John Held, Jr.
This wonderful communication: Artistamps by Harley
One of the lessons artists received from the proceeding century is that anything can become art. It doesn’t really matter what the material is, because everything can be used creatively. Marcel Duchamp exemplified this by taking everyday objects from their original environment, transforming them into art objects by isolating them in new situations, forcing the observer to see them in a new light. These “ready-mades” opened the door for other artists to envision new uses for familiar objects.
In the mid-1950s, New York artist Ray Johnson, began using the postal service to establish a network of correspondents using letters and postcards as vehicles of artistic expression. By 1962, his activity was given the name the New York Correspondence School. During this same period, when artists were concerned with finding alternative means of distributing their work, artists from the Fluxus and Nouveau Realism art movements began experimenting with the potentials of the postal system.
In 1956, Nouveau Realist artist Yves Klein promoted an exhibition of his monochrome blue paintings by producing a postage stamp of blue, paying a postal clerk to cancel and distribute them on postcards addressed to his mailing list. Fluxus artist Robert Watts created a sheet of postage stamps of his own design in 1963. By 1974, enough artists were using the postage stamp as an artistic medium to enable Canadian artist/curator James Warren Felter to gather material for the very first exhibition of the medium, Artists’ Stamps and Stamp Images, held at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.
In 1975, American artist Harley (no last name), drawing inspiration from his childhood hobby of philately, created his own postal service, calling it the Tristan Local Post, and began issuing postage stamps in support of it. That same year, he heard about the exhibition organized by Felter the previous year, and sent him several of his new postal creations. As the show traveled to Europe and the United States, Felter added new works, including those of Harley.
"It was included in the exhibit. And, since my name and address were on those envelopes, I started getting contacted by other artists throughout the world. They began sending me mail art and I started sending it to them, and we developed this wonderful communication.”
Mail Art had, by this time, grown from a small circle of Ray Johnson’s friends to a worldwide network of artists. In 1981, Yugoslavian artist Miroljub Todorovic curated the first exhibition of artist postage stamps in Eastern Europe, Marke Umetnika, shown at the Happy Gallery, Beograd.
Todorovic, an active Mail Art participant in the 1970s, founder of the Signalist Center and co-organizer of the exhibition, Marke Umetnika/Artists Postage Stamps, wrote in the catalog for the exhibition:
“Within the Yugoslav context, Artist’s Postage Stamps are currently produced and distributed prosperously by young artists and poets such as Jaroslav Supek, Ranko Igric, Radomir Massic and Sandor Gogoljak, who deeply believe in the innovative character and unconventional form of this insufficiently defined artistic act. The fact that Mail Art and its forms are not a privilege of only young innovators, who are yet to get recognition by Yugoslav cultural circles, is demonstrated by outstanding works by Svetozar Samurovic, a well-known painter of the middle generation, who joined them in this movement. His Artist’s Postage Stamps are, in fact, minutely executed drawings in [the] form of postage stamps, which once more confirm the fact that Mail Art – this form of art “which is on the margin of art,” and which, with its inter-media, interdisciplinary, and even ambiguous nature, “offers … ever changing possibilities” – does not have its established canons and rules, that it [is] “alive and open” to numerous and various esthetical investigation.”
In 1978, Harley closed his Tristan Local Post and created his very own independent state with its own postage stamps. He named this imaginary land Terra Candella; loose Latin for "Land of Light."
"Terra Candella is a spirit," Harley notes. "It's a sense of freedom, a celebration of the innate human capacity everyone has to explore their own truth and individuality." In addition to the postage stamps created for Terra Candella, Harley drew on his childhood stamp collecting background to create cancellation marks, first day covers, and other philatelic items.
While most Mail Artists were content producing occasional postage stamps decorating their outgoing mail, Harley took a crafted approach, refining techniques, developing ideas, and associating with other Mail Arts like James Felter, Robert Rudine (AKA Dogfish), E. F. Higgins III, and Michael Bidner, who had extended childhood stamp collecting into adult philatelic maturity.
In 1984, Michael Bidner, who created the name, artistamp, to identify the field of artist postage stamps (After his premature death in 1989, this became the standard term to describe the field.), organized Artistampex Exposition and Bourse at the Forest City Gallery in London, Ontario, Canada; the first time artistamps were exhibited within a philatelic context. Harley attended the exhibition, heartily supporting the integration of the philatelic and Mail Art worlds. Although his artistamp work may be abstract and unlike any officially issued postage stamp, Harley always attends to the details of the postal exchange: commemorative cancellations, first day of issue covers, postcards and envelopes that both honor and satirize bureaucracy.
Three years later, Harley curated his first group exhibition of artistamps, Corresponding Worlds – Artists’ Stamps, at the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio. A well-respected institution with a history of acquiring challenging work, the Allen Art Museum was previously directed by Ellen Johnson, who was an early supporter of Ray Johnson and who had previously purchased one of his collages for the collection. The exhibition was accompanied by a catalog featuring numerous essays on the field, as well as a symposium gathering many of the leading American and Canadian artistamp artists.
Harley continued to curate exhibitions of artistamps, as well as participate in the major shows highlighting the field. In 1995, having moved from Oberlin, Ohio, to California, he curated the exhibition, It’s in the Mail: Artistamps and the Mail Art Movement, at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, Santa Rosa, California, featuring the work of 199 artists. In 2003, Harley curated the exhibition, Post Modern Post: International Artistamps, at the Sonoma County Museum, Santa Rosa, California. In 1996, after twenty years of active participation in Mail Art and having amassed an extensive archive composed of 1,200 artists from some 60 countries, his entire archive was acquired by Oberlin College.
In addition to his active participation in Mail Art, Harley is an accomplished painter and ceramic artist. The tactile qualities of his art are readily apparent in his artistamp production. Many of his works are composed from collages produced from torn multi-colored papers, displaying a highly skilled compositional structure. These works have been exhibited in many venues throughout the world, including an exhibition in 2000 sponsored by the Russian Ministry of Culture in Kaliningrad, Russia.
In the exhibition catalog, Harley recounts his discovery of artistamps, made all the more interesting by his past experience as a stamp collector, which offered him “the endless richness and diversity of far different worlds as an antidote for the limitations of my immediate physical and social environment.”
His words provide a retrospective history of his participation in the artistamp field, the sense of community creating with those of similar interests, and a knowledge that he was participating in a contemporary form of art reflecting the tenor of his time.
In the mid-seventies, I was no longer content with collecting stamps; I started making my own. Tristan Local Post (named after my son who in turn was named after the explorer who discovered and named Tristan da Cunha after himself) started out as a philatelic local post. These concoctions are patterned after local posts that operated primarily in the 19th century and served postal needs not met by the government post office. Today such local posts are primarily philatelic toys for collectors who want to give their collection a more individual tone. The Local Post Collector’s Society is an organization of like-minded enthusiasts that thrives to this day. So I contented myself with playing post office and corresponding with local posters both here and abroad.
1975 marked a major development in my stamping activities. It was the year that James Warren Felter of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, organized the first major exhibition of non-official stamps by artists to take place in the Western Hemisphere. This was brought to my attention by the late art historian, Ellen Johnson, who gave me the exhibition catalog.
She was as mystified by its contents as I was excited and surprised. Even though I had kept abreast of the art world fads and fashions through many publications, this was an astounding revelation. I had never seen any mention of this vast body of work: all stamps, all art. I bundled up my stamps and covers posthaste and shipped them off to Vancouver. Consequently, my work was included in this exhibition that toured Canada, the United States and Europe. From this happenstance introduction into the Mail Art Network, my mailing list expanded to world-wide contacts and well over two thousand artists. For the first time in my life, I had some sense of a peer group.
An exceptional artist stretched farther by his extensive involvement in the Mail Art network, Harley has produced a thirty-year body of work exhibited throughout the world. In turn, he has organized major exhibitions showcasing the work of his fellows. This circular interaction with an international network of artistamp creators has enriched both Harley and his work.
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