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Sealed & Delivered 

Library exhibit pushes the envelope

Gallery L at the Public Library is proving to be a fine addition to Charlotte's various viewing venues. All of the exhibits I've visited there have been accessible and enjoyable while at the same time offering something more if you look beneath the pretty surfaces and consider the underlying meaning as well as the physical act of making images. The Graceful Envelope, on view through August 25, is no exception.The Graceful Envelope features 135 cancelled, delivered and juried envelopes from the National Postal Museum's annual competition (also called "The Graceful Envelope"). Yes, these are envelopes that actually move through the mail system like any other piece of correspondence. This is part of the competition's extremely exacting rules. The entries must also be mailed in an envelope with proper postage, an envelope whose specifications vary from year to year. They must be addressed to "The Graceful Envelope" care of the National Postal Museum along with their address. All envelopes must be empty and the artist's name and address must appear on its backside. The artwork on the envelope must be completely original -- among other things, no photographs, stencils, mass-produced rubber stamps or computer graphics allowed.

It's interesting to note that there's such a thing as Mail Art. It was primarily in vogue in the 1960s and was pioneered by those associated with an artistic movement called Fluxus. (Fluxus is more a state of mind than a particular style per se; with Fluxus artists, sociopolitical goals were often more important than aesthetic aims.) Mail or Correspondence Art, postcard-like collages or other small-scale works, employed the post office as a distribution system -- a traveling exhibit of a single work of art, so to speak. Another Fluxus innovation was rubber stamp art, sometimes used in tandem with mail art.

So how did this competition called "The Graceful Envelope" get started? In 1993, the National Postal Museum decided to invite artists to submit decorated envelopes, expecting to receive a display of expert calligraphy. When more than 200 envelope submissions arrived in the mail with illustrations and compositional embellishments -- in addition to the anticipated calligraphy -- the Museum realized they had stumbled upon something, albeit serendipitously. What started out as a one-time endeavor became an annual event.

The exhibit at Gallery L features envelopes from 1993 to 1999. I asked Diane Curry, Gallery L Exhibit Coordinator, why they chose this exhibit. "We chose it for several reasons," she replied. "First of all, the envelopes were extremely beautiful. It also met our exhibit criteria in that there was really no other venue for such an exhibit in Charlotte. Plus, it was a Smithsonian exhibit, and they always put together a quality show. I liked the way that it showcases how everyone is talented in different ways and how the artists incorporated the postage stamps into their designs."

In the exhibit, you'll see envelopes like "Ode to O'Keefe," whose design is inspired by a postal stamp that depicts Georgia O'Keefe's painting of a poppy. The artists of this envelope from Kalispell, Montana, are Karen Leigh and Gini Ogle. These two women -- Leigh a watercolorist, Ogle a calligrapher -- are regular contributors to the competition. Look out for other examples of their individual and collaborative efforts in the exhibit.

Other envelopes take their cue from both the postal stamp and the annual competition themes. One of the themes for 1997 was "Pushing the Envelope." Here the envelope makers were challenged to create three-dimensional envelopes that could travel successfully through first-class mail. A postal requirement of no more than 1/4 inches of thickness to travel through first-class mail was just one of the design hurdles. As the text panel asserts, "The results are as much a testament to the diligence of the postal employees, who processed many envelopes by hand, as to the artists' skill and imagination."

In 1999, the theme was "Celebration of Beauty in Nature." The envelopes from this year are both thoughtful and stunning. In this category, you'll find envelopes with various textures and three-dimensional surfaces along with watercolor, collage, illustration and calligraphy. In this category, there's an envelope by Catherine Lee Longdorf, a Charlotte resident and a member of the Carolinas Lettering Society. Longdorf was living in Southport, NC, when she created her submission: a green envelope embellished with bumblebees, dragonflies, ladybugs and leaves, complementing the envelope's stamp that celebrates insect-eating reptiles. Her medium is gouache, ink and dimensional acrylic.

The envelopes in the exhibit range from exercises in calligraphy and design to more imaginative displays of skill and artistic experimentation. Some of the ideas are sophisticated, others naive. Still, each envelope is testimony to the creative process that resides in everyone if given half a chance.

Incidentally, it 's not too late to enter this year 's "Graceful Envelope " competition. The deadline for entries is August 1,2002. Complete rules as well as last year's winning envelopes are available online at www.calligraphersguild.org. Printed information on how to enter is also available in Gallery L.

The exhibit The Graceful Envelope will be on display through August 25 in Gallery L at the Main Library, 310 N. Tryon St. For more information, call 336-2020.

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