UW Today

March 9, 2011

Signed, sealed delivered: Students turn mailboxes into art

Madelyn Hagen works on the flower mailbox; next to it is the granny afghan mailbox. | Photo by Marco Solis-Bethancourt

Madelyn Hagen works on the flower mailbox; next to it is the granny afghan mailbox. | Photo by Marco Solis-Bethancourt

Some fiber arts teachers have a dress form in their classroom; Lou Cabeen has a mailbox. Thats because for the last several weeks her students have been “dressing” several of the brown mailboxes in which faculty and staff place outgoing mail that goes through Mailing Services.

Visit a set of mailboxes in front of the Chemistry Library Building and youll find one adorned in something that looks like your grandmothers afghan, while the other is festooned with flowers. Over across from Hall Health, an octopus scrambles up one mailbox toward a sand castle perched on another. Between Mackenzie Hall and the Art Building a pair of mailboxes are covered in burlap that has live plants growing out of its pockets, while on Memorial Way near Denny theres a mailbox covered with Barbie doll heads and hair—lots of it—with ribbons, combs and barrettes, just waiting for campus stylists to use.

An octopus climbs toward a sand castle in this fanciful project across from Hall Health. | Photo by Marco Solis-Bethancourt

An octopus climbs toward a sand castle in this fanciful project across from Hall Health. | Photo by Marco Solis-Bethancourt

Its all part of a class called Art 427, Special Topics in Surface Design, taught by Cabeen, associate professor of art. “This particular special topic is subtitled ‘Off the Table and Out of the Box,” Cabeen said. “So the class was structured to provide students with an opportunity to grapple with basic fiber art ideas in a public setting. I wanted to do something beyond the classroom, something large scale.”

At first Cabeen was thinking about car art, something that a number of Seattle artists do, but then she heard about Mailing Services.

“Weve been talking for a long time in Mailing Services about what to do with the brown mailboxes,” said Marco Solis-Bethancourt, program support supervisor in the department. “They needed something to make them look better, but its so expensive to get them painted. So one day we were talking and we said wouldnt it be great if we could do something with the students.”

Living plants growing in pockets are featured on this mailbox near Mackenzie Hall. Student Kjersti Kravik, Professor Lou Cabeen and student Malia Seavey look it over.

Living plants growing in pockets are featured on this mailbox near Mackenzie Hall. Student Kjersti Kravik, Professor Lou Cabeen and student Malia Seavey look it over.

He took the idea to his manager, Steven Roberts; his director, Frank Davis; and his associate vice president, Ann Anderson. All were enthusiastic.

Now it happens that Solis-Bethancourt is married to Debra Cox, who works in the School of Art Image Library. She broadcast Mailing Services thoughts and Cabeen saw a perfect project for her students. She met with Solis-Bethancourt and arrangements were made.

Solis-Bethancourt, meanwhile, was making his own arrangements. He took the idea to two campus committees — the Design Review Board and the Grounds Improvement Advisory Committee — and obtained their approval.

The students began working on the project at midterm. Solis-Bethancourt visited the class and explained to them the parameters of the work. First of all, the boxes had to remain functional; no art project could interfere with the opening and closing of their compartments. There were to be no political messages. And Mailing Services would decide when the art had deteriorated enough that it needed to be removed. Students had to sign a form indicating their agreement with the latter rule.

Malia Seavey combs some of the hair on her team's mailbox. | Photo by Mary Levin

“I enjoyed being exposed to Mailing Services,” said student Basya Clevenger, who was part of the afghan group. “[It was interesting] finding out about their operations, their commitment to refining and improving upon what they do and seeing the individual faces behind a facet of the University I hadn’t considered to this point.”

When the project began, Cabeen first had each student make his or her own sketches of “blue sky ideas.” Students shared their ideas with each other in what Cabeen called “visual brainstorming” sessions.

“I knew these projects would be much too large for an individual student to take on,” Cabeen said. “I did not want to impose groupings, so I was really pleased that between our discussions and sharing of sketches, affinity groups started to emerge relatively easily.”

The 19 students ended up doing five projects — four groups of four and one of three. As their ideas jelled, they wrote up proposals and presented them to Solis-Bethancourt and Roberts.

“I insisted on that because thats a very real world process for the students to go through,” Cabeen said.

A closeup of the 'hairpiece' that goes on the side of the hair mailbox on Memorial Way near Denny.

A closeup of the "hairpiece" that goes on the side of the hair mailbox on Memorial Way near Denny.

Once the designs were approved the students started working, and thats when the mailbox appeared in the classroom. Solis-Bethancourt arranged to have one brought in so that the students could continually check what they were doing against the mailbox. How big was that opening again? What was that latch like? Will this object balance on the top?

Cabeen brought in Laura Wright, a Seattle artist whose work involves community participation, to discuss art in a community context. She also brought in Benson Shaw, who both creates public art and conserves such art by other people, to talk to the students about practical matters such as what adhesives would work best and what preservatives would help the materials stand up to the weather. Shaw opened his studio to the students and let them rummage there for materials. As the projects took shape, students tested materials by doing things such as putting them out on their decks for long periods of time.

Ji Yun Lee, who was part of the octopus project, said her group “experimented and made samples and tested all different produc
ts, brainstormed with professionals and other sculptors and consulted others who were experienced with these types of projects for about a month.”

Finally, as the quarter was winding down, it was time to install the materials on the mailboxes. Each student group had “bid” on a particular mailbox, and locations were assigned early on. But as they worked, students learned that plans dont always work perfectly and some things had to be adjusted. One of the octopus tentacles, for example, was in front of the boxs top opening, and although there was still room to open the box, it was decided that the tentacle needed to be moved aside.

But students were enthusiastic about the project. “This project has been such a great experience working with the broader campus community,” said Becky Fay, who was part of the flowers group, “from the enthusiasm of Mailing Services to the positive feedback of passersby while we were installing and reviewing our work.”

“It has been terrific to work with Mailing Services,” Cabeen said. “The students have been excited because their work is going to be out in public, and I think they recognized that as both a privilege and a  a responsibility. Its great for them to have people like Marco and Steven who are genuinely excited about their work.”

Solis-Bethancourt is likewise pleased. “We hope this idea takes off and involves other professors in the art department,” he said. “My hope is that next quarter, another set of boxes will be covered.”