June 1, 2020 | By Margo Hammond
MY DEAR FRIEND
The Lost Art of Communicating
by Snail Mail
I am writing this article for two reasons.
First, I want to revive the lost art of communicating via our mailboxes. Sure, some of us still send mass-produced holiday letters or the occasional Christmas card. But when was the last time you had the thrill of finding a hand-stamped envelope in your mailbox amidst all the bills and adverts?
And the second reason I want to write this article? It’s related to the first — by sending mail to each other, we can support local artists and help save the U.S. Post Office, which is under attack.
Well, that may be two more reasons, but you get the idea. Here’s how.
1. Order ‘Forever’ first class stamps or postcard stamps from the post office.
2. Buy a lovely hand-made notecard or postcard from a local artist.
3. Write a hand-written message to a friend on the card, hand-stamp and address it and leave it out for your mail carrier to pick it up and send on its way.
The post office sells stamps with images to fit all tastes. I chose stamps with pIctures of gardens around the world. Stylized guard dogs in honor of their role in our military. Delicate orchids. Coral reef stamps for postcards.
Several artists in our area offer hand-made notecards with unique images, from skulls to egrets, from recycled collages to wood prints of vegetables. One artist even has a whole line of coronavirus-themed cards.
I talked by telephone to five of them about their notecard art as we all were sheltering in place.
VIKKI GUTIERREZ ISAACSON
For Vikki Gutierrez Isaacson, the founder of Playa Paper, the love of paper — and stamps — came early. When she was six her father bought her a stationery set and took her on trips to the post office. Years later — on November 12, 2013 to be exact — she started Playa Paper in a one-bedroom apartment in Redondo Beach, California. The name of her company, which offers high quality paper products, came to her as she walked along the beach — playa means beach in Spanish.
“I wanted to share the memories evoked at the beach, the joy of reaching out to others through kindness and generosity,” Vikki says. “Think about it. When you buy a paper product you are already being thoughtful since most of these items are going to be given to somebody else.”
Early on Vikki, inspired by a customer named Lara who was homeless, decided to include free stamps with her products. “How else would Lara be able to send her cards?” she asked herself. She tries to match the stamps, which are often vintage ones she’s been collecting for years, to her designs. Her mermaid cards, for example, are paired with a purple palate of stamps — purple hearts and purple flowers.
Her cards mark the usual occasions but often with a twist. She lost her father at an early age, so instead of the usual Father’s Day cards she offers sympathy cards for those of us who can no longer send our dads a card. (Ditto for Mother’s Day). Her most unique cards of late, however, have directly addressed this time of isolation and social distancing.
In the past months, she has designed 24 coronavirus-themed cards, expressing our ache of missing family and friends. One reads: “Dr. Fauci recommends that you accept this card in place of a 1. Hug 2. Handshake 3. High Five 4. Cuddle 5. Kiss” (just check off the one that applies). Another shows a couple 6-feet apart: “We’re In This Together. But my favorites are her whimsical drawings of hanging pots (“I Miss Hanging With You”) and a dreaming cat (“Wake Me When It’s Over).
“I miss my friends, I miss my customers,” says Vikki who was a fixture at the Saturday Morning Market in St. Petersburg before it was forced to shut down. Now she relies on sales through her website or her online store at Etsy.
She’s never believed the oft-repeated notion that millennials don’t write letters. “Everyone loves paper,” she insists. “Like the Japanese culture. They love digital but they also love analog.”
Vikki has high praise for mail carriers. “They are frontline workers as well and they are struggling. When we send and receive cards, we are supporting the post office.”
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NATTY MOSS BOND
Natty Moss Bond’s notecards are rubbish and I mean that as high praise.
In fact, that’s exactly what Natty herself calls them on her Pinterest site. “I make these cards that I call ‘rubbish’ because they are made out of reclaimed materials. Card stock is old file folders… collage comes from books, magazines and junk mail. I print the words on the back of once-used office paper that is tea stained to fit in with the vintage feel. You can buy them from me at email@example.com. PS…some are slightly naughty.”
Born and raised in Asheville NC, Natty studied art at UNCA but never finished school. “I didn’t get past line drawing and never got to color,” she laughs. In 1980 she came to this area to get married. She formed a band with her husband called Multi-Color House, taught yoga, worked as a secretary for a printing company, worked in a homeopathic acupuncture clinic, got divorced, remarried and now sings in a band called (appropriately enough) Dirty Spoons and Trash (with her ex and present husbands). All while doing art as a sideline.
One of her most popular art projects — started about 20 years ago — were shrines made out of candy tins and bottle caps. “I did buy glitter and glue but at yard sales, thrift stores and second-hand shops,” she explains. “And the metal on the back I’d get at Home Depot and the glue I used I had to buy new. But everything else was recycled.”
She brings the same spirit to her notecards. At the printing company, she noticed that boxes of samples, catalogues and magazines, were dumped daily into the recycling bin. “I said to my boss, ‘I can’t believe how much paper we waste. I was mortified by it.” So she began saving the cream-colored file folders, using them as card stock. “I’m not a secretary anymore but I have lots of friends who are and I ask them to save their leftover file folders.”
The first cards Natty made were for an art show called Mother Mary Quite Contrary at The Globe, the now defunct coffee shop run by WMNF’s Art in Your Ear JoEllen Schilke. “We were going to use all the money to go to Italy,” she remembers with a laugh. Alas, they didn’t sell that many cards, but Natty started making collage cards on a regular basis, using pages of books (“I try really hard not to use any good ones”), old photos and recycled magazines pictures, gluing them to the aforementioned free card stock. She figures now by now she’s now made over 15,000 cards. “All is Recycled” reads the message on the back of each card. “I also put messages like ‘Eat Your Vegetables’ or ‘Be Nice to People,’” she adds.
Before the quarantine Natty sold her cards at Leslie Curran’s ARTicles gallery, the Craftsman House Gallery and the Safety Harbor Arts and Music Center, which, she says, hopefully will all open again. “I wasn’t selling them online because it’s such a pain in the ass to sell one at a time in those plastic sleeves,” she says. But now, if you see something you like, feel free to contact her through her website. She also suggests checking out the work of her Gulfport neighbor Marianne Wysocki. “She also does hand-make collage cards,” says Natty. “Every year I get a birthday card from her — she cuts up Cheerio boxes, paints them and and makes postcards out of them.” In fact, Wysocki has been making a collage postcard every day since April 8, 2005. Check out her latest post from her Collage a Day project on Instagram — as of publication, she’s on Day 1643.
How has Natty fared in the this time of coronavirus? She eats healthy, doesn’t eat meat and takes vitamins, but since she suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes, she isn’t taking any chances and hasn’t ventured out. She and her husband Steve, a graphic designer, have been forced to do chair yoga since the house is filled with art and art supplies and it’s too hot to do yoga in the yard. But she’s been able to do a lot of artwork.
“I think having a positive attitude can really change things,” says the 62-year-old artist. Or as she says on one of her cards, quoting Rumi, “And still, after all this time the Sun has never said to the Earth, You owe me. Look what happens with love like that. It lights up the sky.”
The Crafty Hag
Looking for notecards with some edge? “I make art that is inspired by nature and things that go bump in the night, blending printmaking with curiosity,” says Coralette Damme who describes herself as “dark by nature.” Coralette is the director of marketing and administration at The Studio@620 when she is not printmaking in her Crafty Hag studio, operating out of her home in St. Petersburg since 2004.
Coralette — The Crafty Hag is her artistic alter ego— makes notecards but it isn’t her primary thing. She usually is making larger art. “Hand Carved. Hand Printed, Hand Made.” Initially she only exchanged handmade postcards with other artists at art festivals. But a card, a smaller price-point item, can make an artist’s work accessible to those who couldn’t afford a larger work, she says.
While in quarantine — “I live alone. A lot of people are in that boat” — Coralette took up a 30-day challenge to create a piece of art every day. She carved a block every day and is now printing them out. A few she’s turning into notecards.
The subject matter? “Lots of skulls, a bug with a skull face, a cat with a skull face,” she says. “I’ve always been on the dark side. I expect the worse and hope for the best.”
Her postcard sets, reproductions of her original linocuts featuring skeletons, Dracula, Nosferatu, a mummified cat and “Weird Florida” scenes, are especially popular. “Surprise someone with snail mail!” she says on her Etsy site. She doesn’t offer stamps with her cards, but she’s a fan of the post office.
“I used to be very engaged in the mail art community,” says Coralette who grew up in Nebraska and received a fine arts degree from the University of Nebraska. Some examples of the artwork she sent and received by mail can be seen here.
Artists who participated in the art mail swap, says Coralette, got very creative, cutting up cereal boxes to make postcards, making envelopes from old magazine pages. Once she received a flip flop, mailed as a postcard. “The secret,” she says in a conspiratorial whisper, “is you can’t go to the mail counter or they may reject it. You have to drop it in a mailbox.”
Polly Perkins’ notecards also are a natural outgrowth of her printmaking. While in quarantine she’s been working on a foodie art series. Seafood. Green peppers. Heirloom tomatoes (inspired by ones she saw in the market in New York while visiting her 31-year-old daughter who works for Spotify). Most will be framed as larger prints, but some will end up on notecards. “A lot of people frame my notecards,” she says.
Polly grew up in Philadelphia (she remembers going to the art center in suburban Philly when she was four). In 2002 she moved to Tampa to work for the Florida Aquarium. After 18 years of working as a graphic designer, she retired in 2016. Now living in St. Petersburg (her husband died 12 years ago), she has been sheltering in place with her good friends and studio assistants Michi, a tortoiseshell cat, and Ramen, an Asian short hair. “Compared to most, I haven’t minded the quarantine,” she says. “I enjoy my own company. I’m doing all kinds of artwork in place.
“I’m very interested in natural history and the wonders of the natural world. Some of my work is figurative but most of it is based on the native plants and animals I see around me.”
She starts with an 8” x 12” wood block, one that is not super hard and not super fancy and a bit grainy. Then she divides it in four, putting an image on each block. If it’s a portrait of a bird, she’ll do one block with all herons and egrets in black and white or one with four different owls in brown, gold and grey.
I remarked to her how much her images capture, well, the essence of birds. “I’m a birdwatcher, so it comes naturally. I go for the jizz of the bird,” she tells me, using a birdwatching term that refers to capturing the overall impression or appearance of a bird. It’s like that instant recognition you have when you see a friend from afar, she points out. You are so familiar with her that you know how she walks, you know how she moves.
“I rarely work from photographs. I work from my own experience,” she says. “I’m not interested in a photographic depiction. I mostly want to capture the feeling that you get from that animal or plant. It’s alive and you’re looking at it.”
The widest choice of her notecards are on Etsy. She also has some at the Morean Art Center which now, of course, is closed. Perkins has started offering stamps with her notecards. “People love that,” she says. “I have a bunch of commemorative stamps, flowers and nature stuff that go with the images.”
Does she like communicating via snail mail?
“I love receiving letters, but I rarely send them — my handwriting is so bad — but I do like sending images to my brother who is a Luddite,” she says. “A letter is more personal, because you touch it and it’s unique. It has more meaning than an email or a text.”
Soft Water Studios
Notecards are also a sideline for Carrie Jadus who describes herself as a self-taught painter, a product of the Pinellas County Center of the Arts. But although she concentrates on larger pieces of art, she says she’s always had an affinity for the “small delicate images” on notecards.
“Ever since I first walked into a Crane card shop and saw beautiful notecards on very high-quality paper with beautiful envelopes nicely wrapped up, I’ve wanted to put my images on cards,” says Carrie who was born in Tampa and raised in St. Petersburg. “I always get really excited when I get a beautiful letter in the mail and I wanted my artwork to be part of that experience.”
She admits she really doesn’t make money on cards, but she sees them as a perfect advertising vehicle, a way to get her name and paintings out into the world. Before the quarantine, she sold her cards at her studio (which is part of Soft Water Studios) in the Warehouse Arts District in St. Petersburg. Now she sells them on her website.
She got the idea of painting images of St. Petersburg after a trip to Europe when she sought out the very spot Monet had painted the parliament building on the Thames river one foggy misty morning, a painting she always admired when she saw it St. Petersburg’s Museum of Fine Arts as a young girl. When she reached the exact spot where Monet had composed the painting, however, she surprisingly found the view unimpressive and realized that Monet had made it beautiful because he saw it through the eyes of an artist.
When she returned to St. Petersburg Jadus set out to paint cityscapes, painting a series of plein air paintings capturing the beauty of her hometown. She took some of her favorites and put them on notecards that she called City as Muse.
One of her first cards was An Afternoon at Straub Park, done in vintage style. It sold out immediately and is no longer available. “I’m debating whether to do another one,” she says, pointing out that the city is changing so much that some of what she has painted no longer exists. Like the inverted pyramid that she included on that card.
She’s also painted the North Shore looking toward downtown, Old Northeast Tavern, Park Shore restaurant and its blue umbrellas on Beach Drive and Snell Island bridge, all available on notecards as are her St. Pete Preservation Movie Night posters and a “tropical Einstein” that gives the physicist palm trees for eyebrows and planets for eyes.
“When I was a little girl, my mother had me send a thank you card when someone was kind, but I couldn’t just say thank you for the check, love Carrie,” she says. She had to be sure the note was carefully thought out and neatly printed.
Now she appreciates the time and consideration it takes to hand-write a note. “It’s so easy today to shoot someone a text, to post something on facebook, to write an email — but to write a thoughtful message, to choose a picture that evokes emotion, that’s an experience that you don’t get much any more. It’s a dying practice.”