Letters of art

Sree Sen
Monday, 21 May 2018

The Snail Mail Project started by Sumedha Sah two years ago, helps strangers across the globe collaborate with her as she creates art out of the many letters that she receives

Connection and bonds are a major source of happiness and security for all of us. At different stages of life, we face disillusionment and loneliness, but imagine if we could write to a stranger without fear of judgment or retribution. Send a letter or photograph or any memento to share your stories with someone who will read, someone probably far across the world. This is the basic idea of the Snail Mail Project started two years ago by the then Mumbai resident Sumedha Sah.
From Nainital, Sah studied architecture only to move to the millennial city after marriage. But the city and its distances left a void in her life, and from it was born an urge to interact with others. So on her blog she asked readers to send a snail mail, to which she would respond with an art or illustration. With enough letters to keep her busy for the year, 30-year-old Sah tells us why this project is so close to her heart.

How did the project come to be?
My interest in art developed later in life, around eight years ago. It happened only after my Bachelors in Architecture from Manipal when I moved to Auroville and worked there for two years. After completing Masters in sustainable architecture in 2014, I got married and moved to Mumbai. All throughout I had kept alive my art, and I conceived the ‘Snail Mail Project’ out of a space of loneliness that I had initially felt being in a new city with hardly any friends.
I wanted to connect to people, learn new things, experiment as well as pursue art. Personally I loved writing letters and receiving them, so basically, this project was built on everything I love. I put the project on my blog, asking people to send me anything — from letters to photographs to trinkets. I would then respond with a piece of art which would be inspired by their mail.

Tell us about the mails you receive.
The first letter I received was from Poland, and since then the word about the project has been spreading organically. I mostly receive letters, although I would definitely love some variety in the post, but I believe people are more comfortable penning down their thoughts. This project touches people at a deeper, humane level. Mostly these letters are descriptive, with the senders writing about their lives, work, families, the places they live in and about their dreams and aspirations. Others are about what they like and about the journey they have taken.
With regard to unhappy ones, some letters are difficult for me to read because they surround me with their thoughts. I usually take my time to respond, but such letters take me longer. I may not be making a difference, but it’s a personal solace that a stranger has bared his soul to me because he has no one else to share it with. The least I can do is listen and read his words and try to respond with my own art. That a letter has brought peace to someone makes it a very emotional piece for me.

Any memorable episodes?
Last year, during summer, a bunch of kids from Delhi sent me a mail which had only drawn pictures of mangoes. They were probably very young — at the age when we draw mountains and trees and the basic structure but their innocence and honesty touched my heart. Most importantly, all the postcards had mangoes in them, so it was a nice, bright post to receive. I could imagine these kids, sitting together, copying each other’s work and basically drawing all the little things that mattered to them. The challenge for me was to reciprocate in similar art work which these children would relate to. As adults we tend to derive meaning from things, but a child doesn’t do so. I replied in a similar fashion, took elements from their drawing and simply recreated the composition, so that the kids could find a sense of familiarity in them.

The future of the project?
I love this project and would continue with it, although I already have a large number of unanswered letters which will keep me busy over the year.  The response has been overwhelming and unexpected, specially since I am also setting up my own architecture firm right now. Also, by the end of this year, there would be close to a 100 letters that I would have answered and would like to hold an exhibition of my art work with the letters displayed as well. I am also looking at compiling them into a book.

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