Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Plenty of artists, especially those of a more avant-garde mind-set, don’t mind giving away their work rather than selling it. Trevor Young doesn’t even mind if it gets stolen. For the past year, the Takoma Park, Md., native has tried to bring a little sunshine into the lives of U.S. Postal Service employees by mailing ornate, often humorously hand-decorated envelopes to friends. Nineteen out of every 20 make it through the system.
“I wouldn’t say it turned me on,” the 28-year-old Young says. “But, like, Somebody responded enough to my art to take it.”
Young had long suspected that mail handlers might possess an interest in their cargo that exceeds professional bounds. When he was 14, his father, an ex-letter carrier, advised him to stuff a postcard he was sending of Jack Nicholson mouthing, “Here’s Johnny!” inside an envelope before mailing it. “He said it would get stolen,” says Young, who recalls imagining the card’s odyssey through the shrewd gazes and groping hands of invisible, self-interested entities.
Young found himself ruminating on the mail again after the 2001 anthrax attacks. “God, one letter can contaminate four buildings,” he remembers thinking. “What a trip my envelopes must take!”
The artist, who had already established himself locally as a painter of urban landscapes, decided to embrace the 700,000-plus clock-punchers of the U.S. Postal Service as a new audience. “I’d get up in the morning and draw an envelope while drinking coffee and holding the paper,” he says. “It was kind of like a mind exercise, the way some people do a crossword puzzle at the beginning of the day. Cup of coffee and an envelope.”
First working with pen and ink, then moving on to wide-tipped watercolor markers, swaths of vellum, and paper cutouts, Young created one work of mailable art after another, sometimes sending upward of 20 pieces a day to a single correspondent. He drew funny envelopes: a nude fat man dancing under a tree; Vermeer’s girl with a pearl earring committing suicide; leering, red-nosed guys propped up against tackily patterned wallpaper. He drew provocative envelopes: a naked blonde spitting a fountain of water into the air; a woman with a tab between her legs that could be pulled to extract a baby; his wife, painter Elizabeth Mandeville, crying, vamping in front of a strip club, or posing innocently under a stick coming down to whack her.
And, for particularly apathetic mail handlers, he drew envelopes targeted at the mail-handling profession itself: One depicted a carrier, his face deadpan, holding a letter as if it were a death summons; another, his cat, Georgie, farting out an address. Yet another was a rather criticaland rather poignantself-portrait: Trevor Young, bent over with letters pouring out of his ass.
Young’s predilection for envelope adornment actually began in his teens, the result of a typical high-school brew of puppy love and feelings of inferiority. “A girl I liked moved away,” he says. “I was essentially head over heels for her.” So Young, then a student at Silver Spring’s Chelsea School, began to write her letters describing his daily life: paintings he saw, people he ran into. He drew on the envelopes to distract from what he calls “the inadequacy of my writing.”
“To tell you quite honestly, I’m the worst writer,” he says. “There’s poor structuring, [and] the letters almost read as two-paragraph thoughts….You wouldn’t say I explain things well in a letter.”
If his lack of style prevented Young from becoming another Abélard, it didn’t keep him from making a name for himself as a serious painter. Beginning in the late ’90s, he crafted large-scale depictions of subway platforms, elevated highways, and sprawling airports. His work has been shown at architectural and law firms and Dupont Circle’s Troyer Gallery, and is included in the public-art collection of the new Washington Convention Center.
Throughout, he’s continued to fire decorated mail through the postal system. “It’s such a cheesy thought,” he says, “but I imagined some old lady sitting on the conveyer belt, sorting it and looking at it, for just a second. It made me laugh.”
That charming image received a blow when Young learned that the nation’s post offices, which last year processed 202 billion pieces of mail, now use machines for sorting their huge loads. Cold, humorless robots were scanning his envelopes with electronic eyes and quickly shunting them down the lineand Young wouldn’t stand for it.
“I had no choice,” he says, “but to make it more difficult for someone.”
To encourage more human interaction, the artist stuck his stamps on the backs of the envelopes. He wrote his addresses with graffiti-inspired lettering and in nearly unreadable highlighter ink, or wrote them upside down, incompletely, or sandwiched between drawings. “I was testing [the system],” he says. “I just assumed they would get through.”
Young isn’t the only one to have run such tests, of course. Beginning in the ’50s and ’60s, various experimental art groupsthe French Nouveaux Réalistes, New York’s Fluxus, and Ray Johnson’s Correspondence School being the heavy hitterscirculated dadaist communiqués through the mail as a way of subverting the art establishment.
Like Young’s envelopes, these art exchanges attempted in part to mess with mail handlers. “The most famous example of a mail artist playing with a postal carrier’s head is the French artist Ben Vautier,” says John Held Jr., a former Fluxus member who specializes in sending rubber-stamped and photocopied envelopes. “Vautier did a piece called The Postman’s Choice. It was a regular postcard but both sides had different addresses….So the postman had to make a choice.”
That’s a relatively harmless example, says Chuck Welch, a New Hampshire-based mail artist who once made stamps from the pulverized fibers of his Vietnam fatigues. He points to a 1979 exhibition at Santa Monica City College that went beyond mind games into hard labor. “Some examples of mail art that arrived included a laminated $10 bill sent from NYC to the West Coast,” Welch e-mails. “Other work included unpackaged, water-filled balloons and 20 feet of garden hose adorned with 1 cent postage stamps from nozzle to nozzle.”
Both of these artists agree that Young’s decorated envelopes do not fall into the realm of what they consider mail art, a still-flourishing movement that involves nearly 20,000 people worldwide. Welch suggests the difference is a matter of economics: “If his ‘mailed artifacts’ are intended for sale to the public, there is no doubt that he resides outside of the avant-garde definition of mail art or mail art networking.”
Indeed, Young does intend to ultimately sell his envelope work, 500 pieces of which are currently on display at the Flashpoint gallery. But with nearly 4,000 decorated envelopes under his belt, he isn’t about to quibble over whether he’s a mail artist or an artist who sends mail. Besides, he’s always been more concerned with his captive audience than his paying one.
“I figured every single one of [my envelopes] was looked at,” he says, “because [the postal equipment] couldn’t read through so much crap.”
So far, that bet has paid off for Young only occasionally. Letter carriers, who form one half of the Postal Service, haven’t shown much interest in his project. The carrier who delivers mail to the home of long-term Young correspondent and Washington Project for the ArtsCorcoran Director Annie Adjchavanich, speaking anonymously during his lunch break at an Arlington McDonald’s, didn’t recognize any of the artist’s envelopes.
This doesn’t surprise John Hummer, another Arlington carrier with more than 35 years in the business. “It’s basically a routine job,” he says. “We look at the address and the name.”
Art appreciation is not something postal supervisors smile upon, says Hummer. “They have all these management meetings that are all about, ‘We want you to do this, this, and this, and to hell with everything else.’ They want to institute a very strictwell, ‘strict’ isn’t the wordproductive policy.”
But mail clerks, who have no choice but to examine Young’s letters, have displayed at least something of an interest in the work. There are the envelopes that went missing in action, obviously. And, says Young, “some of them get returned to sender. Some make it through with arrows pointing to the address. I know those weren’t there when I sent them.”
The arrows are definitely the work of warm-blooded employees, says Jim Quirk, a Postal Service spokesperson. Machines have taken over much of the sorting process, he says, but there are still instances that call for human intervention.
“We have technology now where we can capture a picture of the mail piece [electronically] and, within nanoseconds, someone in a remote site can finish off what the equipment cannot decipher in the address,” Quirk says. But if somebody, say, puts his stamps in the wrong place or encrypts the address in a Thrasher-esque typeface, “it has to be human intelligence, where people trained in the sorting scheme can deposit it into the appropriate receptacle.
“It’s perfectly all right,” Quirk adds, “as long as they pay the postage. Give us the money.” CP
“Trevor Young Has Gone Postal” is on view to Saturday, Jan. 31, at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW. For more information, call (202) 661-7582.