"My own stamps often reflect events in my life." - Anna Banana



by Anna Banana

In the 1960's, the early days of the mail-art movement, Ray Johnson and the Fluxus artists were exploring alternate means of communications and art making.   Along with other strategies, they poked fun at "the establishment," through parodies of business, cultural, and educational forms such as corporate identities, rubber stamps, and logos.   Further, they created new avenues of exchange between artists and individuals previously unacquainted with one another through various mailings.   Editions of artistamps were issued by Fluxus artists Yves Klein, Robert Watts, Robert Fried and Vancouver's N. E. Thing Co., and these items were exchanged among the relatively small number of artists participating in the network at that time.

During the 70's the mail-art network expanded dramatically through the spread of information about network activities published in both FILE and VILE magazines.   This decade also marked the, beginnings of the "mail-art show" phenomena and the resulting development of the "rules of mailart."   Prior to this, there was only one show, Ray Johnson's 1969 event at the Whitney, so early mail-art was personalized to the individuals or groups involved in the exchange.

It was during this period that the first color Xerox machines came out, and artists involved in the network began experimenting with it to produce full-colour, limited editions of postage-like stamps.   Ed Higgins in NYC and Carl Chew in Seattle both began producing color Xerox editions in 1976, and Patricia Tavenner, Jas W Felter and Ed Varney began with printed editions in B&W.   These were "2nd generation networkers" who both created their own works, and invited other artists to participate in artistamp projects.   The first exhibition of artistamps, with the works of 39 artists, was curated by Jas W Felter at the Simon Fraser University Gallery in 1974.

During the 80's the network expanded exponentially, through publications such as Correspondence Art (1984), The Rubber Stamp Album (1978?) and early issues of RubberStamp-Madness, which brought the phenomena of mail-art to a much wider readership/segment of the population.   In this same time period, rubber stamps became a phenomenal, pop-culture trend, bringing hundreds of stamp companies into existence, and even more individuals into the network of exchanges.   This broadening of the mail art community altered its focus from rebellion against and critique of the values of "main-stream America," to more craft-oriented and decorative art forms.

As this "gentrification" process spread, so the mail-art community, now far too large to be addressed by any one individual, began to split into various streams of special interests; rubber-stamps, artist-stamps, audio taped music and commentaries, 'zines representing a multitude of interests, performance art, etc.   Within each sub-genre, specialized publications emerged reflecting the works and interests of individuals involved in each of these specialized fields of activity.

In 1988 I began publishing International Art Post, a periodical of full-colour printed (not color-copied) stamps produced cooperatively with the participants, and in 1990, re-titled and re-focussed my long-standing network newsletter, the Banana Rag to Artistamp News, reflecting my new focus on artistamps.   In 1989, Jas W Felter organized the 1st (of three) International Biannual Exhibitions of Artistamps at the Davidson Galleries in Seattle, showing the works of 56 artists currently producing artistamps. These exhibitions reflected both the rapidly growing phenomena of artistamp work, and the beginning of the shift from the free exchange/play of the network to a more formalized position (foot in the door) of the "real art world."   Among the 56 artists in Felter's 1st Biannual show were Robert Rudine/Dogfish, Francis Hall/Kitepost, Harley/Candella, Ed Varney/Canadada Post, Jas W Felter/Mraur Post, Dominique/Bug Post, and Europeans
, H.R.   Fricker, Jean-Noel Laszlo, and Gyorgy Galantai, to name a few.

Because the work in these shows was priced and for sale, the old debate about "mail art and money don't mix," was revived and continues to split the mail-art community further.   Up until this point, network artists exchanged works with one another, with no money being involved.   The "mail art & money don't mix" slogan first emerged when some individuals who organized mail-art shows asked for financial contributions towards the costs of printing and mailing the show catalogs.   Why artists selling their works in a gallery setting should set off this knee-jerk reaction, is beyond me.   However, those who reacted this way saw such a move as the beginning of the end of the radical, free exchange ethic of the network.

A number of artistamp-makers were or are stamp collectors, and these artists are the ones who create their own "independent states," or imaginary countries.   There are two organizations in the network that reflect and document the affairs of these independent states; the ICIS; (International Council of Independent States) run by Bruce Grenville in New Zealand.   The other is WILICON; (World Information Center for Imaginary, Created and Oneiric Nations,) organized and run by Geir Sor-Reime, in Norway, who publishes the WILICON Stamp News.

Amongst these imaginary states are Tui Tui, Terra Candella, The Arky of Toast, the Insectastates and the newly discovered Nerieni Atoll. Dogfish, who lives in the state of Tui Tui; a houseboat on Lake Union in Seattle, issues stamp editions commemorating events in the state of Tui Tui.   He uses a combination of computer, the Canon Laser, photo offset and letterpress in the creation of his stamps.   Terra Candella (Land of Light) is the independent state created by Harley, who has been making stamps since the mid-70's, and through the catalog of Felter's 1974 exhibition at Simon Fraser University, found his way into the network.   Insectastates issues BUGPOST stamps by Dominique, who is also the editor of a large catalogue of artistamps, The Standard.   One of his more recent editions was an Earthquake Relief Edition, in keeping with the events in the Insectastates.   The Arky of Toast is the imaginary state created by Greg Byrd.   Toast Postes is his issuing authority, which puts out descriptive literature on the events in the Arky, to go along with the stamp editions.   More about the Nerieni Atoll later.

While artistamp makers usually create a name for their "issuing authority," such as Mraur Post, Canadada Post, Banana Post, etc., most haven't developed the other aspects of statehood, such as state holidays, politics, maps, history, etc.   For example, KITE POST is the creation of Francis Hall, who has long been a kite maker and enthusiast.   Some of his most colorful and effective editions have been made from photographs he takes at kite meets, and his stamps are often distinguished by his use of strongly colored or textured backgrounds to his images.   Felter's Mraur Post editions are usually comprised of the "glyphs" of the written language of Mraur, although he has done one edition showing a map of his island state, and a couple of portrait stamps.

As with many artists, my own stamps often reflect events in my life, such as the Owen Sound for your Summer Break edition which commemorates my visit to Owen Sound where I fractured my ankle.   Hen Party Post, shown here, commemorates the Chicken-shaped tea cosies my daughter gave us for Christmas.   Often artistamp editions commemorate the visit of one artist to another, as seen in the powerful B&W portrait stamps by Buz Blurr, of Gurdon, Arkansas, which he creates from the negatives of polaroid photos.   Because his home is off the beaten track, Blurr has travelled extensively to meet and document fellow networkers, and is probably one of the more travelled persons in the network.

With the advent of Artistamp News in 1991, the art form had a focal point, which brought growing numbers of artists who use the postage-stamp format for their creative expression out of the woodwork.   Not surprisingly, with this new clearing house for information, we discovered stamp artists operating entirely outside the mail-art network.   Cati LaPorte in New York city and Steven Smith in Gulfport, Florida both create parodies of official postage stamps.   Italians Maurizio De Fazio, Lello Padiglione and Pierluca Sabatino, mailed envelopes using only their own stamps over a three year period.   Then, fearing recriminations from postal authorities, turned themselves in! Further, they sold their mailed envelopes for substantial prices, and had a little book Granchi Rosa published (1991) about their artistamp activities.

During this same period, French artist Michael Hosszu published an Andy Warhol commemorative edition, and mailed over 250 envelopes from several countries, using only his bogus stamps, without postal intervention! Further, Chicago artists Michael Hernandez de Luna and Michael Thompson have been mailing envelopes with their postal creations for the past three years.   The envelopes with the cancelled stamp, along with sheets of unsent stamps sell for $1,000 each.

While whole sheets of artistamps, matted and framed, are sold as limited edition prints, the most exciting aspect of the artistamp is often the mailed envelope.   A number of artists also go the full philatelic route, creating "first day cover" envelopes which reflect the theme of the new stamps, and mimic the release formalities of official postage stamps. All mail-artists decorate their envelopes, but the most outstanding envelopes I have received come from creators of artistamps who combine their stamps with official postage, rubber stamps, collage, stickers, drawing and painting, resulting in exquisite postal artworks which are further "made official" by cancellations and other postal markings. Envelopes from artistamp makers Peter Kaufmann and H.R.   Fricker of Switzerland, (whose work is illustrated), Carl Chew and Dogfish in Seattle, King Alexander of Edelweiss, and Joki in Minden, Germany stand out in my collection.

Aside from the "outsiders," the numbers of network artists continues to grow, with works ranging from computer generated/manipulated to hand-drawn and painted images, hand-carved and/or commercial rubber-stamps, Canon-laser enhanced/ mixed media, with perforation ranging from slit perfs, printed perfs, sewing-machine perfs, and authentic pin-hole perforations.   Publications like Cracker Jack Kid's Eternal Network (1995) and web site: , and Jas.   W.   Felter's Artistamp Gallery on the World Wide Web continue to expand the network and bring new artistamp makers to light.

In the past two years, I have been excited by the works of newly discovered artistamp makers Ken Bryson, (Georgia), Willi Braun,( Mill Valley, CA), Barbara Nakagawa /SolarZ,(Culver City, CA) and Sheba/Exotica Post (Seattle).   Another stamp collector, Bryson's stamps are for his fantasy country, NERIENI ATOLL.   They are formal, subdued; in a classic vein, (ie.   they look like real stamps), illustrating heads of state such as Queen Victoria, Charles & Di, Margaret Thatcher and Mao.   His current editions concentrate on buildings, gargoyles, and oriental artifacts, reproduced in B&W on a Canon copier, some with colored backgrounds.   Bryson has never sold any of his work, and doesn't perceive it as "art in the sense of limited edition prints."   None-the-less, he takes great pleasure in creating and sharing the little images, and "licking and putting them on an envelope for someone else's eyes is a large part of the satisfaction" he derives from creating them.

Willi Braun's long career as an illustrator and designer are very apparent in the two sheets of stamps I have, which are are created using the scratch-board/engraving technique.   The first sheet in red, is expertly drawn with comic overtones and issuing authorities, such as POST BRAVA SUAVA, FLAXENPOST, CORREO RIO SECO, and SANTA SHMAUS.   His SCAREMAIL stamps from the EMPIRE OF UNITED TASTES, is done in magenta and dark blue, with witty illustrations making wry comments on subjects such as Peace at Hand, (a general with a gun to his head), Foreign Aid, Corporate Planet, Anti-Terrorism, Welfare Reform, War Vet, National Forests, Inc, (stumps and bulldozer), Going, Going, Gone, (rhinos and elephants).   These stamp sheets have oversized perforations printed between the stamp images.   Braun collected stamps as a boy, and learned his geography from that hobby.   Since he "always liked to paste some extra stuff next to the official stamps," he designed some of his own stamps to "publicize his views on the degradation in politics and the environment."

While she's been doing stamps for the last 10 years, and has her own perforator, Darlene Altschul, formerly known as Tarzana Savannah is "new to me."   A mutual friend in Los Angeles put me in touch with her, and a great favor that was.   Darlene was into mail-art, graphic art, paper making and calligraphy before she took up making stamps.   Working in many layers, in limited editions of 20 or 100, she adds rubber-stamps to both the image area and margins of her stamp sheets; "FEMAILIST" appears on all her works. Her sheet October is Bat Month, is based on an illustration by Blaster Al Ackerman, of a bat holding a grape.   It is an example of the "cross pollenization" that mail-art brings to participating artists.   As Darlene states, "This is the marvel of mail art.   You can exchange mail art and fall in love.   Nothing could prepare me for the beauty and excitement and deep heart connection I have found in my mail box."   For the most part, she does not sell her works, but gives them to her correspondents from whom she says she gets back "twice what she's sent."

Solarz's computer based works are intriguing and enigmatic.   I particularly like her Bad Secrets sheet, with collaged visuals expressing the concepts 'trapped,' gagged,' 'dead letter,' and 'regret.' In a 1995 homage to Donald Evans, she abandoned the computer and took to water-colors, creating a series of Evans-like scenarios, ending with a Solarz sunset on the water., While she loved the network and the exchanges she got from it, she has moved on to working with fabrics.   I mention her because she is an example of how many people dip in to the network for a few years, then move on.   While those of us who get stuck in the network, may consider it the be-all and end-all of our creative needs, many people find it far too demanding, repetitive, or restricting.

Sheba's Exotica Post editions are unique in her use of perforation to highlight and extract stamps from the rest of the image on the page. This approach, in which the lines of perforation do not extend to the edge of the paper, but simply isolate the stamp images within the background of the sheet, is a painstaking route on which only the truly devoted will venture.   It means removing pins from the perforator head, and creating a template in which to place the sheets for perforation so that the lines of holes end up where you want them.

In 1995, recognizing the extent and quality of the "artistamp explosion," the Stamp Art Gallery in San Francisco, expanded it's exhibition program from it's original rubber-stamp focus, to include monthly shows of artistamps, for which they produce catalogues of essays and reprints of works by the artists.

Originally published in
Rubberstamp Madness
May-June, 1997

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