Mail artist en masse

Mail art, lest you are uninformed, is an eclectic art movement with a rich history, both internationally and within the Asheville scene. Carlos Steward of the Courtyard Gallery in the River Arts District explained the history of mail art to Xpress while he previewed some of the many pieces that will be on display as part of the Anything Goes — Everything Shows mail art exhibit that opens on August 3.

Mail art, as we know it today, draws its roots from the Dada art movement that began in the late 1910s in Europe. This avant-garde movement could be more accurately described as “anti-art,” and was a protest of World War I, at the time the most unthinkable event in the minds of those who watched it unfold. Mail art evolved from this same kernel of inspiration, and gained popularity locally at the famed Black Mountain College in the ‘30s, Steward says.

And just as renowned Dadaist Marcel Duchamp could repurpose a urinal as a drinking fountain in the name of (anti-)art, so too do mail artists make use of as diverse an array of mediums as egg shells, shoes and dolls to craft their pieces.

There are few rules in mail art culture. The artwork can be anything, as long as it is mailed sans packaging. Some of the charm behind the movement lies in the damage that can occur during the mailing process, as well as the novelty of sending along, for example, a wooden fish coated in stamps right alongside the usual glut of bills and junk mail. Another part of mail art’s appeal is sending the art out into the world knowing you will not get it back.

The lack of guidelines ensures diversity among pieces. Some are two-dimensional: drawings, collages or even painted vinyl records. Others are three-dimensional: usually objects adorned with stickers, glitter or paint. Most are small, but Steward has received large-scale pieces like a metal sculpture and a massive surrealist piece on heavy paper that came folded up and stitched together from the United Kingdom.

Steward began the mail art shows in Asheville after a gallery cancellation left him with space to fill. He had done it once before in New York City, and it went over so well he gave it a shot here. The shows have now been going on for eight years, and Steward has boxes upon boxes of mail art from across the globe. The shows have flourished especially well in Stewart’s newer gallery space in the Phil Mechanic Building in West Asheville, which he moved into two years ago. The prime location in the River Arts District has attracted a more art-focused crowd to the gallery than could be found at its former location downtown, he says.

This is evident from some of the pieces, a number of which are local, signs of a vibrant regional passion for the oddball artform. It helps that any piece sent to Steward is assured a spot in the annual show. There are no criteria and there is no censorship.

Anything Goes — Everything Shows will be on display in the Courtyard Gallery on 109 Roberts St. through September 27. It’s free. For more information call 273-3332 or visit


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