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 Mallarm