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Harley sits at the table of his Russian River home surrounded by some of his ceramic creations. The artist does superbly detailed stamps from imaginary countries. By Brant Ward/Chronicle
He puts his stamp on his artwork
© San Francisco Chronicle
Friday, March 28, 2003
By M.V. Wood
Special to the Chronicle
As a young boy, Harley (who doesn't use a last name) says he realized that his mailbox could offer an "escape from the dreary, claustrophobic, brutalizing reality" of his life.
Salvation came in the form of the National Geographic magazine, which was slipped into the mailbox each month.
"The only time my father ever touched me was to hit me," Harley said. "And my mom kept going nuts. She had several complete nervous breakdowns to the point that she'd have to be incarcerated."
The magazines "saved my life in a way. Through them, I learned about the beautiful, wonderful world out there," said Harley, a Guerneville artist and the curator of the "Post Modern Post: International Artistamps" exhibition currently at the Sonoma County Museum in Santa Rosa.
Harley started writing to people in the exotic lands he learned about in National Geographic. He wrote to the leader of Tristan da Cunha, a tiny island that fascinated him. He wrote to inhabitants of Pitcairn Island, which was settled by Fletcher Christian and a few other mutineers from the infamous Bounty.
And they wrote back.
"My mailbox brought me the fresh air I needed to live," says Harley, 62, whose works are in the collections of the Getty Foundation in Los Angeles, the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and the Cincinnati Art Museum.
Perhaps it was partly those letters -- bearing all those colorful, exotic postage stamps -- that inspired Harley's interest in stamps. That, and the show-and-tell incident in second grade.
A classmate, Tommy Bags, brought in a big Ritz Cracker box to show-and-tell.
He opened it, and emptied its contents -- it was full of postage stamps. Everyone in the class circled around Tommy.
"I saw how much attention Tommy Bags got because of all those stamps," Harley said, "and I wanted so much to have that attention for myself. I think that's what started me on the road."
These days, among other forms of art, such as collage and sculpture and painting, Harley creates artistic renditions of postal stamps, also known as "artistamps." He also makes cancellation stamps and all the other accoutrements associated with the post.
"Harley is definitely a leading figure in the artistamp world," said John Held, author of "Mail Art: An Annotated Bibliography." "He's well known throughout the mail art network, but he really specializes in artistamps. I think his (stamp collecting) background adds a lot of depth to his work."
Artistamps are basically artworks that resemble postage stamps. They tend to be the same size as stamps, but not necessarily. They are sometimes gummed on the back, but not always. They might come in sheets and be perforated, or they might not.
"An artistamp is an artistamp if the artist says it is," Harley explains. In the land of artistamps, and mail art in general, the artist is king.
Having no rules is one of the key points of the mail art movement, which started in the 1950s with the work of Ray Johnson. It's a worldwide network of artists who use the international postal system for their art. For instance, one artist might mail a piece of his artwork to another artist, asking him to add on to that piece and then mail it to another artist, and so on.
"Like a chain letter, with a twist," Harley said.
"The intent of the mail art movement was to circumvent the parasitical structure of the art world with its collectors and critics and galleries and historians and academics and all the other morons. There was this engorged tail and this tiny little dog.
"The movement allows artists to communicate directly with each other on a global scale. They can get around that official face of art, the collectors and critics and so on. It's just artist to artist.
"As the artists mailed things to each other, they naturally started making the envelopes into artworks as well. And they started incorporating the stamps into the artwork, and they began making their own stamps."
Occasionally, an artist will use his artistamp in lieu of a real stamp. Sometimes the post office catches it. Sometimes it doesn't, and the artistamp goes through the mail and gets canceled.
There seems to be a certain amount of bragging rights associated with getting your stamp canceled. As Harley goes through the exhibition at the Sonoma County Museum, pointing out various artistamps, his voice carries an added hint of glee when he points out a canceled one.
"Look, there's a couple right there," he said.
At first glance, the stamps on the envelopes look like the ones the government issued to commemorate the Olympic Games. One shows a gymnast performing a handstand, her legs doing a split in the air. Another one shows two men entwined, wrestling. It takes a couple of seconds to realize that -- surprise -- the athletes are stark naked.
That's what happens when government-sanctioned, committee-reviewed, bureaucracy-laden postal stamps collide with the free-wheelin' ways of those underground artistamp artists.
Although the artists get a kick out of an artistamp slipping through the system, people with the U.S. Postal Service don't find it nearly as amusing. They consider it fraud.
The service has mostly turned a blind eye to the practice. But every now and then, a postal inspector will show up at the front door of an artist to ask some questions.
"I had one come to my place once, to see if I was trying to defraud the government 30 cents at a time," Harley said.
"I tried to explain to him a little something about art. But he didn't understand a thing. So after he left, I called the Postal Service and told them that until they could find someone who isn't a complete moron to come talk with me, I wasn't going to waste my time anymore. They never sent anyone again.
"That tells you something, doesn't it?" he said with a chuckle.
Harley is fond of "moron," and uses the word generously, typically bestowing it upon members of "The Establishment." For example, he says, the Internal Revenue Service is "full of morons."
"I had my own personal IRS agent for a while. He'd come by and visit with me regularly and we'd do our little live theater performance. I'd show him my pathetic bookkeeping. He'd shake his head. I'd offer to pull up the floorboards to prove I wasn't hiding any money.
"It was like, come on, I'm not hiding money. I'm an artist. I don't have money.
"Being an artist is just one step above being a bag lady in this society. It's not an easy way to make a living. God knows I wake up plenty of times in the middle of the night worried about money. But there are people out there who make a great deal of money and they wake up in the middle of the night depressed because they're wasting the hours of their life doing meaningless tasks. I prefer my way of losing sleep.
"Living your life as an artist is an impossible task. But that's what I do: the impossible. And I'm going to continue making art until I croak."
Harley says he knew he wanted to be an artist ever since he was 16 years old and created an artwork out of the blanket he used as a baby. The piece won first place in a nationwide art contest sponsored by the National Scholastic Association.
He went to Indiana University for his bachelor's degree in art (class of 1965) and then to Oberlin College in Ohio for a graduate assistantship.
As he was going through the cafeteria line during his early days at Indiana, Harley noticed the young woman who was serving the mashed potatoes.
"She was just slopping those potatoes onto everyone's plate. And so I asked her, 'What's the matter, honey, you in heat?' "
Evidently, she was charmed by the repartee, the two started dating and quickly wed. That Harley is homosexual didn't deter either of them.
"Well, of course we knew I'm gay," he said. "I definitely had no doubts about it. But Patricia and I fell in love with each other."
The couple had two children and eventually, four grandchildren. After 27 years of marriage, they divorced.
Their first child, Tristan, was named after Tristan da Cunha, the island that so fascinated Harley in his youth. Then, in 1975, Harley created his own imaginary post office, calling it the Tristan Local Post, and started issuing stamps for it.
That same year, he heard about James Warren Felter's exhibition of artistamps, which he had organized for Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. It was the first exhibition of its kind and ended up touring through Canada, the United States and Europe for the next few years.
"This was a huge revelation to me," Haley says. "Up until then I hadn't heard of other artists who were using stamps and envelopes as part of their studio work. So when I heard about the exhibit, I packed up some of my stuff and sent it to James Warren Felter.
And, since my name and address were on those envelopes, I started getting contacted by other artists throughout the world. They began sending me mail art and I started sending it to them, and we developed this wonderful communication."
Once again, the mailbox became a hub in Harley's life. For 20 years he amassed an extensive archive of mail art created by more than 1,200 artists from about 60 countries. The entire archive was acquired by Oberlin College in 1996.
In 1978, Harley closed his Tristan Local Post and, instead, created his very own independent state with its own post and, of course, its own stamps. Its name is Terra Candella, which is loose Latin for "Land of Light." (Several other mail artists have created their own states as well.)
Terra Candella might not be real in the sense that Tristan da Cunha and Pitcairn Island are real. But it nevertheless feeds Harley's soul.
"Terra Candella is a spirit," he said. "It's a sense of freedom, a celebration of the innate human capacity everyone has to explore their own truth and individuality."
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