When I was small I had a brilliant book called ‘Free Stuff for Kids’ I spent many happy hours perusing the pages before posting polite hand written requests to various PO boxes in order to get my hands on cool stuff. The cool stuff dropped onto my door mat in many different forms and I still remember with delight my top 3 acquisitions – a scrap book especially for sticking foil milk bottle tops in, a book of vouchers to exchange for Fab lollies and an i-spy book dedicated to identifying different breeds of cows.
As I transited through my teenage years my postal habits became more of a reciprocal affair and I dedicated myself to sending cool stuff as well as receiving it. I created mix tapes with neatly written track lists and photocopied inlays, made mixed media collages (mostly celebrating The Smiths), took and developed photographs and collected badges, postcards and zines. I carefully curated packages containing any combination of these items and despatched them to the most special of my friends. Sometimes I got stuff back, sometimes I didn’t but the experience of putting together my packages was always joyful.
A month or so ago I spotted a tweet from Oh Comely magazine introducing their November Care Package project. The idea was simple, you registered on their blog, were paired with a stranger and then had a couple of weeks to prepare a parcel of surprises for them to include something warming, something inspirational and something personal. I wondered if this was an opportunity to rediscover the magic of communication 1980s style!
My swap partner was called Tom and over 2 weekends I stitched a felt creature to keep him company during long winter nights, embroidered a quote from Oscar Wilde on a particularly tasteful psychedelic tie and constructed some matchbox sized pinhole cameras for him to experiment with. I carefully selected a suitable box to pack this bounty into and wrapped each component with brown paper and garden twine.
I spent so long faffing with my parcel that I missed the posting deadline and sent an apologetic email to Tom only to discover that he had too which I found very reassuring. Within a couple of days of each other, possibly motivated by the shame of not getting to the Post Office on time, our swap transaction was complete.
As I carefully unpacked my parcel from Tom I realised that he was revealing a snap shot of his life and interests to me through his thoughtful selection of gifts and I was overwhelmed by his kindness. I am now the privileged owner of a
• series of vintage postcards written by a daughter to her parents over the summers of 1952 and ‘3
• jar of pear and chocolate jam made with the spoils of a foraging adventure (+ a battered guide book to encourage me to search out food for free)
• beautifully well thumbed, pre-loved copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover
• ‘Iris’ 7” single by Emmy the Great
For me taking part in the November Care Package project was about so much more than a simple exchange of gifts; it was life affirming experience that struck a chord with my creative practice as an artist. Looking through the comments and photographs from fellow swappers on the Oh Comely facebook page it seems I’m not alone in my emotive response.
Over the last few years I have been intrigued by the way in which social media can be used to bring about unexpected collaborations between strangers united by a common interest. I have explored and interrogated my curiosity formally through post graduate research and creatively through 2 pieces of my own work; We found Art and I Would Like to get to Know you Better.
Oh Comely’s project shares the essential ingredients of all of the projects I have studied; it issued an invitation in a virtual world that had the scope to create tangible connections in ‘real life’ and an opportunity for the project community to share their collective experiences, building trust and friendship along the way.
After pondering the joys of swapping and the obvious overlaps with my practice I couldn’t resist instigating a mass creative exchange under the banner of my new venture Creative Communities; a phone call to co-founder Dave Briggs and packet of biscuits later (fuel for creative thinking) and The Artist Swap Box project was born.
Over the next few weeks we will be encouraging practising artists and art students to sign up on our project blog. We will then pair them up in a random fashion and ask them to create a shoe box sized work of art and some career based words of wisdom to swap. Full details of the project can be found here.
I was very lucky to be able to launch the project at the Art Party Conference in Scarborough (as a member of Lincolnshire Artists Forum) thanks to a bursary from a-n so have my fingers crossed for some very exciting swaps and future collaborations!