Bellingham Herald Jan. 6 1984

See 1989 art about Berlin Wall
My stamp collage

And now, for the winner of The 1983 Mail Art Beauty Pageant ... The postcard, please ...

They're all winners - each and every one of the 189 people from all over the world who responded to Robert Ashworth"s blank postcard with an artistic creation. They're all winners because a mail art show has no place for losers, its only rule is no jury. Participate and you win. Mail artists are the pen pals of the art world, and Bellingham's Robert Ashworth is one of them.

Last year he sent postcards to 400 people whose names he'd chosen randomly from the roster of a California mail art show. On each postcard was an empty rectangular box, and Ashworth invited his addressees to "put your version of Xerox able beauty in (the) box."

Replies came from Plovdiv, Bulgaria, and Pe Ell, Wash. from Athens, Greece and Oatman, Ariz., from literally all over the world.

During the 1980s, quite a bit of mail art was filtering across the Iron Curtain.  Many collages and strange letters would come from Eastern Europe.  This nice card arrived in an envelope soon after the Berlin Wall came down. 

Artistic quality ranged from a conscientious caricature sent from Brussels, Belgium, to a simple "Hi Ma" from Berkeley, Calif.

"Artpolice" of Minneapolis, Minn., ominously printed, "Mail art is a cruel hoax in which the artist surrenders identity for bureaucratic existence, on a list one's only message is one's name ... We are the Artpolice, we are the Beauty police."

One man sent in a box with 120 numbered cards. When placed together they formed a larger than life self-portrait that now hangs on a wall of Ashworth's Forest Street apartment. Some of the entries, tended toward pornography, so when Ashworth assembled them all into three collages he included on each the caveat "Feminists warn that some art may exploit women.

The beauty pageant was Ashworth's fourth mail art show and his most ambitious. For his first, in December 1982, he asked people to fill in a blank space he'd printed in his now defunct newsletter, "Robert's Opinions."

About 60 people responded. "I was amazed at how well mail art worked" he Says - and he attached the entries to a calendar and sent copies to the people who'd entered.

Last spring he chose about 60 names from a show roster and asked the people to send in folk names of towns, he entered "Lewiston the armpit of Idaho."

Half of the people responded, contributing such names as "Buffalo - the armpit of the East," "Garbage Grove" for Garden Grove, Calif.," "Gooddland, Kansas - The lint in the navel of the U.S.A.," and so on.

Ashworth's mail art shows are not unique. A recent exhibition in Santa Barbara, Calif. - "The Magic Show" attracted 600 artists from 32 nations.

Unlike Ashworth's shows, which primarily are viewed by the participating artists only, "The Magic Show" and others like it are exhibited in galleries for public perusal.

It's unlikely mail art ever will beget much monetary value or critical acclaim for its practitioners, but it does offer an undiscriminating and wide-ranging forum for artistic expression.

Says Joseph Woodard, a critic for the Santa Barbara News & Review, "In this time, when the entire system of art dealership has become suspect, somehow irreversibly corrupted, mail art assumes an almost utopian promise of salvation."

Ashworth prefers to compare it to ham radio." "It's just something people do," he says.

The pullman native and Western Washington University graduate became inadvertently involved through his old newsletter, the vessel for his endless flow of opinions on the state of the world. He was soliciting subscriptions through an advertisement in an art magazine and kept receiving strange works of art in the mail. "At first I didn't know what was going on - "What are these people trying to do?" " he says. "Essentially, I had gotten on a lot of lists."

In time he discovered his opinions could reach hundreds of people through the mail art network, while his publication had reached no more than l20.

He included this tidbit of wisdom on the beauty pageant postcards, "When everyone buys a record by one big music star, a job is created for one artist. At the same time, hundreds of technical jobs are created for people who know how to run the machinery which makes millions of copies of an original work and distribute those copies.

"Super-star artists, one more reason why there are more jobs for technocrats than artists."

Ashworth works part time as a janitor at Pizza Haven and spends much of his free time producing mail art. "The job is what I do for pay," he says, "and mail art is what I do for a creative outlet. Put the two together and it makes for a nice career."

The beauty pageant took an enormous amount of time and energy to produce and cost Ashworth nearly $ 400 in postage and commercial printing. "That's money I don't spend going to movies or bars, doing the things other people do for excitement or to meet people," he says.

"This is how I meet people, it's my celebration of life."


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