One woman might not be able to change the world. But maybe four -- or six or eight or a dozen -- can.
These four women were meeting to talk about their hobbies, their passions, their collections, their artwork and their common goals -- in this case, those that revolve around real, handwritten letters sent through "snail mail." Without letters, they agree, family connections are lost, history is left unchronicled, new pen pals are never made, and old ones aren't still around after half a century.
Go & Do
Northwest Arkansas Letter Writing Society
When: 6 p.m. the second Tuesday of each month; next meeting is Feb. 11
Where: Bella Vista Public Library
Information: Email firstname.lastname@example.org
"It's a dying art," says Pat Kirby, one of the principal members of the Northwest Arkansas Letter Writing Society, based in Bella Vista.
"This brings back a personal touch," says Mary Green, a new member.
"You learn a lot about people through letters," adds Nancy Brennan, another of the group's core members.
Fifty-six years ago, Brennan sent a dollar to an organization that promised to match the Milwaukee youngster with a pen pal. Heather lived in Queensland, Australia, and together, via letters, they navigated their teenage years, marriage, Heather's two sons and more. Those letters have all been written by hand. They don't text, and they don't do Facebook, so if they want to see pictures of each other's lives, they send them the old-fashioned way. But they have visited in person, once in 1992 when Brennan went to Australia, and again in 1997, when Heather came to the United States.
"I feel like she's a sister," Brennan says. "We've become like sisters."
Kirby, whose husband is pastor of Forest Hills Church in Bella Vista, grew up writing letters, just like her mother and grandmother did. She laughs when she says staying a few days with her grandmother meant getting letters from her mother, even though she was just down the road. The two older women wrote to each other all the time, too, she recalls, and every gift required a handwritten and heartfelt thank you note.
Green used to teach English as a Second Language and wrote to her students in Japan and Taiwan, she says.
Deena Guptil, another new member, remembers that when she moved from northern Illinois to Milwaukee to attend business school, her mother wrote her a letter every Sunday. She also had a pen pal -- hers was from Mexico -- but that relationship didn't last. She does, however, still write to friends of her deceased parents.
"One couple they'd known since they were in second or third grade together," she says. "I couldn't let that connection break."
Guptil just might be the perfect example of what brings these older women together: They're unwilling to let the past -- and its niceties -- slip away. She has all the letters her dad wrote courting her mother while he was serving in World War II. And she just discovered another chapter in her parents' lives had been hiding in a scrapbook she herself started.
"I collected old postcards," she begins the story. "I knew Mom and Dad had gone to Florida for their honeymoon, but I'd never heard much about it. Then, in my scrapbook, I found all the postcards my mother sent her mother. She'd given them to me for my collection. So I know every place they stayed, everything they did -- at least everything she wrote home about."
Combined with the love of historic ephemera is "mail art" -- also known as postal art and correspondence art.
"Mail art began in the 1960s when artists sent postcards inscribed with poems or drawings through the post rather than exhibiting or selling them through conventional commercial channels," says the website of the Tate museums in the United Kingdom.
"Its origins can be found in Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters and the Italian futurists. But it was the New York artist Ray Johnson who, in the mid 1950s, posted small collages, prints of abstract drawings and poems to art world notables, giving rise to what eventually became known as the New York Correspondence School.
"Mail art can take a variety of forms including postcards, packages, faxes, emails and blogs."
For the women of the Northwest Arkansas Letter Writing Society, mail art is an opportunity for creativity, perhaps an evolution of scrapbooking or even quilt design. It requires the same supplies that became ubiquitous in scrapbooking's heyday -- decorative paper, stickers, tiny pieces of art that are found or created, handmade envelopes and more.
"It's a form of upcycling," says Green.
"None of us is really crafty except Nancy; she quilts," says Kirby.
"It's a new direction from scrapbooking and much cheaper," says Green. "And you get a fun pen."
In addition to a calligraphy pen, scissors that cut decorative borders and all kinds of stickers, all the letter writers are crazy about a thing called "washi tape." It has the texture of lightweight masking tape but is patterned in every possible design, from musical notes to cats to stars to flowers. Made of natural fibers like bamboo and hemp, it tears easily, it doesn't leave a sticky residue behind, and it delights these adults as much as a new box of crayons might have excited their younger selves.
Sitting around a table together on this cold, rainy afternoon, the four women talk about anything and everything.
"We are all fairly new acquaintances, but I think we all have so many things in common we are on our way to some great friendships," says Kirby.
Naturally, they're also thinking about how to get more members -- hence this story -- and how to turn their love of letter writing into something they can give back to the community. Maybe they can find pen pals at Concordia, Bella Vista's retirement home, they muse, or connect with a homeschooled group of youngsters to exchange letters.
"You know, the old letters weren't full of big news: 'We didn't get any rain again today,'" says Guptil. "But I hate to think that all that will be lost for future generations. You don't save texts."
NAN Our Town on 02/06/2020
Print Headline: Paper trail