shoals of Caribbean fish

Here’s what I did on the boat, the day we ran away from our house-sit. I had 40+ envelopes to decorate and address…preferably without hand-painting each one (I did this for the last batch of letters…printed the ship, but then painted different colours into each one. It took daaaaays! I had no other life!)

I didn’t have any ideas ready…just the theme of the letter, which is about (among other things) learning how they cook fish in Guyana, South America.

In the studio on ThursdayI took a piece of craft foam and (with scissors) roughly cut out a shape like coral with wavy tendrils. Sprayed some adhesive onto the back of the foam, stuck it down to a piece of cardboard box (it can’t be washed…it doesn’t have to last, I just need it to print these envelopes!) Rolled out a very pale aquamarine acrylic paint, using a foam roller (foam is much better than a printmaker’s rubber brayer, for acrylics.) See “DIY craft foam stamps” for more information…

Using more foam, I cut out the little circles you see here, glued them down to a damaged canvas board (postcard sized) and printed in a stronger sea green.

It needed something sharp and contrast-ey, so I carved a fish in white rubber (like eraser rubber, but you can get it in thick tiles.) I used a rubber brayer to print, and oil paint (to which I added drops of alkyd medium…speeds up the drying of oil paints).In the studio on Thursday

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You start to print, and a rhythm sets in…roll, press, lay aside to dry, roll, press…each print is similar to the others, but slightly different. I delight in the nuances in color, picking up more blue with the roller at times, and then more shamrock green…

I was a terrible student in printmaking class, where the goal was to produce editions of identical prints (we did collagraphs, zinc plate etching, silkscreen and reduction lino) and I flat out rejected the very idea of editions…I wanted to see what my design looked like in different colours. I moved plates around to change the registration. I altered plates after every print. Everything I made was a monotype, one-off and impossible to repeat…I mean, why wouldn’t you want this? It’s awesome! One plate, 50 different prints made from it! Good times.

My instructor gave up on me in the printroom (though he and I continued to drink beer together after class.)

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At first I printed with phthalo turquoise…too transparent, and still not enough contrast. So I added burnt umber. The texture of the envelopes (Crown Mill envelopes from Belgium…how very ooh la la!) looked like ripples of sunlight underwater, and sometimes resembled scales. More interesting.

The fish swam up and down…trying to find the best position in the coral, but bearing in mind that it had to leave space for postage stamps and addresses. In the studio on Thursday
In the studio on Thursday
I went on to add the stamps and addresses, next…

Note to self: get one of those sponge thingies for wetting postage stamps… licking 80-100 stamps in a day is weird. Like stamp gum has become one of the main food groups, making up a hefty percentage of one’s recommended daily allowance of cellulose or who-knows-what. The stamps from the 80’s were a little bit sweet (so thoughtful of the post office, then, no?) Most just tasted like old paper.

 

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Launched: The Haitian Armada

Haitian Armada...outgoing mail

At last! Some outgoing mail! This is hopelessly late, thanks in part to a cyclone, but also because…guess who’s back in Australia?! So happy, and so busy, catching up on the 16 months we were apart, that I haven’t been able to do anything else!

image

A letter about a year on an island, and living by the sea. The Haitian vevé of a ship, rubber linoprint with hand colouring, gold and white inks, artistamps, and a wax seal (not shown…coming on the reverse, when I seal these babies up) adorn the envelopes.
Haitian Armada
You can still start your subscription to my monthly letters of art, calligraphy, postal porn, and stories, with this one…please visit my Etsy shop for more details.

Artistamps

artist's stampsHaving so much fun with the February letter. Now that my initial anxiety is gone (thanks to such a great response from the first recipients of the January letter) I have been able to muse on the idea of Mail—its symbols, its purposes, its paraphernalia—more, and get creative and playful with my letters.

I started by making a mini-sheet of Artistamps.

An artistamp is a tiny art form that resembles a postage stamp in shape, size, and feel. It is not valid for postage, but is different from a forgery or illegal stamp in that the creator has no intent to defraud the postal authorities or stamp collectors. In this way, the artistamp resembles the Cinderella stamp, which resembles a postage stamp but is not used for postage purposes—even when issued by a government agency. Commemorative, holiday, charity, propaganda and fundraising stamps all fall under the Cinderella stamp category…

Irony, satire, humor, eroticism and subversion of governmental authority are frequent characteristics of artistamps. Artists play with the expectation of official endorsement that the postage stamp format inheres in order to surprise, shock, or subvert, the complacent viewer’s presumptions.

Mini envelopes to hold a set of ersatz artist's stamps...February letter's inclusion. My local post office let me play with their rubber stamp, and frank each envelope. Having so much fun with this letter subscription!

The fact that the artist’s stamp sets its own stamp on an (art) letter is one of the special features of this form of expression. A further facet of this small-format art is its challenging the mail monopoly by laying claim to the perforated and gummed miniature works of art. The stamps the artists create are not meant to swindle the postal service, but to call into question the right to design things.

(from the catalog of the exhibition Leck mich! – Künstlerbriefmarken seit den 1960er Jahren (Lick me! – Artist’s Stamps since the Sixties) by The New Museum Weserburg, Bremen, Germany)

The designs will be familiar to most of you; they have been taken from scans or photographs of my sketchbooks and paintings. There are 18 different designs on each sheet, and everyone who receives the February letter will get a complete set. The hardest part of making these stamps was deciding which 18 images to use! It was so much fun, and the finished stamps are so endearing, that I know I’m going to have to design several sheets more, over time, just because I want to see what everything I have ever made looks like as a stamp!

The phrase, “the right to design things,” in The New Museum Weserburg’s exhibiton description, resonates with something I feel about postage stamps. When I looked into the stamps currently available from Australia Post’s philatelic shop, I found only half of the available designs were stamps that I would care to put on my letters. Among the reasonably nice flowers, landscapes, Aboriginal art, and animals (especially the gold-foiled Chinese New Year horoscope sheet), were sets like: Legends of Television Entertainment, Convict Past, and Norfolk Island Convict Heritage (two distinct sheets sporting drab paintings of historic prison buildings), the black and white set of Women in War, a banal collection of Love to Celebrate stamps (roses love-heart, pair of wine glasses, pair of wedding rings, cake, balloons, etcetera) and a couple of small, brown, dull Christmas Island Early Voyages stamps. An announcement heralds the imminent release of the depressing Norfolk Island Golf stamp set, featuring a man rolling his golf clubs across the green. I don’t understand why such a poverty of beautiful stamps exists in my country…it seems almost as though AusPost doesn’t hire artists to design their stamps, at all, but hands the task out to retired accountants and ossified history professors.

How I envy people in the U.S. their ability to order customised stamps from Zazzle.com, with anything they want, printed on them! So lucky….

Artistamps 99cUntil Australia catches up with the world, I guess I’ll carry on making artistamps.

I messed up the first sheet by trying to perforate the stamps with my sewing machine.  Without power on the boat, this meant turning the wheel with one hand while guiding the sheet with the other. It took nearly an hour to perforate one sheet, so I gave up on that idea. Instead, I used a pair of craft scissors with a fine wavy pattern to cut the stamps apart. Quicker and much nicer looking.

I’ll be sending a complete set to each of my letter subscribers. They’re in a miniature envelope, with an extra artistamp affixed, and my friends at the local post office lent me their cancellation stamp—whee!—so I have franked each stamp with an official ring. I love playing with the Post Office’s toys!

What to do with these (or any other) artistamps? Have a play in your journal, use them in collage, decorate letters you’re writing, or in scrapbooking projects, whatever.

Can you use them, mixed in among the real postage stamps, on an envelope?

According to Wikipedia, “Artistamp creators often include their work on legitimate mail, alongside valid postage stamps, in order to decorate the envelope with their art. In many countries this practice is legal, provided the artistamp is not passed off as or likely to be mistaken for a genuine postage stamp. When so combined the artistamp may be considered part of the mail art genre.”

I don’t know if the stamps I’ve made here are safe to use in the post. I probably shouldn’t have put a monetary value on the stamp, even though it should be obvious that there are no 99c stamps, and they don’t even say which country they’re from. I’m going to ask the Post Office about Australia’s laws on this, and hopefully they will actually have someone who knows the answer! Queries like this are probably exceedingly rare, these days, and I worry that it’ll be hard to find a government employee who knows or cares about these finer points of the law.

Always ask about your country’s laws before using artiststamps or Cinderella stamps, as decorative elements, on envelopes going through the actual post…being wrong could turn out to be a federal offense!


In case you haven’t already heard, every month I write, and then reproduce, a beautiful art letter—calligraphy, illustrations, postage stamps, wax seals, fun inclusions like artistamps or poems or photos, and so forth—and send it out as part of a letter subscription. Find a stunning work of letter art in your mailbox…once a month, for a few months up to an entire year.

Click here to learn more & subscribe.

 

A bonfire on my desk

drunk on color

It’s been raining since Thursday… the solar panels are starving and I haven’t been able to use my laptop, for fear of draining my batteries beyond recovery. Sometimes I think I have watched enough water fall from the sky to wash the world away.

No matter. I have been writing letters. Yes, those letters, the ones I’ll be mailing copies of, to the dozen brave first customers who came to my ETSY shop over the past two weeks.

But there have been other letters, besides. Friends, and strangers, will also be getting something in the post from me this February. It’s International Correspondence Writing Month (InCoWriMo) and, for 28 days, hundreds of people have pledged to write a letter (postcard, gift card…) a day. You can write to people you know, or you can pick some lucky ducky from the list of addresses submitted to the InCoWriMo page.

It isn’t cold, in Darwin…not even after 4 days of rain. But the soul craves warmth, possibly because the sun has been blotted out by cloud cover, and everything is shadowy and grey. So I built a bonfire on my desk.

I piled together some hand-marbled Himalayan paper, old Pantone swatches, polished bits of brass, postage stamps, gold inks, and one of my printed postcards. Set it alight with a sliver of sunlight that broke through the clouds, and stood back to enjoy the blaze.


P.S. I have finally settled on a name (yes, settled againanother name) and this time it’s for good…bought the domain (no website up yet) and everything: The Scarlet Letterbox.

Just to confuse you, I’ve changed the name of my ETSY shop, too; but it’s the same old shop.

The Missing Ink*

teaser

A change, they say, is as good as a holiday. When I moved into my friend Yvonne’s unit just after Christmas, my one big goal was to figure out by the New Year what the heck I was going to do for a living, now that my hours at work have been chopped to less than half what they were. I had been thinking about it a bit, at home on the houseboat, but found that my mind kept wandering the same old grooves, the same tired ideas: Bind journals and albums, sell them on ETSY, have exhibitions or rent pop-up space, and join two weekly tourist craft markets in Darwin…just thinking about it depressed me!—I’d chewed on these commonplace, uninspired solutions for so long that they were a grey, flavourless wad of gum in my brain. Also, I had tried them all before, and they hadn’t worked then, so why did I believe that they would work now?

Kris’s arrival in Hawaii, and the ensuing media hype, pushed my own plans aside for a few days. Kris and I exchanged e-mail letters twice daily, making up for time we’d been apart and the best of his time on land. As this went on I found myself wishing, as I do every time he’s off somewhere and I’m at home, that I could send him a beautiful letter. But it was impossible, with him on a boat. He, on the other hand, has taken advantage of my fixed address to send me dozens of postcards and hand-painted letters since I left him behind in Guatemala in August 2016.

Finally, this impracticable urge to make a beautiful piece of mail art for Kris, along with posts from my own blog, and some readers’ comments, gave me the idea.

Something so unlike all my other ideas that, instead of looking through it with indifference as it flitted past me like a soap bubble, my mind pounced and pinned it down. I was so agitated by this new thing that I got out of bed and paced the hallway for hours. For once, my inner critic was so astounded that it couldn’t find anything to say, and let me walk that idea from the land of vague notions and through the door into my world.

It’s so simple, I wondered that I didn’t think of it sooner.

vintage nibs

I love all things paper. I love writing and drawing. I have spent 20 years hoarding beautiful papers (not just for bookbinding), inks, calligraphy and fountain pens, matchboxes full of steel Gillot and Mitchell nibs, drawing pens, envelopes, paints. I love travel, travel sketching and travel writing. I collect paper money, maps, and stamps from other countries. I love sending letters and making mail art…I have dozens of sealing wax tapers, brass monogram seals that I’ve never used, and several albums filled with old postage stamps (I buy stamp collections from flea markets). One of my grand life plans (that never came to pass) was to send beautiful mail art to each of my friends, all over the world, on a regular basis.

Before the New Year, I posted images of some old work on this blog, and a lot of it was mail art. These images of mail art got the most reactions from readers.

“Everybody,” I mused, “loves the idea of a beautiful letter arriving in the mail.” *plink!* The proverbial lightbulb blinked on, in my head.

And yet, letter-writing has been called a “fading art,” and old-fashioned letter-writers, a “fading generation,” because although everybody would love to receive such a letter, nobody wants to have to write one.

Will this fading generation, I find myself quietly asking, also be the last to write letters? Messages crafted by hand rather than bits of binary code? Writing that carries emotions rather than emoticons?
—Catherine Field, The Fading Art of Letter Writing

“So, with letter-writing on its last legs and the New York Times publishing elegies to it, your great idea is to take it up, professionally? Really?” The way I see it, that’s an even better reason to take up my dip-pen, stir those sleeping Herbin inks, and start scribbling…to keep it alive.
back to colour


Here’s my pitch:

I propose to write, and paint, beautiful letters (that’s why I’ve been brushing up on calligraphy) with stories and images from my own life, and then reproduce and post them, once a month (like a magazine subscription), to anyone who wants to find more than bills and shopping catalogs in their mailbox…

I’ll make sure the letter is personalized (although I couldn’t possibly hand-paint and write one letter for every person!) and use the prettiest stamps I can find, with artwork on the page (a watercolor, a drawing, a collage, a bit of embroidery on paper, you know what I do…), calligraphy and art on the envelopes, wax sealed, rubber-stamped…a dream in an envelope. For you, or maybe for someone you know who’d love to receive regular letters as a gift.

A good handwritten letter is a creative act, and not just because it is a visual and tactile pleasure. It is a deliberate act of exposure, a form of vulnerability, because handwriting opens a window on the soul in a way that cyber communication can never do. You savor their arrival and later take care to place them in a box for safe keeping.
—Catherine Field, The Fading Art of Letter Writing

This idea goes live in my ETSY shop on Wednesday, 17th January…

What do you think?


*The Missing Ink is the title of a book I have by Philip Hensher, about the lost art of handwriting as a form of self-expression. I loved the title so much, I just had to use it for this post!

Scratching and scribbling

calligraphy practice

The afternoon raced away as I practiced the looping and curving letters of an online calligraphy course. I went through two Gillot 303 nibs doing these…they’re incredibly sharp, flexible and  painfully fragile; if the split point catches on the cotton paper, it bends out of shape and you have to throw it away.

I was too impatient to finish all the exercises, I just had to try things out on something real—like a black envelope with white ink. It came out irregular and far from perfect, naturally.

Back to doing the exercises!