Mail art: How a U-M printmaking class went virtual
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent canceled in-person classes, arts faculty at the University of Michigan were forced to rethink their curriculum beyond the studio.
For Toby Millman, a multidisciplinary artist and lecturer in drawing and printmaking at the Residential College, this meant transitioning an intro-level printmaking class to one that students could continue entirely at home.
Early in March, when Millman first observed that a campus closing seemed imminent, she stocked up on extra printmaking supplies and began preparing for a shut-down. With each student working on different printmaking techniques, Millman had to gather materials that were diverse enough so each student could still work at home.
Luckily Millman had taken extra steps to prepare—the day after gathering supplies, U-M announced that classes would go virtual the rest of the semester. By the time the announcement was made, Millman had prepared a list of tools and materials for each student to borrow from the studio and begin their at-home printmaking studies.
While most classes relied on new technologies for course adjustments, Millman turned to a more tried and true resource: the United States Postal Service.
For their final project, students were to make and exchange prints with each member of the class and garner critiques from their peers. While students had a portion of the supplies and were already taught various printmaking techniques in the studio by that point in the semester, they wouldn’t be able to exchange prints in person. Continuing the last part of the project seemed beyond the realm of possibility—until a student suggested that the print exchange take place through the mail.
“I thought it was a really clever idea,” said Millman. “I knew that there was a history of mail art being a subversive art movement—a way for artists to share their work outside of the gallery system and established channels.”
She then tapped art and design librarian Jamie Vander Broek to gather resources for her students about the mail art movement.
“We have a large collection of artists’ books at the U-M Library, and mail art is a cousin to the genre,” said Vander Broek, who says that the library has also collected some ‘mail art’ over the years. “Similar to artists books, which were created in part with the idea that art shouldn’t be limited to hanging on the walls of fancy galleries, but should get out into regular people’s hands, the ‘mail art’ movement sought to distribute works of art widely—mediating the works through the process of the mail was part of that conceptual framework.”
“I told them that they were not just making art and putting it through the mail, but rather that they should be thinking of the art in the context of mail,” said Millman. “The fact that they would have to exchange prints though the mail informed the work they would make.”
Students were then directed to take their final assignment in one of three directions: 1) they could focus on the idea of the movement and how it might mirror ‘mail art’ of the past; 2) they could respond to current events; or 3) they could continue working through their preferred printmaking technique they learned and focused on in class. Students responded to all three approaches—some were already on a roll with their ideas throughout the semester, but others wanted to respond to the present moment surrounding the coronavirus.
Renee Ding, a student in Millman’s class, created monoprints using pochoir—a unique impression of an image made from reprintable plates and stencils —which focused on conspiracy theories surrounding the coronavirus.
“I felt like some of the most bizarre explanations for the coronavirus emerged during my time in this class—one of them being that 5G towers and networks spread COVID-19,” said Ding. “Through the mail art project, I wanted to poke fun at the idea of these kinds of silly conspiracies, and approach the current dilemma in a light-hearted manner.”
Another student, Hannah Chosid, focused on creating hand-shaped relief prints that touched on themes of social distancing through the mail.
Learning how to be an artist
Without an in-person critique, Millman and her class rethought how an online critique would work.
“One of the students in the classes suggested we keep the mystery alive and not do an online critique,” said Millman.
Instead of one often awkward, difficult Zoom critique, as Millman recalls, students critiqued works as they received them in the mail. The only way they would rely upon photos would be if their art got lost or delayed in the mail by the exam date, set for April 15.
According to Millman, instead of having a virtual session of critique, students garnered a new method of observation as envelopes continued to arrive throughout their final week.
“I think mailing made the print exchange more enjoyable and exciting than if it had been conducted in person—I found myself checking the mail daily in anticipation for the arrival of my peers’ prints,” said Ding.
While COVID-19 shutdowns made mail difficult to track and harder to receive, challenges persisted while conducting an online art class, but benefits still remained.
“Students missed out on pursuing more advanced techniques that they would have been learning,” said Millman. “But I think that in some ways they ended the course maybe not so much as an advanced printmaker, but as a more advanced artist, since artists are always having to make do with what they have.”
Students echoed these sentiments—Chosid recalled having fewer materials to work with at home, but found herself being more sustainable and resourceful.
“I came to appreciate that you can make pretty good art using few resources,” she said. “In class, Toby stressed sustainability often. Of course, it’s nice to have access to a studio full of different colors of ink, a printing press, and lots of carving tools of different sizes, but I was proud of the work that I was able to produce with just two colors of ink and the scraps of linoleum that I had leftover from my last project.”
While Millman did not intend to center her printmaking class around mail art, in the end, students gained skills they may not have in the classroom.
“They learned how to troubleshoot on their own, to be creative under pressure, and do a lot with a little—I’m really proud of their work.”