Imaginary Worlds: Artistamps

by The Artist on July 11, 2012

When the Artist was a kid, she collected stamps for a while.

I mean, really.  They’re kind of cool, y’know?  Little tiny paper pieces of art with stickybacks?  We are SO THERE.

It was never really a collection based in any worth, since most of the stamps were from those Sunday newspaper ads they had in the ’80s (when the Artist was a young cub), mostly from places called Magyar Posta (which isn’t a place, we know), and had Disney characters and bright flowers all over them.  She stuck them all down in a photo album (one of those self-stick kinds you could get at KMart for a dollar back then, that were full of acid and turned your pictures all yellow and crazy in about a day), and rearranged them meticulously.  This week:  by color.  Next week: by subject.  Whatever struck her fancy that particular week.

And then the Artist grew up and discovered boys.

So much for stamps.

(Actually, then she started collecting boys.  They were harder to stick in the albums, however.)

The albums full of tiny artworks was lost to the back of the closet, and for many years, the Artist was busy with Other Things (read: boys), and mostly forgotten.

Then, in 1999, we discovered something revolutionary:  MAIL ART.

We can barely speak of those early days without getting swoony and light-headded.  The Internet had opened up a whole world of people who were making web pages on Geocities about their obsessions, and one of those obsessions was making and sending tiny artworks through the postal service.  Like, real mail, people!  With stamps and crazy envelopes and sometimes, even mannequin feet covered in paint.  (no, really.)

Despite  the fact that our postal carriers thought we may, indeed, be either some kind of subversive art mafia or, possibly, insane…many works of tiny art started flowing through the post and landing again in the Artist’s box, being put into (non-magnetic) albums and arranged and ooh’ed over.

Mail Art comes in many forms.

Some folks were sending postcards.  Some were sending objects.  Some were having elaborate, progressive mail art calls that involved doing something in a tiny square and passing it on to the next artist (via post, obviously) to make a larger, collaborative work that went back to the original initiator at the end.  There were tiny deco books filled with pages of fun, hand-stamped 3-D objects, and calls where your small postal works went into entire exhibitions, usually hosted in non-traditional gallery settings on the walls of coffee shop bathrooms.  (No kidding.)

If you could make it and send it through the mail, it’d probably been done.  It was, in a word, awesome.  (And still is, by the way.  Even with the rising cost of postage and increasing postal restrictions, mail art still wings around the globe on a daily basis.  Google “mail art calls” and you’ll find so many that your brain may also explode.)

One subset of the Mail Art movement was called Artistamps.

We’re simplifying here.  But a whole group of folks involved in mail art started doing something kind of amazing — they started creating their own postage stamps, from imaginary countries, with a whole bunch of mediums and methods, and calling them artistamps or postoids.  Some of them were obviously just tiny artworks.  Some of them were so realistic-looking that, if they were placed on an envelope, they’d arrive at your door with cancellations, because even the postal service wasn’t quite sure if they were faux.  We’re talking some sophisticated art-wrangling, here.

(There’s a good history and some awesome how-tos over here, by the way.  There’s a better definition, some resources, and even a few tutorials on technology stuff to make them more real-looking and stuff.  Bookmark that sucker!)

Artistamps don’t have to be all technically-perfect.

That set right there, above?  Hand-drawn on several sheets of watercolor paper, and perforated with a dead ball-point pen on a mousepad.  They were ripped apart (into strips), and put into little handmade matchbook-style books that folded out to reveal the stamps for “use” at a local interactive art gallery/museum in Greensboro, NC, for its live-action game where the whole place was turned into a fictional city for a night every month.  (Each of the stamps portrayed one of the features of the museum — from the water served at the city diner to the selection of modified hats for people to wear.)

They took the Artist about an hour and four sheets of cheap watercolor paper to make.  You can’t get less technically-“perfect” than that.

Last week, we talked about making your own imaginary country.

Got a name for it yet?

This week, think about the postal service.  Is it run by ducks?  Is there a designated person?  Does it have a name?  (The ones above, for instance, were from Skyscraper Post, which was where the fictional postal service was located in the museum.)

Read through Aisling’s awesome tutorial on artistamp making, and try whipping up a few sheets of tiny postoid fun.

And then mail a letter or two, because nobody needs to have all bills in their boxes, and who knows…?  Maybe someone will start putting your stamps into an album to admire, too.

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