THE MAIL-INTERVIEW WITH PATRICIA TAVENNER 46
Started on: 3-7-1995
RJ : Welcome to this mail-interview. First let me ask you the traditional question. When did you get involved in the mail-art network?
Reply on 12-10-1995
PT : A little preface to the answer. I've been always been a letter writer and I answered for the family as soon as I could write. I have a scrap book with post cards and letters from my penpals from the 7th and 8th grade. This was encouraged in school. One of them I visited in Holland when I grew up. It was quite a trip to see letters and my handwriting from age 12 & 13. Enclosed is a photo.
Before there was a network or mail art. About 1970 I began putting out stuff and I began putting out stuff and I began a newspaper called "Mail Order Art" published in 1971 - 1972 with 4 issues. I had this great idea one night as I was washing the kitchen floor it was like a big flash. Yes, Patricia, do a newspaper in the format of the Berkeley Barb (a once famous local and international newspaper from radical Berkeley, California, of the 60's). Originally it was meant to be trown on people's porchs, just like they trow away advertisement newspapers that arrive every week on my fron porch. Sometimes the credit for this is given to my x-husband but that isn't true and this often happens when both husband and wife are artists. It is asumed that the ideas come from the man and the woman simply copies and follows. I happen to be a pioneer and love forging new ideas.
But I had been searching for new ways to do art, put art out into the world, and ways to take the same images and put them into different media. I also wanted more artistic exchange and exchange beyond my immediate environment of California. I love living here but anywhere can become stale. What came from the "Mail Order Art" newspaper was lots of feedback and all kinds of new friends. Tons of mail everyday which I adore. I finally put it all in a room and locked the door as I didn't know what to do with it. A great deal of it became part of a piece called "Living Letters" which is a book and a sculpture instalation and another piece called the "Book of Tongues."
I think a number of us did newsletters, magazines, catalogues, and newspapers about this same time with no knowledge that others were pursuing a similar arena. That we all had this need to reach out. And to reach out to totally new ways. Artists are not known for their socialability and here were a bunch of us yelling to the skies "talk with me."
RJ : Are you still reaching out for more (new) contacts?
Reply on 30-12-1995
PT : Yes, but to limited degrees as I just don't have the time. I always mark requests that sound interesting when I read the show listings and when I have the time to read the show listings. New thoughts, new ideas, and new people excite me and I feel that it is important to respond to and to encourage new artists and non artists into the network. Time is my main limitation. I do list that I will always trade stamps in The Global News and I did instigate the First California Artists Stamp Show which brought lots of fresh contributions. I do write letters to a fair amount of mail people but not as I have to make choices as to how to spend my energy and my time. And it seems like the pile to answer is always there. I do cover it up or put it away occasionally. Sometimes it just flows onto the table and takes over. That happened recently to my favorite Mail Art table where I could watch the birds bath out of the window. So I moved to another table as it happened to be free. This weekend I needed that space for a workshop that I was teaching in my studio so I got some boxes and loaded them up to be clear soon. A good winter project - sorting and filing. Actually a good project for my new assistant.
One more thing. I like the creative spark that comes from doing some of the requests. I usually keep them in a seperate pile and use them like quick sketches in a drawing class or singing scales as a means of warming up my juices. Often I also get a nice feeling of quick creative completion. That little high of endormorphins that the act of creativity sometimes gives.
RJ : How did you get your name "The Mail Queen"? What is the story behind this name?
Reply on 2-2-1996
PT : In 1972 I was teaching one of the first classes in the Bay Area on the History of Women Artists. I was scouring the libraries looking for books with visuals, reading lots of history and books on famous women and the English queens were part of that education. So I decided that I wanted to become a queen also, so I simply had a rubber stamp made with the Mail Queen on it. I still use the same stamp today. But I must say it is getting a bit ragged and perhaps it is time to get a new one made. I've had a lot of fun with this nom de plume. There is a Mail Queen post card with me in costume and this same photo is also available in artistamp form. I think that these date from 1972 or 1973
At that time Irene Dogmatic was my neighbour and we used to have lots of dress up sessions and play with costumes and masks. Of course we photographed all of these and a few were made into post cards. But the first of all of these for me was the Mail Queen.
RJ : It seems that publishing is a big part of your life. You sent with your answer an artist speaks (Vol 3, #1). What else is happening at the "Eternal Press"?
Reply on 5-3-1996
PT : The 3 latest projects An Artist Speaks (which is in its 6th year), the regular and the delux catalogue from the First California Artists Stamp Show, and A Family Line which documents a video instalation about my family, are all printed and in the process of being mailed out and distributed. Most of the first two are out of the studio, but the last - which is larger and hand bound - still needs attention. I am hoping by my birthday on March 22 to have these 3 complete. By that I mean out into the world and the piles gone from the office and studio of rough drafts etc.
Because waiting in the wings are new projects. The work is here and the format is designed for a small commemorative book from friends of Ray to Ray Johnson. It is mostly by people who had mail and regular contact with him. Mostly from the early days without the hero worshiping. It is to be intimate.
I just wrote up the letter to do an all womans assembling called .... I think this is important to do. Focusing the female energy and to draw attention to the contributions of women artists. It is the usual format, send a number of copies and in this instant 75, and $5,00 to cover the cost of binding, mailing and indexing. At the moment I am this years editor and next year someone else can do it. And it will go on as long as the women support it. But I will keep track in case some proding and organization is needed at various times.
I am also writing a brief history of Artistamps by women for Bill Gaglione at the Stamp Art Gallery in San Francisco. They produced a beautiful package with rubber stamps, artistamps, and catalogue but with no mention of women contributing to the history. So I complained and Bill asked me to write it. There are enough catalogues from shows with names of women contributors but I do want to get imput so I have a card to send out but there is not much time as this is due for June and it is already mid February. I am not planing anything elaborate. Suscint is the word that I want. A beginning to be continued.
I am also writing ahort pieces for other sources. It seems that I am writing a history of my life as an artist, Arround 1970 a friend suggested that I have a name for all my early publishings. It is as though I just reached up on one of the shelves and found one. When the name Eternal Press came to mind I had no idea how significant the name would be for me. I just sort of giggle a bit when people ask me about it.
RJ : After so many years of mail art, you probably have tried to explain mail art lots of times to others. What do you normally tell them?
Reply on 29-4-1996
PT : I want to quote some definitions that I have already published as that will get me going. Then add to what I have written and experienced and how I perceive differently today.
The following is from my publication An Artist Speaks, Volume 1, #1, 1993 :
"In the Mail Art world I am known as the Mail Queen. Correspondence Art (another name for Mail Art) as a genre in many ways defies definition. On the most basic level it is something (anything) that comes through the mail. Although Art Historians have chosen a few "important artists", the basis premise of mail art is that everyone is an artist. It is a medium that by passes the oficial art structure in the same way the Dadaist did. It is about counter culture, it is about true freedom of expression.
...As a movement, Mail Art began in the late 60's. Today it has evolved to include fax, zine publishing, and computer sent e-mail. While Mail Art is a democratic medium, in that anyone can make it, send it, own it, exhibit it, most mail art has some degree of aesthetic. Mail art is most commonly letters, envelopes, artistamps, postcards, and at one time anything you could get into the mail box. But automation has done away with the ceramic postcards, wooden envelopes, torn books, tongue depressors."
Recently a great deal has been written about mail art coming out of the Fluxus movement and its roots. Two points I wish to make here are: one, that I knew nothing about Fluxus. I tried to find out but it was such a closed circle of artists that I eventually turned my back on it. I just continued what I had always done with my mail - decorated it and continued writing letters and cards to various artists friends of mine who lived elsewhere, I've got mail art that goes back to the 5th grade. Then for 25 cents I could get the name and address of a pen pal in a foreign country. I still have some of their pictures and post cards. It is inheriant in some of us. Then I wanted a greater scope so I started a newspaper. It sure brought in a flood of inspiration and connection on an international scale. Now a number of artists were doing the same thing and that is how we met - through our publications and through the mail. As an Astrologer I know what we were all responding to but as yet Art News and other publications don't make these connections.
I think the essence of mail art / the network is creative dialogue, transported to and through people. The process is the creativity. Mail art is pure creativity. It is not a question of bypassing museums but of giving to each other what we need: creativity. In addition to an audience and lots of feedback.
RJ : In fact, the museums are now beginning to show some interest in mail art. First there were the postal museums, but now there is also a museum in Germany that wants to do an exhibition about mail art in Eastern Europe. Does mail art fit in a museum? Is it o.k. to just selects some pieces of mail art for an exhibition?
Reply on 11-6-1996
PT : I believe the Whitney Museum in New York City had a Mail Art Exhibition in 1969 or 1970. So the question is not new or recent.
There are going to be all kinds of exhibitions in museums of Mail Art. It has been around over 20 years and then people begin to take notice. Fluxus has had lots of attention in the past 3 years and mail art is just behind. Why do you think the dealers have been calling everyone directly or through their scouts. At least here in the U.S.A. that is the case and I imagine the same is happening in Europe. One local dealer in mail art I know has an office in Paris. Mostly I find it quite humorous.
Locally, there have been two exhibitions here recently involving the mail but they were not Mail Art Exhibitions. Much was made of the mail part but the curators did not have the knowledge or the sensibility to see there is a larger picture here. Their focus was fine arts. Two painters sending painting back and forth to work on and the accompaying journals and the other was drawings. I believe that mail art sometimes transcends its own boundries and is both fine art and mail art. But the spirit of two I find quite different.
So, I accept museum shows of mail art. Also I believe people can learn so much from what we give to each other and this kind of public exposure is part of that process.
The second part of your question: Yes it's O.K. As it will happen anyway and it is happening now. So I figure why buck the tide. Although I think the dialogue between artists is so interesting and has lot of excitement. There is a richness here that is missing if only a few pieces are shown and out of context. I believe this element of mail art is one of it's most important and most precious. Doing this kind of show ignores this essential part of mail art.
RJ : After doing mail art for so many years you probably have received lots of mail in return. Do you have an "archive" as most mail artists like to call their collection?
reply on 18-10-1996
(This answer arrived just before I leave for a two week trip to San Francisco, where currently there is an exhibition about the TAM Rubberstamp Archive).
PT : Yes. And it is fairly organized. I have worked on it and I have also hired people to help with it. They usually love to do it, and the only problem is that these new comers get so enthrawled they are apt to spend too much time reading it.
At present it is divided according to decades. And I would like whatever student borrowed a lot of my stamp collection from the 70's to send it back to me. This happened by chance. I had the first year organized by nom de plume, then the mail became overwhealming so I just put it into a room and closed the door. Two years later I was asked to exhibit some of my collection. The big question was how to open that door and what to do with it once I did. I had the titles of the projects already and the major issue was the form. Living Letters became 6 green waste baskets with cushions so that any viewer could become a voyeur for the duration of the show. Other pieces from the Book of Tongues were duplicated and put into large clear plexiglas mail boxes. Other pieces were displayed on the walls and sometimes ceilings. What ever came to mind.
At present I have the 90's all together. The classifications are artistamps, mail art, oversize, catalogues and books, and magazines. I am a bit behind in filing at the moment but then also seems to be perpetual.
Lets continue and finish this interview when you are here. We could also pick out some visuals and print them on the Kodak 1575 as it is cheaper here. I look forward to meeting you and to spending some time together. Welcome to California.
(In October I visited Patricia Tavenner for a few days. I was in San Francisco for the exhibition of the TAM Rubberstamp Archive, where I gave a lecture about the archive. A few days after this lecture I drove by BART from San Francisco to Oakland where Patricia lives. During my stay there I also visited Berkeley and followed one of Patricia's silkscreen classes. Also she did a video-interview with me. On the last day I wrote the next question on a piece of paper an gave this to Patricia).
RJ : Well, Patricia, thanks for all the visuals you gave me, and the chance to see the place you live and work. The artistamp seems to be an important artform for you. How did this start?
reply on 11-12-1996
PT : I got started making artists stamps before they were called that and quite by accident or one could say quite by intuition. It was a time of searching for me. One search was for new media. The back of certain magazines is a treasure chest of ideas and potential media for artists. I found an address in Philadelphia that would take any image and make a page of photo stamps that would be gumed and perforated. So I did a few small collages of rubberstamp images and sent them off. What came back was a bit of revelation for me. Originally I thought I would decorate my envelopes with these images. But when the whole sheets arrived a whole new media came with it. The full page was very powerful and I was astounded. They were just wonderful to me. I did make one post card that had some of these images upon them but mainly I have worked with full sheets of artistamps. Individual stamps just aren't that exciting to me. I like the big picture.
In 1970 I did 6 sheets of artistams. These were collages of rubber stamped images and found papers. Then in 1972 I did my first photo stamp and that was of my belly button and I call it The Moon. I just love this one. Then what followed over a year or 2 were the Nom de Plume series.
RJ : What is the "big picture" for artistamps nowadays? It seems it has developed into an artform of its own now.......?
next answer on 27-9-1997
PT : Yes, it is an artform of its own now. And the dominant contribution of Mail Art to the main stream of fine arts in terms of a media. In the beginning we all did everything. Rubber stamps, audio tapes, video tapes, stamps , letters , poems , etc. But as the movement has expanded and we (in this case me) it has become impossible to do all of it. You will find in the history of most mail artists tat this is true. Then choices become necessary but maily, the choices just take care of themselves. It is a consious choice and very natural without a lot of vascillation. Evolution is what I am looking for. I would venture that most artists jointing the movement today begin in a specific area and perhaps branch out from there as opposed to the reverse which I think was more prevalent in the early 70's
Stamps easily venture out of the mail art network as they have such a universal appeal. They are also recognizable and already a part of everyones life. So change the image to a personal one instead of the government and you have artistamps. There is a great seduction in this media which pulls people into it so easily.
Within the network we all trade our stamps like we were a bunch of kids with baseball cards. On the West Coast there have been several festivals and exhibitions of stamps. At these events the stamp artists have been selling their wares. Then afterwards we all go to dinner together and hug and kiss. There is a great community here. Just after the 89 earthquake the Davidson Gallery in Seattle began a biennial exhibition of artistamps. There were 3 of these shows. The Mars Expo was held twice, and the Alternative Festival was held twice. Here in San Francisco I curated a large show of just artistamps and Harley showed some of his mail art Show shortly after mine in Santa Rosa, California. Then last year was the Pacific Rim Show and in January of 1997 was the Artistamp by women which I currated, both in San Francisco. So for now the bigest activity is the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada.
The future is unlimited. And at the same time artistamps may become extinct or perhaps could be considered an endangered species at present. Technology is changing and people don't like to lick those things much any more. A self adhesive stamp is easier and less messy. The internet may make the Post Office obsolite. As I am sitting here typing on my computer and perhaps writing myself into oblivion.
RJ : You mention the Artistamp by women show. What is the reason for showing only the female artists? Is there a male dominance in the mail art network?
PATRICIA TAVENNER - THE MAIL QUEEN
The Eternal Press
OAKLAND , CA 94611