LONG BEACH, Calif. — With much of the art world shut down during the coronavirus pandemic, mail art has made a comeback for those seeking beauty and a memento of human connection. More than 120 artworks are currently on view in Couriers of Hope, a project helmed by the Port City Creative Guild, which collaborated with 10 other Long Beach arts institutions to commission mail art by more than 90 South Bay artists and illustrators.
You can peruse the delicate envelopes online, and just through their titles, you can discover artists’ experiences in the pandemic. In “The Shut In Society 1,” a cat peeks out from the slats between plastic blinds; the window frame is not just an acrylic painting, but also the real, clear poly liner on a blue envelope. Painted above the cat is a Covered California-branded face mask — a freebie the state-run health insurance marketplace likely sent to artist Catherine Kaleel last fall.
On another envelope, muralist JP Pereira has spray painted a red, yellow, and green gradient. In black, he stenciled a floral border, a lone palm tree on a tiny island, and the word “resilience,” also the title of the work. He finished with wavy white lines, a traditional Samoan design.
By the 1960s, doodling on envelopes had transformed from an idly activity to a full-fledged movement and art exchange. Recycled junk mail was a free canvas, and for the cost of a stamp, an art commission could be delivered right to your door. Though mail art would decline as email’s popularity made recycled envelopes scarce, there is still an enthusiastic following for the niche hobby, especially now.
Couriers of Hope embraces mail art’s roots in creative exchange by giving Long Beach Unified School District high schoolers the chance to illustrate their own interpretation of “hope” and trade their artwork for one in the show. And in case they’re unsure where to buy a stamp, the school district is providing free materials to keep the correspondence accessible.
The mail art project coincides with increased scrutiny of the United States Postal Service, which drew the ire of the former Trump administration. Just months after being painted as a corrupt operation that could have rigged an election, Couriers of Hope repositions mail services as the harbinger of good things — democracy, relationships, art, and, as the title says, hope.
Couriers of Hope continues online and in-person at the Psychic Temple of the Holy Kiss (228 East Broadway, Long Beach) through February 28.