use an old-fashioned protractor-like device and measure things in millimeters. The boards and pages are cut uniformly with a two-ton steel paper cutter the size of a car. The teachers discourage using pencil marks for anything and say the lines of the cloth shouldn’t show too much through the endsheets.
Sewing is one of the best parts about making books. It’s graceful and meditative, but though I’ve done the stitches before, I can never remember the pattern on my own. The teacher said something about sense memory, and I wonder at times if mine isn’t a little underdeveloped. My memory, it seems, is more tightly tied to language than most people’s. It’s why I have to be taught how to play chess every single time I play chess and why, though I love jazz, I can’t remember any wordless jazz song no matter how many times I’ve heard it. I was taken to a silent movie once and afterward had no idea what happened in it at all. Had I been born deaf and mute or raised by wolves, I wonder if I’d even have a memory. It isn’t a negative thing–it’s also why I win nine out of ten games of Words With Friends, earned a rare 800 on the verbal section of the SAT the first time I took it, and write well despite very little formal composition instruction outside of the usual school classes. Language isn’t symbolic to me; it’s concrete. This is opposite how most people think of it. Whereas what most people think of as black-and-white, logical, like numbers, stress me out and I don’t have an intuitive sense of how things are put together, built. To cook I need a recipe, written in words.
Bookmaking is, in a way, a marriage of my strengths and weaknesses. I measure, cut, sew, and glue exactly so in order to have a house for my words, a vehicle in which to convey the transformative power of language, naming. I remember the lovers I came to love in the utterance of the word, “love,” and the lovers I never said I loved, but had I said it, would have. Given my intimacy with language, it’s ironic how difficult it can be for me to communicate. But I hate confrontation, not communicating. It’s like knocking on a door, looking for a house for my language and my love, fearing the entry requires a perfection I know my stumbling through the doorway won’t have. But it does now: