Tanya Bemis of Ashland received postcards from all over the world after putting out a call for mail art honoring Martin Luther King. All will be exhibited during Medford’s Martin Luther King celebration on Jan. 20. Bemis turned some of the pieces into posters for the event.

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If you want art for your celebration or fundraiser, all you have to do is ask.

That's what Tanya Bemis of Ashland discovered when she put out a call for mail art in honor of Martin Luther King Day and was flooded with more than 300 submissions from 33 countries.

The art, most of it postcard-size, will be exhibited during Medford's celebration on Jan. 20.

What is mail art? It started in the 1950s with the objective of spreading art for free and a rule that the recipient won't try to make a profit from it. It's also a game to test of the Postal Service's patience.

Bemis listed her call for mail art on Web sites, received artists' addresses and mailed 400 letters inviting them to submit art on the theme, "We are one human family," in honor of the 40th anniversary of the famed civil rights leader's death.

She credits the overwhelming response to King's reputation all over the world as an icon of peace, brotherhood, equal rights, fairness and nonviolence.

"I was shocked that it actually works," says Bemis. "It's so easy and fun."

"You think of all the awful craziness going on in the world and yet people take the time from their day to send this. It's such a gift. The art is so heartfelt and some has great political irony — and it's 'in' because it's recycling."

The art, most of it postcard-sized, is formed mostly of collage clipart, with plenty of rubber stamps, magic marker art, watercolor and "faux stamps," which are dadaistic crazy stamps made on computers to look like a country's real postage. Envelopes also get the mail-art treatment.

The art will be on display from 1:30 to 4 p.m. Jan. 20 at South Medford High School auditorium as part of Medford's sixth annual MLK celebration.

Bemis gave a workshop on mail art in October and sent out a call to 100 schools in southwestern Oregon. Many schoolchildren responded with images of smiling people holding hands, surrounded by flowers, rainbows and hearts.

"It's a miracle that people could be so generous and send these along for our event. It furthers our mission that those who are different can get together," says Connie Saldana, a member of the Multicultural Foundation of Southern Oregon, which is putting on the celebration.

"I'm impressed and excited to receive all the contributions we did, especially from young people, because King's message was so important as a role model for them and for all ages," says Gary Peterson, another member.

The submissions from experienced mail artists came from Europe and South America, with a few from Cuba, Turkey, Australia and Japan.

While most of Bemis' mail art is simple and heartfelt, some pieces are "exquisite," she says, and fall in the realm of fine art. She has turned the best works into posters and is considering asking the artists whether the posters can be sold to raise funds for future MLK celebrations.

One shows the planet with a thought balloon holding King. One shows blood between the heads of many sorts of humans, noting "Blood Has Only One Color." On the back it coyly notes, "It's not real blood!"

Another, an ink drawing, shows countless human figures walking, dancing, praying, sleeping. Another, an array of rubber stamps from Spain, says "Make Art, Not War."

The collection, to be hung so both sides can be viewed, will be on display at several institutions after MLK Day and is viewable now at

The MLK program at South Medford High School will include Native American drumming by Nick Hall, talks by Medford Mayor Gary Wheeler, former state Rep. JoAnn Bowman of Oregon Action, and Southern Oregon University student Flamur Vehapi of Kosovo, and a King speech by students of Washington Elementary School. The Rogue Valley Peace Choir, Ballet Folklorico Ritmo Alegre and Jose Arreguin will perform.

Tax-deductible contributions may be made to the Multicultural Association of Southern Oregon, P.O. Box 67, Medford OR 97501. For more information on the celebration, call Marisa Petersen at 734-9223.

Mail art may be submitted for MLK Day up to Jan. 20 to Tanya Bemis, P.O. Box 1018, Ashland, OR 97520.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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