The Perfect Medium


Another letter done. I’m behind on my monthly letters, trying to squeeze them in on the days that I don’t work at the art supplies shop. I have the nicest subscribers, though…nobody has written a snarky e-mail complaining about the late arrival of their letters, yet. Hopefully, when a letter finally does arrive, it proves so special that the recipient forgives me.

I do try to make these letters worth the money, and the waiting time. I pour most of my time and thought and material into them, these days. I haven’t even checked my receipts to work out whether I’m actually earning anything (I think I’m scared to find out that I’ve spent more than earned!) but I enjoy the work so much that if the letters simply pay for themselves (the time spent writing and making them, the envelopes, the printing, the little things I include, the postage, the art materials, the books about letter writing that I have been hunting down on the internet and adding to my library) then I am quite content.

The way I’ve justified it to myself is: I would be doing something creative like this, anyway; I can’t not draw, paint, design, write.

More and more, though, the humble letter is starting to strike me as being The Perfect Medium...better than painting, or drawing, or writing, on their own. It’s a wonderful example of Synergy…meaning that the whole is a hundred times more than the mere sum of its parts. (Aristotle)

Every new letter, for me, is an opportunity to combine—loosely or inextricably—visual elements and the written word: an idea explored in at least two ways. It’s enclosed in an envelope (that can also be a work of art) that bears the recipient’s name and address. Add to this the official postage stamps and cancellation marks of the Post Office—marks of documentation—and the letter is historically positioned, an artifact in Place and in Time.

Finally, I love that letter writing also encompasses interaction with others. Each letter is, from the moment of its creation, intended for somebody…it’s delivered by people (I often wonder about the anonymous couriers who deliver my letters) to other people. It’s a message, as well as a work of art, and its audience is woven into its making, from the start.Untitled

I tend to produce art in a kind of vacuum or cave, filled with echoes of my own voice. I spend four days each week confined to a houseboat in the mangroves, gazing into my head instead of out of it, painting and writing things that I often don’t know what to do with, when they’re done. Naturally, I hope that each work will find its way out into the world, though a lot of them never do…they wind up wrapped in tissue at the bottom of a cardboard box.

Since I started making these letters, though, others figure much more in what I do. I write and paint with specific people in mind…knowing, even as I work alone, that the thing I am making is awaited, expected, and appreciated.

AND it never gets boring! Which is MAGIC! Possibly the best thing about the whole project! Every month is an opportunity to try something new, to experiment with all these elements, to take them apart and recombine them without worrying that I’m producing a dog’s breakfast of  crazy, disparate works, because the letter’s very distinct form pulls them all into a coherent whole.

It really is the perfect medium. I’ve found my “Next thing”! I can’t get over it. I can’t believe it took me so long to recognise this.

“And I said, with rapture,
here is something I can study all my life,
and never understand.”

—Samuel Beckett, Moloy

The Scarlet Letterbox is my mail subscription project. Receive beautiful letters of art and writing, in envelopes decorated with calligraphy, vintage postage stamps, wax seals and illustration, once a month, for up to 12 months. CLICK HERE for more information.

Mail art on the first of May

We hadn’t paid a visit to our post office box for a few weeks, so I had a real surprise today upon finding, among the invitations to exhibit openings and the bank statements, three beautiful pieces of mail art in it.

Jenni wrote me a long letter about art, language, and her new home in Langkawi, Malaysia. She filled the margins with, and added cut-outs of, her bright drawings: hot-house lilies in brilliant tropical colours, tendrils and curly swashes on her letters.

Shazz sent me a richly embellished fabric postcard. Layers of color and texture play in Shazz’s work, leading the eye around to marvel at little details of stitch or pattern.I savour the way the postage stamp she used—a large stamp featuring Lake Eyre during The Dry—is echoed by the thread play of the fabric card, itself…shades of silvery sand and blue sky veined with clouds, softened by shimmery iridescent threads that look like the heat rising off a desert.

Shazz also sent me an artist’s trading card called Fire…a layer of sandy fabric, cut away to reveal a vivid, intense welt of red fabric underneath, emphasized by bold black machine-stitching, was inspired by the Victoria Bush Fires.

Thanking you both, Jenni and Shazz! It is so nice having creative, talented friends who take the time to send you lovely handmade letters and works of art from all over the world, through the post! I love all three creations intensely (will send e-mails soon!)

Now I have to get offline and get started making my replies! That reminds me, it’s time for another postcard to Jason Moss…