Small is beautiful: Holyoke gallery features mail art from across the country and overseas


Staff Writer

Published: 06-21-2020 9:28 AM

Mail art, as Dean Brown explains, became a big deal in the late 1960s and the 1970s, a populist movement based on sending small-scale artworks — drawings, paintings, graphic designs and more — through the Postal Service.

Over the past couple of decades, with the advent of the internet, mail art became more of an underground movement. But throw in a pandemic, and small artworks, constructed on envelopes of different sizes and sometimes incorporating stamps and postal marks as part of their designs, could be taking on renewed popularity.

Brown, the co-owner of PULP art gallery in Holyoke, has opened a genuine live exhibit, “Pushing the Envelope: Art in the Time of Pandemic,” that comprises about 500 pieces of mail art from artists in 38 states, Canada, Great Britain and a number of other countries. The art reflects not just a variety of styles but a range of themes sparked by the COVID-19 outbreak: isolation and fear, home and family, hope and humor.

What he had originally imagined would be a small virtual exhibit that might include 75 to 100 works of art instead has become his first in-house show since he closed his space in mid-March.

“The response we got was so overwhelming that I felt we needed to do this here,” Brown said during a recent morning at his Holyoke galley, on Race Street. “There was just an outpouring of emotion in all this work, this sense of wanting to connect with people.”

Viewers can come to the exhibit by making an appointment through the gallery website (; Brown is limiting visitors to five people at a time, and all are required to wear face masks. The show, which opened in early June, will be on view through the end of the month and possibly into July, he says; it can also be seen online.

Some of the images speak directly to the pandemic. Easthampton painter Arielle Jessop, in a work called “Love in 2020,” depicts front-line workers, all wearing face masks, ascending what looks like a colorful escalator. An illustration by Amherst artist David Hyde Costello offers a visual paean to connection, showing a rabbit mail carrier handing a letter to another rabbit beneath a caption reading “We love the U.S. Postal Service.”

Other examples include surreal collages and paintings, or photographs and graphic art, as well as some mixed media pieces. Tiki Robb, a Hawaiian artist, contributed a colorful octopus on his envelope — perhaps a symbol of the way the novel coronavirus has ensnared so many aspects of day-to-day life.

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Brown says there was no mandate for artists to create work specifically related to the pandemic, though he encouraged that. “The larger goal was to capture the feel of this moment that artists are working in, this strange time we’re all living through,” he said.

He’s arranged the work in several separate, large blocks mounted on the gallery walls, the blocks being designed to replicate the shape of envelopes. “I basically used color as the main criteria for grouping things together,” he said.

Brown conceived of the exhibit idea in April and put out the word through a number of channels, including posting a notice on Instagram and requesting artists to send their work to his home in Pelham, since the gallery was closed. That proved to be a hit with the postal carriers in town who made the deliveries to him, he said with a laugh: “They were thrilled to see all the art.”

“That’s a key idea behind mail art,” Brown said. “It’s designed to be seen along the way by anyone who touches it. It’s very egalitarian — its takes art off a pedestal.”

Posting information about “Pushing the Envelope” on Instagram likely gave his exhibit proposal its biggest reach, he says. He suspects that online groups of artists who make mail art reposted the information, and by late May he’d been flooded with art samples, including multiple samples from some people. The work also came in from many quarters — artists from California contributed the third highest amount of pieces.

He heard as well from people whose work he’d previously exhibited, such as Dave Laro, a mixed-media artist from White River Junction, Vermont who uses wood and various materials — toys, old newspapers, board games, boxes — to create unusual three-dimensional set-pieces.

Laro, whose work was featured in PULP’s first show, in May 2019, this time has contributed an old envelope to which he’s affixed a slender, painted wooden figure of a smiling mailman, possibly cut by a bandsaw.

“I really like Dave’s sense of humor and his creativity,” Brown said.

The show was open to submissions from people ages 8 to 80, and among the entries have been a number from children — one of whose pieces has already been sold, Brown said. All work is available for sale for $70, with all proceeds going to the artists.

Brown is not sure when PULP will be fully open again, or what artist he’ll be featuring. Like others who oversee art and entertainment venues, he’s waiting for specific guidelines and regulations from the state. But he’s cheered by the number of artists who have contributed to “Pushing the Envelope” and by the feedback he’s gotten on the show, both in person and online.

“The pandemic hasn’t stopped people from being creative and positive,” he said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at For more information on “Pushing the Envelope,” visit to register for a visit or to view the work online.