With COVID social distancing, artists pass paintings back and forth through the mail to complete them

One artist finds empowerment in being an artist in action.

September 12, 2020, 5:05 AM

Christina Massey, a Brooklyn-based artist, is getting creative to safely collaborate with other artists in a time of social-distancing -- and giving the U.S. Postal Service a boost as well.

In March, when New York went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Massey said she felt so overwhelmed with uncertainty that it left her feeling uninspired.

"The pandemic hit New York City really hard and I was feeling extremely isolated. And at the same time, really wanting to do something as a community of artists to help. You know, everyone, our livelihood is being taken away. ... Everyone was losing jobs and it was just an incredibly confusing time," said Massey.

Inspired by a podcast in April that spoke about funding cuts for the USPS, Massey decided to start the USPS Art Project.

PHOTO: Brooklyn-based artist and founder of USPS Art Project Christina Massey is getting creative to safely collaborate with other artists in a time of social-distancing
Brooklyn-based artist and founder of USPS Art Project Christina Massey is getting creative to safely collaborate with other artists in a time of social-distancing
Christina Massey

"Artists are small businesses, which people sometimes forget, and so [USPS] is a vital service for us to stay in business. There's a mutual respect and relationship I think between the two that maybe isn't as obvious," said Massey, who added that in her experience, the average cost of mailing artwork is somewhere around $7.50 a piece.

According to Massey, "mail art," where one artist begins a piece of work then sends it by mail for another artist to finish, is a concept that has been around for a while. But in a time of stagnant collaboration and USPS troubles, Massey felt like starting an initiative involving mail art now made perfect sense.

"Mail art has been around longer than I've been alive. It's not a particularly new idea, but in this context, it felt very important," said Massey. "It really started with a very small group of us that all know each other, because, at the time, we still didn't quite know how the virus spread [on] surfaces."

Starting just in her small group of artist friends, the project grew fast, said Massey. The USPS Art Project can now be found on Facebook and Instagram with a combined following of about 4,000 people.

As the administrator of the project, Massey says she facilitates collaboration with the post office, tracks posted artwork and helps build a community of artists to find new partners for which to send their work.

"Before I knew it, there were hundreds of artists doing it. Now, there's over 600 pieces that I'm aware of, at least," said Massey, who tracks the project through social media hashtags on Instagram. "It's been incredibly inspiring to see how people have taken the project and run with it and the stories I've gotten back from so many artists have said ... they were just kind of in this stagnant 'couldn't create mode,' and it was the first thing they'd done since everything shut down."

Massey said the work is rewarding because she enjoys seeing artists' works evolve throughout the pandemic and she's appreciated getting to know and support postal workers.

"I've [gotten to know] a lot of people who are either mail carriers themselves, or maybe they're married to somebody [who carries mail], or are retired. There's a really great USPS group on Facebook that's been incredibly supportive and encouraging ... and they've been like, 'You know, keep doing what you're doing. We love it,'" said Massey. "Quite a few artists have said how a parent or grandparent, or even, in one case, a great-grandparent, works for the post office."

Massey said it's hard to sum up the exact dollar amount the USPS Art Project has spent to ship projects back and forth through the postal service, but as states begin reopening, Massey said she set up an in-person, socially distant exhibition.

"In that one exhibition, there's over 300 pieces of artwork, and it was $1,800 dollars [to ship the artwork], just to get the work there. And that doesn't include all the back and forth between partners as they were creating [the art]. When it leaves the venue, it gets shipped to another venue or collector and if it goes to another venue and, again, again, again, again. ... So one piece of art can actually end up going through the mail several times," said Massey.

Ultimately, Massey finds empowerment in being an artist in action. She said she feels grateful to help others by using her passion in a time of collective isolation and confusion.

"My goal was that maybe artists as a group could actually make some sort of difference," said Massey. "It doesn't matter what type of artist you are, how experienced you are, just by doing what you do, you are helping."

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