THE MAIL-INTERVIEW WITH CAROL STETSER
THE MAIL-INTERVIEW WITH CAROL STETSER
Started on 12-11-1995
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 11-12-1995
CS : In 1976 I founded Padma Press (see enclosed catalog) and proceeded to publish in the next 3 years, three offset books of my photographs. In July 1978 Judith Hoffberg reviewed one of my books in “Umbrella” and it is in this periodical that I first read about mail art. On March 5, 1979, I participated in my first mail art exhibition “Umbrella”, sponsored by Hoffberg and held at the University of California, Riverside. During 1979 I participated in a dozen mail art shows and double that number in 1980. I primarily sent out postcards of my photographs and tear sheets from my books.
Correspondents sent me xeroxes, the first time I encountered that medium. I packed up my darkroom and only shot instant photographs. Then I began making xerographs, both black-and-white and color in 1981. These early pieces were very photographic in nature. For example, the first series of color xeroxes I ever printed I called “Pollages”; these were collages utilizing polaroid SX-70 prints. In 1982 I joined the ISCA (International Society of Copier Artists) and from that time up to the present I have made xerography my primary medium.
At the time I began participating in the network I lived in a rebuilt tin shack that was once a miner’s cabin in the small town of Oatman in the Mohave desert of Arizona. Retired people and bums made up the population of 200. Wild burros roamed the hills and Main Street. Gunfights entertained the tourists on weekends. My husband, a disabled Vietnam veteran, painted murals and did wood-carving. We lived on his government pension. I also worked at various times as the bookkeeper for the local water company, salesperson at a hardware store, and eventually in the post office (Oatman, where a mail artist delivers the mail). By choice we had no telephone or television. It was 25 miles to a gas station or grocery store. So you can see we lived a very simple life – and a very isolated one. Mail art was perfect for me because it brought me in contact with the rest of the world.
In a small town you spend a lot of time discussing the weather, the potholes in the road, who is sleeping with whom, and who got drunk last night. This gossip bonds a community together and helps pass the time, but it does have its limits. My correspondence had no limits; mail art opened the world to me. It brought me information and stimulation and friendship from all over the globe. It gave me hope and kept me from becoming as crazy as my neighbors.
RJ : I can guess that in such a small town the people also knew about your mail art……. Didn’t your neighbors think that you were crazy? How do the people in your surroundings react to the mail art you receive?
Reply on 5-1-1996
(together with her answer Carol Stetser sent me a 8-page long list with an overview of her activities and publications)
CS : This is an interesting question that I never thought about before. The townspeople knew nothing at all about the mail art network or my participation in it. The postal employees enjoyed the decorated envelopes that passed through the mail, but that was the only feed back I received. My neighbours knew I did photography, but no one ever visited my darkroom.
When I showed people prints of local buildings the comments usually were, “You make that old tin shack look too good.” I gave photographs to the locals who posed for me; they thanked me, but I never saw the pictures hanging in their cabins. When my books were published, the self-portraits, naked from the waist up, generated the most comments, principally from the men. You see, the majority of retired people living in this town were from the working class and lived on social security benefits. Few of the local kids finished highschool. Art meant nothing to them.
We artists, whose lives revolve around art, tend to forget that the rest of the world doesn’t share our passions. The idea of Art for Art’s sake was inconceivable to my neighbors. If you couldn’t sell it to buy food, beer, cigarettes, or shelter, what good was it? Art meant the pictures on calendars. Art is realistic and pretty. Anything else was incomprehensible.
RJ : The publishing and making of books, even handmade unique books, seems to be very important for you. Is it a commercial activity for you or is there more to it?
Reply on 20-1-1996
(Besides her answer Carol also sent some info about Padma Press and some artworks. Also she writes that she has sent some more books by surface mail, so I hope to get that during the continuation of this interview).
CS : Ah, books. “Everything in the world exists to end up in a book”. isn’t that what Mallarmé wrote? When I “retired” from mail art and found I had time to devote to other pursuits, I sat down and thought about what was really important to me, what I believed in, to what organization I should volunteer my time and energy. In my town there’s a booklet listing all the groups for the retirees to join. Looking through this I realized that books had always been the focus of my life. I volunteered at the library.
When I was a student I often visited museums but never stepped into galleries. Therefore, in the 1970’s when I began making photographs I was not interested in exhibiting my prints in galleries. The audience seemed too limited. Instead, I thought about arranging the material around a theme in the format of a book. The mid-70’s in America was the hey-day of small-press, offset-printed books. I took all my money and put it into printing 3 books of my photographs. At the time I was naive enough to believe that publishing artists books was a commercial venture and would generate jobs and income for me. I’d been much better off to have purchased land and a house which is what my “hippy” brother did at the time. The books did receive good reviews, but I never made enough money to break even. You could say that my publishing was supposed to be a commercial activity but didn’t turn out to be. I still have stacks of cartons of books stashed in my closet.
But I did it and now I don’t have to do it again. When I reached the age of 40 I didn’t have the usual middle-age regrets about never having risked following a dream. It’s actually pretty amazing to realize I conducted the business with printers and binderies in New York City through the mail and over a pay phone on a rural Arizona main street. I don’t have that kind of naive optimism anymore, it’s something I’m glad I did in my twenties.
Eventually I realized my audience was a very limited one: other artists, a few university libraries and archives, who understood what artists books and visual poetry are all about. Then I could make very small runs or limited editions of xerographic books and at least recoup my expenses. But I continue to think about everything as it relates to a book. I haven’t done any audio work, performance art, or any more gallery exhibitions. My communication is always one-to-one through a book: personal, visual, and tactile.
Besides the 3 offset photography books I also made xerographic bookworks exploring photographic themes. Positive Negatives (1984) are collages using contact cheets. Persistence of Memory (1985) manipulates old family photos to explore the relationship between memory and photography. Fashion is another theme that interests me, women as portrayed photographically by the media. I edited two compilations on the theme of fashion and style in 1986 and 1990, put together a humerous assortment of accessories for mail artists in Letter Fashion in 1987, and made the color xerox bookwork of collages called Vogue Patterns which got me in trouble with Condé Nast and led to the mail art contest to rename the bookwork. I’ve also printed 5 travel journals and 3 visual poetry bookworks since 1988.
RJ : I can guess that living in a small town also means one wants to travel to other parts of the world. Since you wrote journals about your travels they must have been quite interesting. Am I right?
Reply on 10-2-1996
CS : Traveling has always been important to me. I met two husbands while traveling! In 1968 I met my first husband in the airport in Paris. We made 3 other trips to Europe including our honeymoon to Turkey and Iran. Then in 1973 I met Jim, my present husband, in a campground in Nevada. We spent 8 months on the road in America photographing Indian ruins in the Southwest. After we settled in Oatman we camped in the mountains every summer.
In 1988 when I was 40 we sold our cabin, our truck, and most of our possesions and spent a year in Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia. That’s when I first made visual travel journals to send to my family and mail art friends. We’ve made 6 trips to the South Pacific in the past decade. I love it there – it’s such a change from the desert. I like sharing my experiences and my correspondents seem to enjoy reading about our journeys.
RJ : Have you also traveled with the purpose to meet mail artists/correspondents? Any interesting stories about that?
Reply on 2-3-1996
CS : I haven’t met many mail artists. Julia and Gyorgy Galantai (artpool, Hungary) spent some time at the University in Phoenix where I met them one afternoon for lunch. Opal Nations visited me in Oatman, Peter Küstermann and Angela stopped in Sedona during their Congress travels. And once I met Richard Meade and Minoy at Michael Hyatt’s house in Los Angeles.
I have mixed feelings about mail art tourism. I’m a very shy person and find these social gatherings difficult. Also, personal encounters can dim the participants’ enthusiasm for correspondence. I prefer mail art in the mail.
RJ : That is probably one of the interesting aspects of mail art. It doesn’t matter where you are, but you are the center of your own network, and you decide yourself when you send out responses to the others in the network. You are the center and yet, it is completely solistic and anonymous. Does this make any sense to you?
Reply on 1-4-1996
(Besides her answer Carol also sent some color-xeroxes of her work and a statement on the “Politics” of Photocopier Artist’s Books, she wrote in February 1992).
CS : I think the notion of each mail artist being the center of her own network is very important. It’s the reason I believe it’s impossible to write a history of mail art. I “retired” from mail art in 1992 partly because I felt the personal nature of communication that first attracted me to the network was being lost. Xeroxed mailing lists of participants passed for exhibition catalogs. Books and articles outlined a “his story” of the network and profiled mail art stars. Workshops “taught” people how to participate in mail art. The network is too messy, too individualistic, to complex to fit into a neat restrictive outline. I think these interviews that you are conducting are an appropriate method of conveying something of the organic nature of the Eternal Network – which is why I’m participating in retirement!
There are as many stories about mail art as there are participants. We don’t need critics, judges, or historians. We need openness and freedom. The pathways of communication are infinite.
RJ : Well, I’m flattered with this kind of comment about my interview-project. Yes, every mail artist has his or her own story. And the reason why I started with this interview-project was because I could not find information about these stories. I wonder how it is like to have “retired” in mail art. Was it a sudden decision or was it planned in advance? Did you tell others about this or did you just stop answering the mail?
Reply on 22-4-1996
(The documents Carol metioned in the next answer were enclosed in the envelope, so I could see the whole story of her answer).
CS : I loved participating in the mail art network for many years. I gave my time, energy, and financial resources to mail art. I have nothing but good memories about my participation in the network.
But in 1991 I began to notice a change -in myself, and in the network. In the spring of that year I wrote an article, “Questioning the Historification of Mail Art” that summarized my dismay with the direction I saw the network heading. I questioned the motivation behind the urge among mail artists to become historians. I believed that mail art was being packaged for consumption by the art market. I saw mail art being turned into a commodity. I hated to see mail art touted as one more “ism” in art history. I didn’t want to see it co-opted by the establishment. I hated to once again see women’s participation in the network undermined or ignored by the white males writing their his-stories of the network.
My disillusionment with the direction mail art was heading was one reason I considered retiring from the network. The other reason was personal. I realized that a full mail box often elicited from me a groan rather than a smile. I began to look upon answering my mail as a chore instead of a pleasure. I was suffering from mail burn-out; mail art had ceased to be fun.
I tried cutting back but soon realized, that like all junkies, I would have to go cold turkey. I spent a year mulling over the idea of retirement. Then I read about all the activities planned around 1992 as the year of networker congresses and hit upon the idea of holding a congress through the mail. Since Arizona was not on the major route of artists’ travels I knew it would be difficult for me to physically attend any of these meetings. I also felt it was appropriate to hold my congress in the mail which is where I believed mail art belonged.
I mailed notices to my contacts and asked them to copy and pass around my invitation to a networker Congress through the mail to be held November 10, 1992 on the theme: “One day in the Eternal Network; One day in the life of a Networker.” This event would also celebrate my retirement after 14 years in the network.
Ironically, this project recreated for me the thrill I had first experienced when I began participating in the network. Each letter brought fresh revelations and insights into the life of the sender. I learned more during this project about various individuals than I had known after years of correspondence in the network. I wrote in my documentation of the event that this project demonstrated to me once again that the strength of the mail art network comes from its marvelous diversity. The mundane details of our lives are fascinating, often of greater interest to others than much of the “art” we produce.
I mailed out documentation of the congress in January 1993 and then ceased participating in network activities. When I received notices about mail art exhibitions I forwarded them to other artists. I responded to inquiries from new participants with a postcard stating that I had retired. I continue to correspond with 5-6 mail artists on a regular basis – as friends whom I met in the network. I continue to participate in exhibitions of visual poetry and to send out copies of travel journals to MA friends but these are not mail art activities.
One interesting postscript to my 1992 Congress: I was so interested in the daily accounts of the mundane events in people’s lives that I vowed to continue the project by yearly writing down what I did on November 10. This didn’t work. I missed Nov. 10, 1993. But beginning in December of 1993 I wrote down what I did on the 10th of each month. And by keeping to this regular schedule I’ve been able to maintain a journal for the past 2 years and hope to continue recording the events of the 10th as long as possible. For me this is a legacy of mail art.
I do believe “once a mail artist, always a mail artist.” In the same way that you can’t explain mail art to someone who doesn’t immediately grasp the concept, you can’t ever cease to be a part of the network. It’s in your blood, it’s part of who you are. I’m just a retired practitioner!
RJ : What did you do on the 10th of this month, April 1996?
Reply on 2-6-1996
(Together with her answer Carol sent a copy of her notes made of April 10th 1996).
CS : Today, when I am sitting at my desk responding to your interview question, it is Memorial Day, May 27th, 1996. I don’t remember at all what I did on April 10. Isn’t it amazing how quickly we forget the details of our past. We seem to remember only the highlights of our lives – either the very good or the very bad experiences are stored in our memories.
Each month when I write in my notebook, I try to mention the weather, the major news stories of the day, what I ate (when I travel I am fascinated by what people eat), the mail I received, and my activities for the day. Since my birthday is April 11, I always add the highlights of that day to my April entry.
Let’s see: April 10 was a Wednesday. Here’s the entry for that day (copy enclosed)
RJ : Do you still have all the mail art that you once got in?
Reply on 24-6-1996
CS : I still have all my personal correspondence. In 1987 when we sold our cabin in Oatman and put our belongings in storage before spending a year in the South Pacific I sent boxes of mail art exhibition notices to John Held. But I kept the binders of my personal mail art. Now, the binders sit on my library shelves next to my photo albums. I look at them periodically the same way I look at the photos. They reflect my life at a certain period of time in the same fashion as my snapshots do.
I am a very organized, methodical person. During the year, after I had responded to a piece of mail, I put it in a box in my studio. Then, every January, my first act of the new year was to archive. I put all my photographs and snapshots in an album and arranged them by month. Then I tackled my box of mail art. I sorted the year’s mail by sender making piles of art on the floor of my studio. I put all exhibition announcements and documentation in a seperate box (these eventually went to John Held Jr.). I put catalogs that I liked in my library.
Then I alphabetized the piles of mail art by sender’s last name and mounted everything in 8½ x 11 sheet protectors and put the pages in 3 ring binders housed in slipcases. As it happened, it’s a good thing that I was this fanatical or all my archives would have been destroyed.
A very bizarre incident occured to me in 1983. After Jim and I rebuilt a cabin in Oatman I converted the trailer we had previously occupied into my studio. The town bully (it seems that every town has one) put a stick of dynamite in the planter box at the end of the trailer and blew it up. The incident had nothing to do with me – it was commited in retaliation for testimony Jim had given in court against this man. But he was so stupid he didn’t know he was blowing up my studio instead of Jim’s.
(The answer of Carol was written on a copy of photos taken just after the blast to show how her archive looked because of this).
The blast shattered the windows and hurled metal and wood projectiles the length of the trailer. If I had been inside I would have been seriously injured or possibly killed. Papers and artwork were torn to bits and strewn everywhere. My archives had been on the shelf right below the site of the blast. I found the binders scattered around the room, the rings had popped open, some of the binders had seperated from the slipcases, but the mail art inside remained unharmed! To this day I still find pieces of glass and splinters of wood inside some of the notebooks. To me it was miraculous. Mail art survives dynamite! Art is mightier than the sword!
I learned many things from this event. I had always been terrified of losing everything in a fire (every summer one of the old wooden buildings in town burnt to the ground) And now my studio had been blown up – and I survived – and my artwork survived. I also understood that even if everything I owned had been destroyed it wouldn’t mean the end – my work had a life of its own. You couldn’t take away what I had shared with others. I lost that great fear we have that we have to hold on to all our possessions, that we exist only in terms of our possessions. A great liberation.
The whole incident backfired on the bully. I received tremendous support from the local townspeople. He was totally ostracized (although never brought to justice). Mail artists responded with solicitude. I greatly appreciated the personal and written comments of concern that I received. How’s that for a story of the indestructibility of mail art!
RJ : Yes, quite a story!. Another subject; collages. It is obvious that you like to make collages, and I am happy to get color-copies of some of them. Why are you so fond of this kind of work?
(During the summer vacation Carol spent her time on The Fiji-islands & surroundings.)
Reply on 12-10-1996
CS : I think collage is the perfect medium for American artists living in the late 20th century. In our consumer society we are constantly bombarded with colorful, glossy throw-away material. Daily our mailboxes are stuffed with brochures, catalogs, magazines, newspapers, etc. This is the material that surrounds us in our lives. Therefore it is the perfect material for the artist to use to communicate about our time period.
I just returned from a 2½ month trip to 3 South Pacific nations. You would not be a collage artist if you lived there. The printed matter is simply not available; therefore, collage doesn’t reflect those societies. Craftspeople in Fiji and Western Samon weave mats, make tapa, or carve wood out of the local materials. In the Cook Islands the woman make bright quilts called tivaevae out of the bolts of cloth that are readily available. Paper, on the other hand, is expensive and scarce.
When I lived in Oatman, my neighbors knew I cut up old magazines. They’d give me stacks of periodicals when they had finished with them. The post office where I worked was another rich source of material. In our tiny one-person office there was rarely more than an hour’s worth of work a day. Therefore, we were given the task of filing change-of-address cards for all the newspapers, magazines, and newsletters sent to customers who had moved from the surrounding towns. Every week I went through boxes and boxes of periodicals clipping off address labels and then throwing away the publications. Of course, I managed to cut out the images I wanted before relegating the magazines to the trash bin. The variety of publications printed in this country is astounding. Every conceivable subject has spawned a magazine. I gathered a wealth of material in this job. It was the only time I got paid to work as a collage artist!
Now in Sedona I work at the library. Here also we receive boxes and boxes of donated material. Some of the magazines are sold, some are placed on the “Free” rack, and many are tossed in the trash. Again, a wealth of material is available to me.
I arrange all my cut-outs in expanding-file-folders according to subject. Food, Furniture, Cowboys, Holidays, Houses, War, Snakes, Flowers, Cities, Outer-Space are some of the catagories. I also keep one file for bright colors. In the past, the fashion magazines provided me with the patterns and colors I liked. Now clothes tend to be black or white and I have to depend on Travel or House magazines for the vibrant colors I use in collages influenced by my Polynesian travels.
I do not intend the collages to be the finished product however. They are equivalent to a photographic negative to be printed in a darkroom. I make collages to print on a copy machine. I always keep the characteristics of xerography in mind when arranging a collage. When I work in color I visualize the tones the copier can reproduce. The pasted collage is an intermediate step for me. I keep the “original” collage in binders the same way I file my older negatives. I consider the xerographic print the final image.
(After receiving Carols’s answer I also got more mail with documentation about her travels to all those exotic islands. During her stay in those places she has also mailed me some ‘touristic’ cards which gave an impression of the places she was visiting)
RJ : After seeing how people live in these islands with the sometimes poor economical situations, do you think that mail art is for the ‘rich countries’ only?
answer on : 5-1-1997
CS : You must have the time, energy, and inclination to make mail art. That means money and education. To give away your art, to not ask for financial remuneration, is a luxury only the “rich” can afford. Wealth is relative, but in my experience, mail art is for the “rich”. The concept of mail art is as inconceivable to the poor in America as it is to the poor in the so-called Third World. You are not going to spend your time on mail art if you have no food or shelter.
RJ : The time it takes for my questions to reach you and your answers to reach me is sometimes very long because we both like to travel a lot (thanks for your beautiful travel journal on Western Samoa, I hope you received my report on my trip to San Francisco and California….). So, 6 days before I travel abroad again I would like to send you the next question. If you could travel without problems (like time, money, and other restrictions). Where would you like to go right now?
Answer on 1-4-1997
CS : The Moon.
RJ : Well, since it very difficult to send you mail there, or for you to send a reply to me, maybe it is time to end this interview. After all, we started it at the end of 1995 and it is time that others in the network can read your thoughts as well. Thanks for the interview Carol!
Sedona – AZ 86341
RUUD JANSSEN – TAM
4801 BB Breda
e-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org