Josh Ronsen has seven shoeboxes packed to the brim with mail, but he’s not a hoarder. He’s not storing old bills, either. Ronsen is a mail artist. He receives a piece of art in the mail and sends another one out to artists around the world almost every day.
Ronsen said mail art is the free exchange of art between artists. The pieces sent are usually the size of a postcard or smaller. They can be anything from a painting to a collage to a booklet filled with poetry.
“To get stuff you have to send stuff,” Ronsen said. “It’s always an exchange, so, if I slack off, I stop getting art. There have been a couple points in the past 15 years when I don’t send anything out, so I don’t get anything.”
For Ronsen’s latest project, “The Tiny Art Exchange,” many artists sent one-inch cubes, sheets of paper, mock postage stamps or plastic bags filled with many squares of art, less than half a centimeter in size.
“The tiny art project is where I track all these people down from these lists, and I send them a tiny piece of art I’ve made and I ask them to send me something in return,” Ronsen said. “So that’s the only requirement. It has to be tiny.”
Ronsen has had public viewings for his projects three times during his career. His most recent exhibit was at Malvern books on Jan. 26. While Ronsen opted to have exhibits for his collections, many other mail artists choose to never display their art.
For this collection, Ronsen had to send out 380 invitations and mini-artworks to various mail artists. He has received submissions back from 180 people located in countries all over the world, most of whom sent multiple pieces.
“It’s been amazing to me that I’ve been able to make 380 pieces of art,” Ronsen said. “Some of them are similar, but it’s been getting better over time. It’s a constant challenge, but I’ve got all these people around the world to send stuff to.”
Honoria Starbuck, a local mail artist and UT alumna, said there is no pressure about whether your work is good enough for galleries or museums.
“It’s very freeing because you meet amazing people from all over the world,” Starbuck said. “You get free art, and they get free art. It’s the opposite of feeling stressed out about showing your work to the public because you are showing your work to other artists.”
This artistic environment allows for artists to grow without the fear of being judged.
“Other artists understand risk and sheer experimentation for experimentation’s sake, so you don’t get any serious critique of your work; you get the joy of sharing it and playing with ideas,” Starbuck said.
One of the most popular modes of mail art is a “call,” in which the host creates a project with a certain theme for the art and sends it out via mail, magazine or Internet. After the contacted mail artists send in their pieces, the host then creates a final project with the art and compiles a catalog of all the participants to send back out.
Another form of mail art is an “add and pass,” in which an artist sends out a paper with a single image to be passed along to as many artists as possible.
“You add to that paper a little piece of collage or stamp on it and send it to someone else you know [who] is interested in doing add and passes, and they will add to it too,” local mail artist John McAlpin said. “It is collaboration between mail artists.”
Mail art dates back to the 1960s when artist Ray Johnson drew a bunny on a sheet of paper. He took the print and sent it to celebrities and other strangers with the request they add their own art to it and pass it on.
“It would go from one to another, and you never knew how many mail artists it was going to go around to,” Starbuck said. “People would put layers and layers and layers on it. In that way, this became a whole different piece of art.”
Starbuck wrote her dissertation at UT on the Internet’s relationship to mail art. She said the Internet makes it easier to find mail art calls, and, eventually, the art form may be
“[The Internet] has brought a lot of younger people into mail art,” Starbuck said. “It’s always changing. … [Calls] used to come in little slips of paper stuffed into envelopes and published in [magazines], but now they’re online.”
Mail art stands out among different art forms because of its accessibility. All it takes to become a mail artist is creativity and willingness to try it out.
“If you want to become involved, you get involved,” Ronsen said. “People treat you as an equal, even if you’re just starting out and your work is not very good. People were very kind and generous with me when I first started.”