Oberlin and Mail Art

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In 1974, local artist and Oberlin student Harley received an exhibition catalog from Ellen Johnson, professor of Contemporary Art. Ellen already knew Ray Johnson, heralded by many as the founder of the mail art movement in the United States, but apparently was not familiar with artistamps. The catalog she gave to Harley was from the first North American artistamp exhibition held at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver. A stamp collector from an early age, Harley found he was powerful drawn to artistamps. The next year he founded "Tristan Local Post" (named for his son) and started issuing stamps.  Later he created a full-fledged imaginary country, Terra-Candella.

Soon after, Reid Wood (OC '70), another local artist, discovered the mail art movement through his association and later membership in the "Church of Sub-Genius" a loosely organized group of artists, poets and performance artists who worship J. R. "Bob" Dobbs and share a Fluxus sensibility.

Then in 1987 the Allen Memorial Art Museum held "Corresponding Worlds," a major exhibition featuring artistamps from around the world. The first week was filled with a wide range of activities and events, from the traditional (panels) to the creative (opportunities to make artistamps) to the informal (parties, open houses, and general joviality). Most of the visiting mail art artists stayed in the homes of Oberlin residents allowing friendships and interest to develop beyond those typically associated with an art exhibition.

After "Corresponding Worlds," Oberlin was known as a mail art hot spot. Even Ray Johnson, founding father of mail art and a seminal character in contemporary art, visited from time to time.

Oberlin’s love affair with mail art has withstood the test of time though remains 'under the radar' as time has passed. Recent events suggest a mail art renaissance may be close at hand:

  • According to a long-standing rumor an unassigned Oberlin Post Office P.O. box has been receiving mail art for many years.
  • In 2005 two senior studio majors created "The Envelope Collective," a project that collected and scanned decorated envelopes from contributors around the world.  Neither artist was aware at the time of the Oberlin Library Mail Art Collection, nor of the mail art movement in general.
  • In 2004 FAVA (Firelands Association for the Visual Arts) had a mail art exhibition.  Subsequently FAVA has offered classes taught by area mail art artists.
  • During Winter Term 2007, a Mail Art ExCo was offered.

Last updated:
July 12, 2018