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Crop image of Elvis smile

Lockdown Mail

Written by Sarah McLean
Published date 23 June 2020

BA Graphic Design Communication Senior Lecturer Nigel Bents tells us how mail art can turn your letterbox into a creative hub.

Since lockdown began, many have turned to digital technology to help them keep in touch with friends and family during what could otherwise be socially isolating times.

Nigel Bents, Senior Lecturer on Chelsea’s BA Graphic Design Communication course, had different ideas. He turned instead to the practice of mail art, and sent specially created cards in the post to bring positivity and creativity into people’s homes.

He created two designs; one Beatles-themed, with well-known lyrics referencing the anxiety of the early days of the pandemic. The other a close-up of Elvis’ unmistakeable smile which the receiver could wear as their “very own useless PP-resl-E mask”. The cards combined humour, graphic design and, for some perhaps, a little nostalgia.

I spoke to Nigel about the project, his interest in mail art and how his students got involved in projects of their own.

A stack of postcards with a close-up of the singer Elvis' smile
Nigel's Elvis Postcard - Credit: Nigel Bents Caption
Two photos of recipients of the Elvis Postcards
Two happy recipients of the Elvis Postcard - Credit: Nigel Bents Caption
Beatles themed postcard featuring a spin the dial game that you can cut out
Nigel's interactive Beatles Postcard - Credit: Nigel Bents Caption

Your postcards have cheered me and lots of others up since lockdown began – thank you! Can you tell me about this project? Who have you been sending the cards out to and have you got plans for any more designs?

I have been sending these postcards to anyone who wants them. They are an analogue version of instagram; except more personal and hideously more expensive. They contain trashy practical aids for tasteless people at home - a Beatles fortune-teller card, or an Elvis face mask; there is as much truth in them as you’ll find anywhere else.

The next set of mail-outs are reprints of old postcards featuring national monuments, except with the monuments removed. It gives all armchair cultural creatives the opportunity to create whatever liberte, egalite or fraternite they want to see, provided they have a pen, glue-stick and stamp.

What I deliver as a teacher has been pretty much channeled through a screen of some sort recently, so this set of cards introduces an alternative system of communicative practice.

Tell us about mail art. How did you get into it and what do you love about it? 

I got into mail art in the 1980s. At that point it was a busy creative network of free exchange which used the postal system, inspired by the work of Ray Johnson in the USA in the late 1950s.

I love that it’s an ephemeral and immediate form of handy communication. It turns the recipient’s letterbox into a creative hub whenever the postman calls

Can you tell us about a mail art project you’ve done with BA Graphic Design Communication students?

Every year I give all my first year students a ‘Praise & Post’ postcard. It’s an ongoing project in which students, on the last lap of their educational journey, are asked to look back and think about that 'special' person who made all the difference.

The written comments have a disarming beauty and purity to them; it must be wonderful to receive one! Having written and addressed the back of the card, they then design a monument to them on the front. Ahmad in the Post Room then checks that all the addresses are in order and off they go!

Man in flat cap sorting through postcards
Post Room Assistant Ahmad preparing to post out the latest Praise & Posts - Credit: Nigel Bents Caption
Photograph of Trafalgar Square Statues
Praise & Post: create your own monument in Trafalgar Square - Credit: Nigel Bents Caption
A crop of a back of the postcard with writing
Praise & Post response from a Chelsea College of Art student - Credit: Nigel Bents Caption

Find out more about BA Graphic Design Communication