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Archive for Wednesday, November 12, 1997

STAMP ART

November 12, 1997

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This handmade postal art crosses boundaries and celebrates irreverence.

Dennis "Boog" Highberger is a lawyer, an activist, a minister and a challenge to the post office.

He is part of a network of artists and hobbyists who create mail art, frequently in the form of postage stamps.

Some stamps are of the standard square variety; others are triangular, round or diamond-shaped. They are frequently tacked on a letter right next to the official 32-cent stamp that gets the letter sent, and receive cancellation marks as if they have contributed in some way to the post's arrival.

If you've ever received a post card, letter or object that has passed through the hands of a stamp artist, you've been privy to a word pun, a political message or, at the least, some pretty great (and small) art.

Inspired by the irreverence of the Dadaist movement, which celebrated found objects as art, stamp and mail art sprang from a reaction to the elite art gallery scene and challenged the idea that art was a commodity to be judged, bought and sold.

"The thing I really like about the mail art network is it's a gift commodity," Highberger said. "You send something out for free and you don't know if you'll get something back. Sometimes you don't and sometimes you get these amazing things."

Spreading art around

Stamp art involves mail art shows that include larger works in addition to stamps. One of the first mail art shows Highberger participated in involved 50 people, including at least two other Lawrence participants, Joe Schwinn and artist Dave Van Hee.

The project called for each participant to create something, preferably postcard size or smaller, produce 50 copies of it and mail them to the coordinator, who then distributed the works to the other participants.

"You got back a package of stuff from everybody that contributed, all in a beautiful folder created by Dave Van Hee with wobbly eyeballs on it and lots of beautiful colors," Highberger said.

Following the arrival of the package, Highberger promptly followed another tenet of mail artists and tried to "spread the art around" by stapling it to the front of The Crossing, 618 W. 12th.

"It didn't last very long because I didn't ask if I could," he admitted.

Testing such limits and taking chances is a large part of the attraction of mail art. One of Highberger's first mail challenges was to put a stamp and different addresses on both sides of a postcard and mail it, providing a quandary and perhaps some amusement to the postal carrier.

"In the United States there aren't really any rules. I think the post office's preference is that as long as you have real postage on there and as long as it's not dangerous, it's OK. I love my postal workers," he said, noting that a few of them look forward to his post office visits.

"Also, I like the idea of traveling objects, and connecting images and connecting people. I correspond regularly with people from about 20 different countries. There are all different kinds of people that do it: Some are silly wankers and some are interesting artists."

Recycling images

There are even legendary purveyors who are well known for their art techniques and mail pranks. Luther Blissett, a stamp artist from Luxembourg, is one of the most well known. His images are frequently appropriated by other artists who incorporate them into their own, in effect "recycling" art.

Another artist, Buzz Blur, has been producing mail art for more than 20 years and once sent a letter to Highberger that unintentionally prompted a clean idea.

"I got this letter from Buzz and it had an image inside that came in a plastic bag and a note that said it had been contaminated in the mail by some unknown source, but they had sprayed it with a 10 percent disinfectant solution and allowed it to dry for me," he said.

"I thought that was interesting and it might be a good service for the post office to provide. A lot of people might like their mail sanitized. I sent a letter to the post master suggesting that it be a service they could charge for."

For some, stamp art represents more: During the Cold War, stamp art often slipped into Eastern Bloc countries with no problem and people who received such mail later said how much it meant to have a connection to the outside world.

Highberger said he corresponds with a man in Uruguay who was jailed for two years in the 1970s because of his artwork and opposition to the Uruguayan dictatorship.

"He was freed a couple of years early, after responses from people around the world," Highberger said.

For most participants, mail art is just plain fun. Highberger's forte is the word pun, often using two languages. Currently he is producing a series of stamps for a Dutch artist, Magda, who asked for art pertaining to tulips. Highberger immediately turned the request into a pun and collects lipstick imprints from friends and strangers, incorporating them into a diamond stamp pattern.

Another ongoing project is the "Republic of Funny Hats." Send Highberger a picture of yourself in a funny hat and chances are your mug will be placed on a stamp and sent somewhere in the world.

Those interested in learning more about stamp art are encouraged to write Highberger at P.O. Box 1313, Lawrence, 66044. Include both proper and improper postage.

-- The Mag's phone message number is 832-7146. Send e-mail to biles@ljworld.com.

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