Mail Bonding

DATE: Tuesday, July 2, 2024

HCC, Amherst College classes collaborate

Mail bonding faculty

Editor's Note: This story was originally published June 17, 2024, on the Amherst College website. 

Courtesy of Amherst College

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night-nor Cold War repressions, nor Latin American regimes, nor the shaky post-pandemic postal service here in the Valley-has kept "mail art" creators from their appointed rounds.

Mail art, or postal art, is simply art that artists send through the mail to each other and beyond. Or, in this case, back and forth between the students in one Amherst College course and the students in one Holyoke Community College (HCC) course.

To address the backstory: Inspired by the Futurists and Dadaism, pop artist Ray Johnson started sending out mail art in the 1950s. The practice resurfaced, later and elsewhere, as a work-around when authoritarian governments banned exhibits by certain artists. Clemente Padín, jailed in 1977 during Uruguay's military dictatorship, wrote: "Mail Art has become an instrument of battle and denunciation, calling on the tenacity of our peoples to win better, more humane living conditions, under the sign of social justice and peace."

Ludmila Ferrari, a visiting assistant professor of Spanish at Amherst, was inspired by this history-and decided to recreate it. Thus, her course "World-Making: Art in Times of Global War." 

For part of the curriculum, the students generated their own mail art-collages, poems, drawings and more-and then packaged them up for the students in the HCC course "'Pa'lante compañeros': Social Justice Movements in Black and Brown Communities." It was taught by Raúl Gutiérrez (Latinx studies and Spanish) and Mark Clinton (political science and history). The HCC students, in return, mailed their own creations to Amherst, as each group reacted to the other's offerings.

Said Yakira Sameth, a Mount Holyoke College student in the Amherst class, "It was like Christmas every time a package came. It was so exciting."  

Exciting, but also mysterious, added Isabel Sanchez '26: "It was like receiving a puzzle. We had no idea what they were trying to say, but I think that's what made it so fun."

The Amherst students would work together to analyze the HCC student art and then, in response, mail back their own contributions.After a semester of presenting these presents, there was a presentation. The mailed art was displayed in the Community Room at Holyoke Public Library, and the students met each other face to face. That night, the delicious fragrance of arroz con pollo filled the room and a riot of art covered the walls. 

Some examples: A pencil drawing of a small school next to a prison, encircled by barbed wire, with the phrase "The School-to-Prison Pipeline." A large sign with gold rickrack around it that said, "History disintegrates the closer you get to life."

A picture of a tree with what looked like orange and yellow leaves but could be flames, with the caption: "If this tree wasn't on fire, it would weep to watch what's happening to the hands that tended it."

A mailing label which simply said, "Futuro Amigo."At the event, Ferrari talked about the meaning and strategy of mail art. "It was developed when frontiers were closed, when artists could not collaborate because they were divided by political differences," she said. "So we incorporated this technique to create channels in which we can have unique collaborations and communications among our students."

Added Gutiérrez: "Our course is thematic, and we were talking about social movements, and mail art is part of a social movement. And we were trying to erase this gap between Amherst and HCC and the city of Holyoke as well."  

Note his use of the word "gap."  That word became a turning point in this mail art experience. 

That's because the Amherst students had created a misguidedly bucolic drawing of how they pictured the HCC campus and sent it to Holyoke.

"When we got it, we were like, 'That's the total opposite,'" said Anibella Reeves, a Latinx studies major at HCC. "We don't have a waterfall, a bridge, a clock tower or anything like that. So we crossed out the picture and wrote 'The Gap' on it and sent it back to them. We wanted to show them that there's a big gap from what you think to how the reality is."  

When the Amherst students received the marked-up image, they were taken aback.

"At first, I felt like sending the mail art was a fun experiment," said Enely Turbi Alvarez '24. "But then there was this idea that was brought forth of the gap between us. That definitely wasn't a concept that we talked about in the beginning of the semester, but it grew organically out of the correspondence. And it was something that was pretty profound and serious."

The HCC students, too, found they had gaps in their perceptions: Many thought of Amherst College as having a totally white student body, before they learned otherwise. 

Said Elias Villanueva Gomez '25, "I grew up in Puerto Rico, and navigating life at Amherst can make you forget that you're part of a broader community."

He was grateful, he added, for this course and how mail art sparked deep thinking and rich conversation. 

"Being able to mutually support each other?" he said. "That is something that can only come from this constant communication."

PHOTOS: (Above) Ludmila Ferrari, visiting assistant professor of Spanish at Amherst College, stands with HCC professors Mark Clinton (political science) and Raúl Gutiérrez (Latinx Studies) in front of a mural in the community room at the Holyoke Public Library. (Thumbnail) Patrons view the mail art exhibit in the Holyoke Public Library.