The image of Dave Estes’ art travelling through the mail makes me smile. Colourful tiny envelopes transferring from hand to hand, the viewer not knowing its sarcastic contents, thanking one of society’s many offenders. From Monsanto to the Westboro Baptist Church, Estes has decided to take his political frustrations and send the art directly to the subject of the rants usually reserved for discussions with his friends.
I caught Dave for a cross continental, BC to Conneticut, chat to talk about how someone who used to keep art and politics completely separated started doing something so implicitly political.
Art Threat: The Thank You So Much project seems like such a division from what you were doing beforehand, which wasn’t political at all. What pushed you this political direction?
Dave Estes: I’ve always been into politics, so the feeling behind it isn’t different than how I’ve always felt. I didn’t recently get into politics, but I always tried to keep the two separate because as far as art goes I usually like art that has no agenda behind it. But I got to a point where I stopped worrying about separating the two and I wanted to do something art related that dealt with politics but just painting pictures presented a limited audience with the message I wanted to send. I wanted to send the message directly to the people that the art was about, and there was no way they were going to see it if it was on a wall in a gallery. So I thought I’d send it directly to them and see what happened.
In your promo video you were talking about this old stationary that triggered the idea, which is what you do the illustrations and write the thank you cards on now.
My grandfather passed away awhile ago and he was a big part of my life. I was going through his old stuff and found this weird old antique envelope. It was an English post, something he had gotten while in the air force. It was filled with these tiny envelopes and the tiny pieces of papers that I now write the notes on. I found them and thought ‘I’ve got to use those for something!’. They look like the envelopes that you would use when you send thank you notes. So I thought ‘I’ll do something with some sort of letter’. This was around the time I was thinking I wanted to do something political, but I didn’t know what. I really like street art, but I’m not really into the whole graffiti scene, and I didn’t want to do just painting a picture and putting it on the wall. So I thought ‘maybe I can illustrate these envelopes’. BP was the first one I did, and everyone I showed it to said it was a good idea and that I should keep going with it. So I kept doing it and I have been having more and more fun as I do it.
How long ago did you start the project?
It was earlier this year, it wasn’t that long ago. I’ve been trying to do one every week. I want to keep it as current as possible because that way I have more of an honest response, rather than trying to bring something up that happened six months ago. That way it seems more like a reaction to something, rather than a drawn out thing.
The tone you use in your letters is very sarcastic.
I’m pretty sarcastic. My humour is usually pretty dry, and I wanted to send them as thank you notes and be a little ridiculous. Around the same time I was having a conversation with someone about how the idea of a thank you note is a bit outdated and ridiculous in itself. When you get gifts you thank them there, give them a hug, go ‘thank you for the gift’, and then three months later they get a card in the mail that says ‘thank you for the gift’. This conversation made me want to send them as thank you notes, and there was no real way to do it without being completely sarcastic about it. I’ve been trying to make them not preachy. It’s hard to do without being preachy. I want them to be funny. Humour is the best way to get a point across. Because if you start being preachy people just want you to shut up, they don’t want you to force your ideology down their throat.
What are the main issues that you find strike you that you feel you want to respond to?
Lately, big corporations doing shitty stuff. There’s so much though. The parameters of the project allow me to respond to anything that would make me upset or that I would be talking about with my friends, it could be anything, it doesn’t limit me. The biggest thing though is probably that corporations want to be treated by people, yet they act in such a way that if they were people we would fucking hate them. They would have no friends. They want to be counted as a voice as far as elections go, and they want personhood, and that in itself is funny. They want to be treated as a person yet the actions of the corporation cause millions of people to die. Or in BP’s case… if I personally destroyed the entire ecosystem, put thousands of people out of work, destroyed lives, I would be put in jail for the rest of my life or I would be dead. But as a corporation there’s no accountability. You pay these fines but that’s a joke. It’s a drop in the hat.
You have a theory that art is most effective as a communication tool when it’s unsolicited. You mentioned earlier too that you can put it in a gallery but people might not come.
And the people that do come they come because they already like it, and they’re already on board. They’re not really changing any minds, you’re just getting a bunch of people together who are like minded. It’s good to have a conversation that way but it limits your audience.
Do you think your letters get read when they get there? I was trying to put myself in the Westboro Baptist Church’s shoes and think of receiving one of these letters.[laugh] I really doubt they get read. Part of the fun of it is picturing the process it takes to get there. Like the mailman that picks it up is going to go “what the hell is this” and looks at it because it catches his eye, and then maybe somebody in the mail sorting room, and then once it gets to the corporation – most of these places have mail rooms inside the place – and so somewhere like Goldman Sachs’ I addressed it to the CEO, and I doubt it’ll get all the way to him, but someone has to look at it, even if it’s a mail handler or a secretary. It’s interesting to think that maybe you can make them think about this job, and what they’re contributing to the problem even if they are just a secretary there. And maybe you can inspire somebody, and get them to think for a second. That’s better than nothing.
And what about the art itself that you do?
At this point the letters are more illustration than ‘art’. I guess I’m trying to tell a story, I’m trying to create something whimsical or create a metaphor. Like the one I did for KP Pharmaceuticals they basically jacked up the prize of progesterone for mothers who were at risk of having premature babies, so I had this image of the shareholders as the sperm, all racing towards KP pharmaceuticals who would be the egg — who can jockey the best position and buy the lowest, sell the highest. It’s a ridiculous analogy but it fits with what they’re doing. And they basically said something on their website that they’re considering lowering the price because the shareholders didn’t like the public reaction. But it wasn’t because “oh we’re screwing people over” it’s because the shareholders are upset. It sucks that that’s what dictates the actions of corporations.
So what’s next?
As long as there are issues I’m going to keep doing it. It’s something I’ve grown accustomed to, it’s like my homework now. And I think they’ll get crazier as I go along. I’ll start doing bigger envelopes, the 11” envelopes. I think I’m going to keep stepping it up until I get some response. You know, like, send people those giant checks they send out when you win something. Or send oil paintings to them. If they don’t get back to me and just throw it out then in a sense they’re throwing out art. I was thinking maybe I’ll send them framed oil paintings, ready to hang on a wall. I kind of want to send them things that are awkward so that they have to spend more time looking at it and thinking about it. And maybe it’ll make them angry. I don’t know. I haven’t gotten any back. There have been no return-to-senders.
At the least I hope they’re recycling them.
Yeah, they’ve gotta recycle them at least. Maybe they’ll end up as an envelope and I’ll send it back to them again.
Inspired by Post Secret, Dave originally purchased the website name with the dream of collecting other people’s similar letters with a political bent.
“I’m really not doing this just for me. It’d be great if other people hopped on board and did stuff. So I do want people to do things.”
So if you have any old stationary that you want to use to send your favourite politician, rabble-rouser, or corporation scan your arty envelope and sarcastic thank you card and send them to Dave at www.thankyousomuch.org.