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San Antonio Artist Tries To Save USPS One Snarky Postcard At A Time

San Antonio Artist Gary Sweeney doesn't actually think he can save the U.S. Postal Service. But then again, that doesn't mean he can't try, right? He’s striking blows against the effort to threaten the postal service, one postcard at a time. 

For Sweeney it all started years ago as a way of getting his art out there.

"There was a sort of a movement in the world of conceptual art when I was an impressionable young college student called Mail Art, and artists found that it was a very, very inexpensive way to connect with the art world," he said.  

And so he continued making cards, but over time, their purpose changed.

"And it sort of evolved over the years until I was just sending postcards to my friends where I would pick up odd stories and humorous little things and I would send them off," he said. 

As the years passed, it became a kind of passion, perhaps an obsession for Sweeney.

"Like all addictions, it just started out small. And I just over the years I've sent about 30,000 postcards in the last 30 years and there's no end in sight," Sweeney said.

That's about 1,000 a year, which is nearly three a day.

A postcard spells SHUT UP in sign language.
Credit Jack Morgan | Texas Public Radio
A postcard spells SHUT UP in sign language.

"Oh, yeah... no, that's a low ball. I'm not kidding. It's really entertaining. And there's no shortage of weird stories that I can clip out," he said.  

That evolution of the post cards' purpose turned it from being primarily a vehicle to market his quirky art, to also containing news of the weird from around the world.  

"I sort of have a sixth sense now of what I can look for and where I can find really weird stories and things,” Sweeney said. “And I think over the years I've been able to zero in — and if I get lazy and I can't find anything — then all I have to do is Google 'Florida man' on the on the computer."

The postcards are art plus news of the weird, plus one last element: an insult. No, really. Blue Star Contemporary’s Mary Heathcott confirms that.

"There's always some jab at you. Some of them are with varying degrees of severity," she laughed.

Heathcott has been on Sweeney's list for years. She read me a sample insult.

"Mary Heathcott, queen of mean, phony, bitter and out of control," she read.  

And then another postcard wherein he said, “The last person anyone wants to dress like these days, is Mary Heathcott!”

Interestingly, the insults seem to add to their cache. She considers herself quite fortunate, refrigerator-magneting the cards next to her kids' drawings.   

"I'm lucky enough to have quite a few,” she said. “Now I think that they're probably approaching 100, if not more."

Artist and Lone Star Arts District Director Bill FitzGibbons puts his receiving in another way, with tongue-in-cheek. 

"I would not say that I am a recipient of his postcards, but a victim of his postcards," he said.

FitzGibbons gets them with regularity, too. And yes, they contain insults, like this one:

"Bill FitzGibbons. Watching you try to be nice is like watching a baby smoke a cigarette. It's kind of cool, but it's also very disturbing," he said.

And then another, a yet deeper cut:

"Bill FitzGibbons, your haircut is a worse use of scissors since my failed vasectomy," he laughed.

Credit Jack Morgan | Texas Public Radio
Gary Sweeney postcard

This odd dynamic of getting insulting postcards from friends took an interesting turn when Sweeney began sending them to a Houston friend. He also began sending occasional ones to that friend's wife so she didn't feel left out. What happened next surprised him. 

"She called me from Houston one day and she was really pissed off,” he said. “And I thought, 'Oh my God. Now I've gone too far!' And she said, 'How come the insults you send me are really wimpy, and the ones that you send, Danny, are really vicious?' And she was berating me for the fact that I wasn't sending her really mean postcards!"   

Sending insulting, artful postcards to friends seems counterintuitive, if you think of it. So what makes it work? Bill Fitzgibbons thinks it's their bizarre art quality.

"Oh, gosh, I'm just looking at a stack right here of about 50, so we're probably talking about going back to four or five years,” he said. “And what I'm planning on doing, if he ever slows down doing this, is making an art piece out of this. And I am going to mount these all on a framed piece and hang it."

Heathcott thinks of them as art, but also as comic relief.

"I have them prominently displayed in my house. I go to them quite often when I need a laugh," she said.

Mary Heathcott with one of her many postcards.
Credit Maxwell Heathcott
Mary Heathcott with one of her many postcards.

Recently the postal service has become a bullseye of some public servants, claiming to be a waste of public dollars, and threatening it with closure. Sweeney finds this incomprehensible.  

"The Postal Service is amazing. I mean, every single home in America has mail delivery service. That's unheard of,” he said. “That's not something a private company would do. I just can't even imagine a world where it's eliminated."

Sweeney's not so foolish as to think his stamp purchase contributions to the post office will keep them afloat. That said, in the age of Coronavirus, he's stepped up his game.

"By the time this month is over, I will send 1,000 postcards," he said.

That's upwards of 30 a day. He wonders if maybe he's seeing the start of a trend, oddly brought about, in part, by COVID-19: a return to letter writing.  Something real that you can hold in your hands, that once was held  in someone else's hands.

"And it's amazing how many of my friends have been sitting down and writing letters. And I keep all of them. It's not something that I just tossed aside that really it's really great to receive them,” Sweeney said. “I can see the joy of going to the mailbox, I've had people tell me this. It makes their day when they get a postcard."

Bill FitzGibbons with his postcards.
Credit Courtesy Ann FitzGibbons
Bill FitzGibbons with his postcards.

Joy is increasingly hard to come by these days, a point not lost on Mary Heathcott.

"It brings me a lot of joy to be a part of this project. And that I'm on his list. I hope that anything I say publicly on the radio doesn't mean that I get disqualified or that they stop showing up!” she laughed.  

Fortunately for me, the last thing Gary did when I interviewed him was get my address. I can hardly wait. 

Jack Morgan can be reached at Jack@TPR.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii.

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Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii