An installation and invitation by Abe Louise Young and Alan Shefsky
When two poets began a handwritten letter correspondence in 1999, magic happened and it became one of their main artistic vehicles for the next 13 years. Austin poet Abe Louise Young and Chicago poet Alan Shefsky exchanged over 3,000 intimate, playful, often-rhyming letters and ephemera until Shefsky's death in 2014.
This immersive exhibit of intimate letters showcases the verbal play, joy and naked honesty of two poets who became life-long confidantes using words and art. Letters and postcards are curated throughout the space, and visitors are encouraged to touch, read and interact with the originals. Letters are hung from the ceiling on strings, nailed to the wall in grids and clipped to decorated mailing envelopes attached to various surfaces. A selection of poems written in conversation are framed in double-sided glass and attached to the wall at 90-degree angle, creating intimate nooks for people to enter. Visitors are invited to sit and compose a letter of their own, and provided with writing and art supplies, envelopes, antique flash card images, and 100 letter-writing prompts.
This installation showcases the art of letter-writing, the process of becoming confidantes using words and art, and a friendship between a man and woman--one lesbian and one straight, one Midwestern and one Southern. The exhibit opened first at Prizer Arts in Austin, TX in 2015, where it attracted over 400 attendees, many of whom took the invitation to write a letter of their own. The exhibit is available to travel throughout the U.S. to galleries, museums and schools.
It’s a rare and marvelous thing to luck upon a correspondent – someone you correspond to and with, in both senses of the word. Alan Shefsky and I began writing to each other in 1999. I lived in Oakland and applied to graduate school. He was the department secretary in Chicago who opened the application envelopes. He mailed me a note with a hand-drawn green frog in the corner, asking if he might send me a poem of his own.
It was instantly evident that we felt our way through the world in the same manner. He was full of praise, easily delighted, oddly vulnerable, awake to injustice and ready to assert the equality of every human, animal, vegetable and mineral. We were in love with words and all you could do with an imagination. Our art practice was no longer so solitary.
Kurt Vonnegut said once that you only need two things to be a writer: a) something to say, and b) someone to say it to. It is my great good fortune that Alan and I could be that someone for each other until – and through each step of – his death in 2014.
We tried to tell the whole truth. I hope that in seeing these letters, you feel the play and joy of language, and are moved to write a letter of your own.
INVITATION TO WRITE
The exhibit culminates in a letter-writing room for visitors, filled with letter-writing prompts, art supplies, paper and envelopes, and a mailbox for addressed correspondence to be placed in. As a celebration of communal writing, the artist will stamp and mail letters created at the exhibit to any address in the world. (At the Austin opening, 237 letters were created by members of the public and mailed to their destinations around the world.)
by Abe Louise Young
1) Write a letter to your younger self.
2) Write a letter to yourself at age 85. Tell yourself about the life you’ve had.
3) Write a short, appreciative letter to your mother. Or write a short, angry letter to your mother.
4) Consider the night sky, moon and stars. Write a letter describing their qualities to them.
5) Write a letter to your house. Tell it what you love about it most.
6) Write a letter to your plumbing or electricity. Ask questions.
7) Write a letter of apology for something you have been thinking about with regret for more than ten years.
8) Write a Do Not Send letter to someone you are angry with: tell them everything they did and how it affected you.
Do not send the letter, but enjoy feeling better.
9) Write a letter to a future lover inviting them into your life.
10) Write a letter to a former lover wishing them well, or ill.
11) Write a letter to a future spouse thanking them.
12) Write a letter to a current spouse telling them something you find uniquely charming about their mannerisms.
13) Write a letter to a cherished cat, dog or chicken.
14) Write a letter to your race.
15) Write a letter to another race. Address race relations.
16) Write a letter to your gender, or to someone else’s gender.
17) Write a letter in the form of a grocery list.
18) Write a letter to a tree, or to a kind of trees.
19) Write a letter full of insults. Be vulgar, rude and awful.
20) Tell your body what you love about it.
21) Write a 1-paragraph letter to your first best friend.
22) Write a letter that works like soap.
23) Write a letter to someone born into very different circumstances and examine your differences.
24) Write a letter in three questions.
25) Write a letter that is one hour long.
26) Write a letter to a teacher you had in grades K-12.
27) Write a letter to a sport like swimming, soccer or skateboarding.
28) Write a letter to your teeth.
29) Write a letter that makes no sense whatsoever.
30) Write a letter that contains breath, stars and soap.
REVIEWS & AUDIENCE RESPONSES
“A most unusual and powerful gallery show, part fragmentary narrative, part closet drama, part tribute to the nearly lost art of hard-copy correspondence, documenting the story of two lovers of words who came to love each other: an arranged selection of poet/activist Abe Louise Young's voluminous correspondence with her friend and fellow poet, Alan Shefsky. The letters and cards and poems hang from literal and figurative threads that turn like mobiles in the light of the gallery windows, and cover a wall, a panoply from which you can pick and choose, and jut in little two-sided frames going down the gallery hall, each containing one poem answered by another, finally resolving in the indecipherable last message Alan wrote to Abe just before he succumbed to brain cancer.
The show also offers a wall of letter-writing prompts and several writing tables with a variety of stationary supplies, art supplies and envelopes that invite you to write and address your own letter to anyone who needs or deserves to hear from you. The gallery will stamp and mail your letter for you—or to you. Isn't that all a lovely idea? Don’t miss this show, open for one more weekend at the Prizer Gallery. It is free and open to the public--all you really need is a heart that gives, and that receives.”
--Professor Alan Altimont, St. Edward’s University
“This exhibit shattered me & soothed me back together again. It is incredible to engage with in person. I have no idea how two people could be so intimate and so funny and sad at the same time. Thank you for reconnecting us to the magic of letter-writing. I hope you all make a book out of this!!” –Angeliska Polachek
“Hello, I am a long time letter writer so I was moved to hear about the project. I also wrote in a public journal during the time of my husband's sudden diagnosis of brain cancer throughout our family's journey of his living and dying. It was my survival tool but I became aware of how others were affected by my writing in ways that I never imagined. My daughter was so inspired by your exhibit that she wanted me to go, and then to contact you. But most importantly, I want to share with you that she wrote a beautiful letter to me while she was there and, quite by surprise, I received it a few days ago. It is a treasure that I will keep forever. So thank you for inspiring our young people and all of us.” –Nancy Darlington
“I am sad that I did not get to meet Alan and I wish to express my sympathies. Obviously he was an incredible man. And you two decided to smell the roses. I do not know you, but I feel like your friend because of your letters. This has made me want to write to everyone I have lost touch with. Thank you and do this again please. I am a teacher and I will do this with my students.” –Cary Koch