Interview conducted by Caroline Joseph (Pitzer).
Jennie Hinchliff is a mail artist, zine artist, bookmaker, and exhibitions manager at the San Francisco Center for the Book. Her mail art utilizes vintage styles; she, in fact, loves to utilize things older than herself. Jennie initially got into mail art during her younger years, but premiered her first ever mail art zine, Red Letter Day, while she was in her twenties. Since then, she has gone on to found a mail art co-operative, San Francisco Correspondence Co-op; lead a mail art conference in San Francisco, Ex Postal Facto; and write extensively on mail art, including including co-authoring Good Mail Day: a Primer for Making Eye-Popping Post. redletterdayzine.wordpress.com/
How did you get into mail art and zines, and, with that, how did you break into the field of professional art?
I’ve always worked with my hands in some way or another; I owe that to both my mother and grandmother. From my mother I learned to love textiles and sewing; from my grandmother I learned the joys and language of paper and making books. I first heard about mail art when I was in the fourth or fifth grade, believe it or not! At my local library, I discovered a copy of Randy Harelson’s book “S.W.A.K.: The Complete Book of Mail Fun for Kids” and was mesmerized by page after page of things you could do using the USPS: collect special postal cancellations, send away for celebrity autographs, create your own envelopes… Towards the back of the book I noticed a handful of pages devoted to artists with names like Anna Banana and The Crackerjack Kid, alongside artwork that was unlike anything I’d ever seen. I thought about those artists all through my summer vacation; how did they do it? Why didn’t they get in trouble? Where did they put the stamps? It was a revelation. When I moved to San Francisco, I was pretty busy with college – not much time for mail art! But I still wrote letters home to my family and a handful of high school pals. I’d known about zines and zine culture throughout high school, but didn’t actually put my first zine together until I was in my ‘20’s: Red Letter Day. It was a themed mail art zine and artists were encouraged to send work in, based on the theme. The zine was xeroxed, but each copy came with a photo CD of fronts/backs of all the artwork sent in. It was the first zine I ever did and through RLD, I met many of the Bay Area Dada folks and was introduced to the world of bay area mail artists.
In one interview, you mentioned that one theme in your work is your desire to utilize “old Stuff, left-behind items, and things people would never think to send through the mail.” Why do you think you are drawn to these types of things, and how do you find them?
I use vintage ephemera and items in my works because it helps establish a certain mood – not necessarily nostalgic, but something which seems vaguely familiar, while being visually hard to place. I love beauty in small details, and find myself incorporating this idea into my artworks. I’m always on the lookout for things that are older than I am, that speak of other ages and era. If that means mixing an ink that’s a certain color, or using a certain paper because of the way it smells, then that’s what happens. I like making artworks that seem as if they’ve been buried in a time capsule, a voice from the past.
What are some examples of mail art that have been the most exciting to receive?
Mail artists are such an exuberant bunch and it really shows in the work which arrives at my PO box! For example the artistamps of Sally Wurlitzer are a feast for the eyes (and a feat of graphic design.) I love receiving mail from my dear friend James Cline (Founding Postmaster, Black Rock City); one day a postcard with tiny polar bears affixed to the surface will be waiting at my PO box, the next day, perhaps a pair of 3D glasses to help me “change my perspective”. His sense of humor is amazing. One of my latest correspondents is an artist named Adam Roussopoulos. Lately he’s been creating these amazing hand carved eraser stamps, based on drawings of movie monsters by his son. Adam has not only hand carved the stamps, but created sheets of artist stamps to send out to mail artists and pals. He also puts together a zine called The Artist Stamp Revue that is fantastic.
What attracted you to the Bay Area and its art culture?
I knew I wanted to go to college in the bay area (I grew up in Oregon) and was offered a full ride scholarship to one of my college choices in San Francisco. That made the decision pretty easy!
What is it like to create correspondence art in the time of coronavirus?
I think the most noticeable difference for me is the fact that I plan a bit more when I want to head to the post office. I have a PO box - easier for all of my correspondents to send things there instead of my home - and pre-virus, would stop by my PO box 3 times a week (or so.) Now, I plan things further in advance: do I need to pick up postage stamps? Am I expecting a package from anyone? Do I need to wait in line? I scheduling my visits so that I stop by once a week.
I miss all of my postal pals at the PO. I’ve had my PO box at the post office for quite awhile and have developed a lovely relationship with the people working at the counter. There are actually a couple of other mail artists who have PO boxes at the Haight Street branch post office, so the counter staff is pretty flexible with the idea of sending wacky things through the mail. I enjoy answering their questions about what I’m sending, asking them about new postage releases, just the general small talk of customer service chit-chat.
How has the coronavirus impacted artistic spaces and what do you think the future will look like for your arts organization and others?
This is a difficult question to answer, because there is so much we currently don’t know. Many institutions and non-profit organizations have quickly transitioned in the last four weeks from “real time” offerings to online options. It will be interesting to see how things move forward in the future.
At the San Francisco Center for the Book, where I am the Exhibitions and Event Manager, the current shelter-in- place mandate has meant a transition of many IRL activities to online channels. Our primary goal is to keep SFCB’s book and print communities connected – not only to the Center, but to the community at large. This has taken the form of online events, happy hours, and workshops. We are motivated to provide learning experiences for SFCB students (online workshops) and at the same time share exciting opportunities and events in a more casual setting.
How accessible is the world of correspondence art and what suggestions would you have for someone like me who might want to try their hand at it?
One of my favorite things to tell people who ask about getting started in the world of correspondence art is this: you can create mail art anytime, anyplace, and out of anything – it’s a wonderfully easy way to express one’s self! In the book Good Mail Day I discuss the fact that one doesn’t need “fancy” tools or supplies to create a piece of artful mail – the only thing you really need is a postage stamp and imagination. This makes mail art a perfect “quarantine time” activity – using items on hand, you can easily put together a piece of mailable art, affix a stamp, and place it in a USPS blue box. Someone once asked me how long it takes to create a piece of mail art, which I thought was an interesting question. I’d never thought about it before because like any other art practice, I just settle down and get to it. Personal art practices are very specific to the artist; mail art even more so. Creating mail art really depends on an individual’s working style, or the type of materials they like to work with. Some folks might work in their studio for days on one postcard or letter. Other people might create a handful of artworks on lunch break. But one thing is certain: no two pieces of correspondence art (much like other types of artwork) will ever look the same.