Mail Art Madness

posted on Sep 11, 2019

When I was a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art, one of my favorite teachers, Ken Krafchek, told us to get in touch with a working artist. My classmates and I had to write brief reports about the artists we chose and what they said about their careers. At the library, I found the phone number of a favorite illustrator, Eric Drooker, and gave him a call. He was very kind and took a break from vacuuming to answer my questions about the high and the low points of his career. I was hooked! I wanted to be an artist, and I wanted to talk to more of my heroes.

Mail art from student David Sassoon.
Mail art from student Kayla Talassazan.
Mail art from student Naomi Weberman.
Mail art from student Rinah Nikrooz.
Mail art from student Silberberg.

Accessing the Art World
I called more than twenty artists that semester. I bragged to a friend that I could reach anyone. “What about Dave McKean?” The illustrator and graphic novelist was a favorite at our school. I found his number and called him in England. Thanks to that phone call, he visited our school as a guest lecturer. In the following years, I exchanged mail art with some of my favorite artists. I met a few in person and even made friends with some of them!

That one assignment taught me that the art world is accessible. Artists are real people just like us. Most of them are kind and excited to help. In my adulthood, those experiences gave me the confidence to reach out to all my heroes: artists, authors, filmmakers, musicians, politicians. That one assignment put the world at my feet. I wanted to give that same gift to my students.

My principal approved the project with some caveats. Putting elementary students in touch with any adult is a risk. So, I had to coordinate the correspondence more carefully than my college professor had. The research project became a mail art assignment. Instead of sending my students into the open ocean of the art world, I provide a curated list of preapproved artists. I do a presentation about those volunteers. Each student selects an artist from the list, makes artwork for that pen pal, and writes a note to go with it. If they do so in a timely manner, each of their professional pen pals promises to write back at least once before the end of the school year. All correspondence goes through the school. I have the very happy job of screening the mail before it is delivered.

Recruiting Pen Pals
Despite its limitations, our annual Pen Pal Project gets better every year. It began almost a decade ago. Our first pen pals were my friends from art school and acquaintances from my own art career. For me, it was fun just to put my colleagues in touch with my students. The project gave me an excuse to contact every artist that I admire. It also gave me something to say when I might have otherwise been starstruck at art exhibitions, animation expos, comic conventions, craft fairs, and toy shows. The internet makes invitations unspeakably easy. I keep a little website about the project to share with professionals who show an interest.

Our roster of pen pals is huge now. It includes, among many fantastic others, an art director from Time Magazine; children’s book illustrators; comic book artists from Marvel and DC; animators from Disney, DreamWorks, and Pixar; fine artists; toy designers; and the architect who designed one of our local museums. My students and I have had the pleasure of corresponding with a few of our pen pals early in their careers and being in touch with them as their work exploded in popularity. We have even met a few of our pen pals in person when they had shows at local galleries.

Like all projects, this one has its challenges. We have a mail call at the beginning of each class. A month goes by quickly for the professionals, but even a week seems like a long time to a fifth-grader. Eager students ask me every day if their pen pals have written yet. “They are working artists,” I remind my students. “Their careers are more important than this assignment.” Meanwhile, I am emailing the pen pals to remind them that “Waiting is hard for a fifth-grader. Anything you send will be a big deal to them.”

One Postcard Away
The professionals are often delayed by their desire to send custom-made art despite their own deadlines. Students are often delayed by embarrassment. “I’m just a kid.” (I am paraphrasing years of anxiety.) “What could I make that a professional artist would really like?” My students have no idea how charming their artwork is. So, I have to explain it to them, “Your pen pal used to be just like you. They know what it’s like to be in fifth grade. And no one makes artwork like a fifth-grader does. Make something you are excited about. If you love it, I’m pretty sure that your pen pal will love it too.” When they do hear back from their pen pals, they realize that I was right. The art world is only one postcard away.

Rama Hughes is an art teacher at Yavneh Hebrew Academy in Los Angeles, California.

Creating: Conceiving and developing new artistic ideas and work.

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