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For $20, Wilson is sending me art through the mail throughout the month of June.
The mail art, she said, was a coronavirus shutdown solution to the problem of, “How do I get stuff in people’s hands so they look at it?” Galleries were going online, but Wilson’s art is meant to be tactile, held, and pondered.
Also, she said, “I was trying to think of things I can mail to support the post office.”
Wilson is famous in Jersey political circles for, among other things, her Sen. Bob Menendez iron-on patch immortalizing his classic New Jersey quote, uttered after a 2 1/2-month corruption trial ended in a hung jury: “To those who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won’t forget you.” (Wilson sold all she made.)
Until about seven years ago, Wilson worked primarily in watercolors, creating drawings and books with tiny, handwritten texts and “an ever-changing cast of talkative girls,” exhibited around the world. She had since turned to fibers (and Twitter), so mask making was a natural. She sold or gave away 300 masks, including one option, popular with journalists, with fabric that resembles redacted documents.
So when Wilson, who teaches in the Visual & Critical Studies Department at the School of Visual Arts in New York, was ready to move on from masks, I moved with her. Why not? It was only slightly easier to get in on the $20 June art subscription (now sold out) than it had been to get a mask (they regularly sold out in minutes).
“Basically when the whole coronavirus lockdown happened, I suddenly had what every artist wants, which is lots and lots of time,” Wilson said. “It was also overwhelming. It wasn’t like I could go back to just making my art like usual.”
“I just don’t want to have unhappy people,” said Wilson, 46. “$20, you take a chance, maybe you see something good.“
The limitations are the point, in a way. “It’s just an interesting thing to do as an intellectual exercise,” Wilson said. “Just every few days, how do I make 20 works of art for really cheap, with supplies that I have or can get?”
The first mail art arrived in a little green envelope with a Sally Ride postage stamp. Inside was a seven-page booklet, a mini graphic zine, called “Let’s Talk About ... Mutual Aid.”
Like the Menendez patch, it was more words than you might expect from art (or a patch). There was text, and some drawings, about connecting with neighbors in a form of “radical helpfulness.” Hoo boy, would that mean I should stop hiding from second-home owners who had prematurely invaded my part of the Jersey Shore? I sent some more masks to family members in New York.
On the back, Wilson promised more “Let’s Talk About” zines, including “Let’s talk about menopause!”
Mail art has been a thing since the 1960s, Wilson notes, when artists sent postcards with poems or drawings to bypass commercial distribution. The Tate Modern in London traces its origins to Marcel Duchamp, among others.
To be honest, it took me awhile to read through the handwritten text of “Let’s Talk About Mutual Aid,” though I appreciated the red cross drawing described as “more like the Red Cross and international relief and less like Jesus although there’s probably that too.” I carried the green envelope with the zine in it for days in my backpack in case I had some down time for art during, say, a protest I was covering. I was glad to know it was there.
Wilson says the feedback is fleeting. “Mostly what I get is people who are like, ‘Wow I love it,' ” she says. “Or it’s dead silence.”
The next installment came in a white envelope with a Forever stamp featuring Peter, the boy from The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. My name and address were surrounded by a leafy imprint. Inside was grim reality: stickers designed to be put up around your community with names of black people killed by police.
“There were so many names to choose from,” Wilson wrote. “It’s overwhelming to consider how many there are and how many we’ve quickly forgotten. Black Lives Matter!”
Wilson had debated whether to send the stickers to subscribers. “I’ve been really trying to make sure what I send to people is kind of upbeat,” she said. “Most of the people subscribing are not art people. Do most people want to receive something depressing? No. I told myself, ‘Don’t do what was going on in the world.' Then I felt like I just had to.”
My stickers had 15 names in little bull’s-eye circles, from George Floyd and Breonna Taylor to Janet Wilson and Botham Jean. I stared at them, wondered at the names I couldn’t recall, Googled them. I stuck some on my computer.
The next day, more mail from Jersey City, this one a small manila envelope. The mail had come late that day, and I sat down, exhausted, to open it, the sun muted in my enclosed porch.
“Let’s talk about: House Plants” read the cheery title of the red-cardboard booklet. It opened accordion-style to papers glued together, giddily unfolding into pages of leaves and branches that had been filled in with watercolors.
It was just lovely.
The words described Wilson’s pandemic journey from “a person with no plants and the reputation of a plant murderer,” to someone with romaine lettuce growing “like crazy on a windowsill.”
“Two months into this crazy time + I’m up to 12 plants, and they are doing great,” Wilson wrote. “... I cannot tell you how happy having these plants have made me. I always wanted to be a houseplant lady with an insane indoor garden, and just was never home enough and paying attention enough to sustain it. Really I just want nature to take the wheel and take over the whole operation already. Houseplants for President 2020, I am so ready for this.”
I looked around. I, too, had uncharacteristically taken better care of my plants during this time, and the aloe plant had even helped out when I was washing my hands a million times every day. There were two colorful orchids my husband got me for my birthday that I put on the porch because I was spending so much time there. My plants really had taken the wheel.
I exhaled, properly absorbing Amy Wilson’s art. Then I watered my plants.