You’ll notice that I said “a” history, not “the” history. Because, of course, this is the history of the community according to me and my experience, and it is surely different from someone else’s perspective. What spurred the idea of writing about this was a recent conversation in which I realized that I’ve been around longer than all but a handful of people and can look back and see how things have evolved into the community as we know it now.
I started writing for Rubberstampmadness in 1991, back when it was a tabloid-sized folded newprint publication full of funky stamping and this really exciting stuff called “mail art” that nodded at Ray Johnson and then took off on its own. This was before there were any mixed media publications–RSM was the only stamping magazine back then. There weren’t rubber stamp stores on every corner, and scrapbooking wasn’t even a verb. What there was though, was a little community of people who were involved in mail art or were starting to make their own faux postage and people who were making their own books and stamping all the text by hand, one letter at a time. This was before email, so people stayed in touch through the mail, and mail art became, for some of us, A Very Big Deal. Very few of the Big Names we know now were on the scene back then. Kat Okamoto had A Stamp in the Hand–she writes on her website that the first rubber stamp convention was in December of 1982. Leavenworth Jackson started creating rubber stamps in 1979. Gary Dorothy owned Stampa Barbara, the Santa Barbara mecca for stampers, and Kathy Lewis was one of the luminaries whose work you could find there. Anne Norcia, Mitzi Cartee, Susan Newell, Lynne Perrella. (I’m not providing links because I can’t find everyone–some have changed so much that I’m not even sure it’s the same person. Better to let you google and search on your own.)
After I started writing for RSM, I got involved more and more deeply in stamping. Not only could you buy commercial stamps (back then they were either mounted on wood or unmounted–some of us used Dr. Scholl’s foam shoe inserts as padding between the rubber image and whatever kind of wood mount we created because that’s all we could get), but if you had connections, you could buy into private matrices–sheets of custom rubber that were way cooler and funkier than anything you could buy in stores. I got various local cabinet shops to save wood scraps for me, and I spent I-don’t-know-how-many hours cutting and sanding wood and mounting stamps–hours and hours. I had literally thousands of stamps–I put up custom shelves on every wall, top to bottom. I did a very rudimentary kind of mail art, sending weird stuff to all corners of the continent and getting mailboxes full of weird stuff in return–back then we’d test the postal system to see what would go through, unboxed, with just an address. I once sent a toilet plunger (new! unused!) with just a shipping tag, and another time I mailed a huge rag doll, easily 3 feet tall, with the address written on her cloth skin. This was before 9/11 and the subsequent postal scares, back when the clerks at the post office actually enjoyed seeing what you were going to send through the system and were happy to help you with anything for which you were willing to pay postage.
Meanwhile, artist’s stamps were taking off. In Seattle, Teesha and Tracy Moore had hooked up with people creating faux postage and then moved into book arts and the artists involved there: Picasso (Bill) Gaglione, Michael Jacobs, dozens more (I remember best those whom I later met in person; my list of participants is by no means exhaustive). Then Teesha hosted an event in Bellevue, Washington, that she called Artfest, and a little while later she put out the first issue of a self-published magazine called The Studio ‘Zine, and then everything just exploded. As I wrote in the profile we did of Teesha for Somerset Studio, it’s impossible to describe how exciting all this was. It was new, and it was inspiring, and everyone was talking about it. Suddenly, people all over the country were realizing that there were others like them out there, holed up in studios in towns and cities and barns, making this odd, funky stuff that became known as mixed media art but that was completely different from the mixed media category of fine art. It was, really, like a whole new world.
Check back Friday for Part II.
You can also find out about the current trends in mixed media art with Seth Apter’s book, The Pulse of Mixed Media: Secrets and Passions of 100 Artists Revealed.
MORE RESOURCES FOR MIXED MEDIA ARTISTS