During the coronavirus pandemic, the United States Postal Service’s pre-existing financial hardships came to a tipping point as President Donald Trump rejected a much-needed government bailout of the national institution. This, along with priority mail delays, mailing blunders, and internal structural changes implemented under Postmaster General Louis Dejoy challenged the USPS’ status as a trustworthy public institution during an intense election season. Despite all of these issues, the United States Postal Service remains integral to a healthy democracy. Perhaps, no one knows this better than independent artists and designers who rely on the Post to support their practices and value its broad network and affordability. In the months leading to the high stakes presidential election, many artists created initiatives to help save the USPS.
Using mail to drive social change has historical precedents. In the 1960’s, artist Ray Johnson founded the New York Correspondence School, a community of artists and poets who used the Post to exchange artwork and share information. The New York Correspondence School was fashioned as an early social network, expanding how we see artwork by placing it in participants’ hands and outside of gallery walls. In 1977, Ulises Carrión, a Mexican artist, developed the Erratic Art Mail International System as an alternative to the post office to critique government institutions’ bureaucracy while highlighting its essential and irreplaceable service. Anna Banana, a later member of the New York Correspondence School, developed the community into an independent publishing platform and mailing group initially focused on bananas. Anna Banana is often cited with bridging 1970s era mail art with later iterations. Her own publication evolved into the Artistamp News in 1996.
And in 2020, artists and designers are buying stamps by the sheets, sending and creating postcards, increasing their mail usage, maintaining penpal relationships, and sharing Instagram posts with resources to help the effort with varying degrees of success. Consider illustrators Sean Suchara and Fanny Luor, whose work engages current events, including the pandemic, the climate crisis, and now, the USPS. Using social media, the duo encouraged their followers to buy postage stamps and share a receipt with them, then sent each participant a one-of-a-kind postcard in the mail. Suchara felt a sense of urgency related to the situation when he started the project this August. “There’s no time to be quiet about this.” he said as he described the relationship between the post office and the then-upcoming election.
Initially, Suchara felt that giving money to the post office was the most direct way of helping, but has since wondered if it’s the right decision, given how the internal administration is holding money and approaching the issue. Regardless, he says that making any effort is helping his own anxieties and also “supports others who don’t have the freedom to speak that way.” Suchara believes that educating others and sharing information is a measure of success. “It’s not always about the physical product, but things that live beyond that,” he said.
Other artists are actively creating products to spread awareness and help fund the Post. Colette Bernard, an artist whose work reflects her queer and southern identity, created an enamel pin and sticker that says “I support the USPS” alongside a striking, graphic rainbow. Both products are sold on her website and 50% of profits go towards buying stamps to support the Post. On her Instagram, she shares that “buying stamps is a great way to help them stay afloat right before a major mail-in-ballot election in the US.” Stamps have also inspired Zakia Rowlett who created a timely screenprint of one. The print, which was originally designed for a donor event for a print studio, has the scalloped edge of a stamp, and highlights the words “Thank You” with a crossed finger graphic. Rowlett uses this motif as a way to show gratitude, and also used it on a Black Lives Matter Instagram post.
In 2015, the late illustrator Jason Polan published a self-funded ad in the New Yorker that read “Doesn’t it feel nice to write someone a letter? Doesn’t it feel nice to receive a letter from someone? This is an advertisement by me for the post office.” With the blessing of the Polan family, Daniel Morris, who works at The Arm Letterpress, reprinted a number of these as limited edition postcards to support the USPS during the time of need. Morris’ collaborator, Kelli Anderson, shared the postcard on Instagram and wrote that if you buy a sheet of USPS stamps and direct message her the receipt, she’d send two postcards in a customized envelope. At the end of the caption she added instructions to decorate the back of the envelope with stickers and drawings “per Jason’s sentiment.” She also included information on where to find a link for the American Postal Workers Union in her bio.
Lifelong snail mail enthusiast and artist Sophie Rogers started sending 3-4 letters a week during the quarantine. Eventually, she started a round-robin between her friends called “USPS + US.” The group created an Are.na channel to house ideas for the project. Rogers’ school gave them a grant to help cover postage. Even with the school’s funding, Rogers still spent an additional $50 a week at her local post office because she wanted to do “silly things, like send four pounds of cinnamon rolls” to friends. Rogers also illustrates envelopes and ran an online workshop called Post-Haste at the School for Poetic Computation this summer. Because her workshop coincided with the Save the USPS movement, “it felt like an important moment to think about intimacy and connection in the face of privatization,” Rogers shares.
Aside from buying stamps and increasing usage, many designers are using social media to share resources and information. The artist Kelsey Dake designed a monochromatic illustration with “Save the USPS Forever” depicted on a stamp. Her caption reads “Text ‘USPS’ to 50409 and ask your rep to #savetheUSPS.” Illustrator Hiller Goodspeed also shared a graphic that reads “Claws off our mail” with barbed wire embracing a mailbox on his Instagram account. Goodspeed believes sharing social assets is good for general awareness but never seems to feel like it’s enough. Through an email exchange, he explained that it will take time to see if any of these initiatives are effective but believes that many people uniting over a cause is powerful. “There is a lot of brokenness and corruption in America,” he wrote. “But there are also so many people who love this country and are doing what they can to steer us towards a more progressive future.”
“Mail is the purest form of democracy,” said David Petruzelli, an expertiser at The Philatelic Foundation of New York, an organization that evaluates mail pieces ranging from stamp collections, mail art, and even, historic letters containing severed braids from the nineteenth century. “I don’t see it as dying out or old-fashioned, like suddenly remembering when you often saw a display of typewriters in a store window on a midtown street,” he said. “The postal service isn’t going to disappear. It will evolve. We need it. And that’s not the nostalgia of an old former stamp collector talking.”