Jas. W. Felter: Artistamp Activist

Jas. W. Felter:
Artistamp Activist

Born near the foothills of New York States’ Catskill Mountains in 1943, James Felter was introduced to painting by his grandmother and encouraged to collect postage stamps by his father. These two childhood activities were to portend a future direction, not only culminating in the personal discovery of a new artistic medium, but having reverberations in the evolving field of mail art.

His continued interest in painting lead him to the University of South Florida, where he received a BA in 1961. Not surprisingly, he was schooled in the prevailing Abstract Expressionist style. Soon after, he enrolled in the United States Peace Corps and was assigned to Quito, Ecuador. Contact with the indigenous peoples there lead him to a new art freed from Western preconceptions.

On his return to the United States, he undertook a graduate studies program in Mesoamerican Archaeology at the University of Washington. These studies have continued to interest Felter, despite other interests, which were soon to surface. In 1979 he received a grant to document indigenous art in the Andean and Amazonian regions. Several years latter, he returned to produce a film on the painting techniques of the Shipibo people of the Upper Amazon.

These investigations of the arts of primitive Mesoamerican tribes lead him, “to devote his efforts to the creation of universal art works which speak directly to each individual, regardless of educational or cultural background.” This concept of art’s universality prepared him for a dramatic breakthrough.

Having left his studies in Seattle, Felter moved to Vancouver in 1968 (latter to become a Canadian citizen in 1974), where he began a position as an Associate in Visual Arts at the Centre for Communications and the Arts, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia. His responsibilities there included organizing and installing exhibitions around the campus.

During the curation of one of these exhibits, Felter met Joel Smith, who was teaching at the University. Smith was using postage stamps as a canvas for his miniature paintings, which he called Postal Paintings. Felter installed these works, under the title, The Smallest Documented One-Man Exhibition in the World, inside an architects model of a theater foyer.

So began Felter’s fascination with the postage stamp as an artistic medium. This was further enhanced when he went to Montreal in search of exhibition material for the University’s new gallery, which opened in January 1971. At the printmaking studio of La Guilde Graphique, he spied a sheet of postage stamps, which upon closer examination turned out to be the artistic works of Carl Daouset, who had created them to accompany a book of poems, Les Lettres Mortes (The Dead Letters).

Although Joel Smith left Simon Fraser University in 1971 (he is currently a Professor of Art at Southern Illinois University, where he continues his activity with postal paintings), Felter was further inspired by a visit that same year by San Francisco artist Robert Fried, noted for his psychedelic poster design. Aside from his poster work, Fried had also produced fake postage stamps. These were presented in large perforated silk-screened sheets.

Soon after these rather random occurrences, Felter became aware of a new art movement, which was particularly active in Canada. Mail art, an alternative artform bypassing the gallery and museum structure in favor of direct artist-to-artist contact through the postal system, found a welcome home in Canadian alternative art spaces, such as Western Front in Vancouver, Art Metropol in Toronto and The Off-Off Centre Space in Calgary.

General Idea, a Canadian artist group, was not only associated with Art Metropol, but published FILE Megazine, which tied many of the disparate individuals engaged in mail art together. Western Front in Vancouver became a unique source of information on performance, artist books, video art, in addition to harboring the Image Bank: a database of artists, their addresses and stated interests.

More and more artists began to tour the Canadian artist spaces, including Dana Atchley, who Felter met, and contributed a hand-colored stamp image he created in 1967. Atchley was traveling around North America with his Ace Space Atlas, an assembling work with contributions from numerous artists involved in mail art, including Bay Area artist William Farley, who contributed a stamp sheet.

Of equal importance was Ken Friedman, who introduced Felter to the work and ideas of Fluxus. Friedman informed Felter that Fluxus artist Robert Watts had been creating postage stamp sheets since 1961. Indeed, his 1964 issue, Fluxpost 17/17, was included Flux Post Kit 7, which also included rubber stamps and postcards.

Despite the activity previous to Felter’s discovery of the medium, it was he who recognized a pattern of artistic creation that had occured in sporadic outbursts. His art background and childhood passion for stamp collecting prepared him for the occurrence, and once the spark had been ignited within him, there was no extinguishing of the flame.

With the encouragement of Friedman, Felter began to prepare an exhibition of the work he had encountered. Artists’ Stamps and Stamp Images, opened on October 28, 1974, attended by a former Postmaster General of Canada. After the showing at Simon Fraser University, the show began a tour of British Columbia, and upon the receipt of a Canada Council grant in 1976, the exhibition went on tour, including inclusion in the exhibition, Timbres et Tampons d’Artistes, organized by the Cabinet des Estampes in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Canadian Council grant also allowed the preparation of a catalog, which included thirty-five artists and groups from nine countries, who had produced some three- thousand stamps and stamp images.

In the course of his preparations for the show, and the subsequent publicity generated from it, Felter met several artists active in the field, who were to have an impact on his future direction.

One of these artists was E. F. Higgins III, whose New York City Doo Da Postage Works, was issuing color photocopy works based on his paintings specifically made for the postage stamp medium. Through Higgins, Felter came into contact with numerous mail artists active in the field.

Another important contact was made in 1982, when another Canadian artist, Michael Bidner, informed Felter that he was compiling a comprehensive catalog of the material, which he had named artistamps. Before his death in 1989, Bidner had collected the work of some five hundred artists active in the field.

Indeed, Canadians seemed incredibly active in this new field. Closer to home, Felter was joined by two other Vancouver artists, Ed Varney and Anna Banana, in his passion for the work. Varney contributed the poster image for Felter’s 1976 Canadian tour of Artists’ Stamps and Stamp Images. Banana began the publication of The Artistamp News in 1991, which to this day remains the leading voice of the field.

Not only was Vancouver an active center of artistamp activity, but directly to the south, Seattle artists were swarming to the field. Carl Chew had shown artist postage stamps in a 1976 show, Footprint: Northwest International Small Format Exhibition, which also included the work of E. F. Higgins III. This show at the Davidson Galleries, lead to an interest by the gallery in future shows, the first of which was curated by Felter in December 1989. Seattle artists such as Dogfish, Greg Byrd, Bugpost, and Jeffrey Dixon have become mainstays of the field.

About this same time, Felter sent out a large mailing to the mail art community asking for information on their artistamp activity. As a result, he received information from some thousand artists on contemporary work. From this raw data, he put together the first edition of his International Directory of Artistamp Creators, which included information about number of issues, exhibitions and archives. The second edition, published in 1995, included information on thirteen hundred artistamp creators from over forty countries.

Recently, Felter has begun to explore the possibilities of the World Wide Web as a medium for the display of artistamps. His homepage has become a clearinghouse for information, and is much admired for the visual presentation of the material.

From pioneering curator to webmaster, Jas. W. Felter has been exploring the artistamp field for over forty years. His importance to the genre is undisputed. I have not even mentioned his own artistamp production, or his painting, which has continued unabated over the years. These creative efforts have informed his vision of the artistamp field.

No less a critic then Pierre Restany has written that Felter’s work has produced, “a new existence, a new dimension, a kind of language beyond emotional experience.”

So too, Felter brought forth a new medium with the use of fresh eyes in examining the contemporary art scene. His continued work over the years has enhanced our appreciation of a marginal, yet substantial, medium of artistic creativity.

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