Cool Woman: Amber Esner (Cleveland Artist & Mail Maker)
We’re back with our second Cool Woman! Meet Amber Esner, whom we spoke with in June. We chatted with Amber at her art-making space in her adorable house. During our time together, she created a new piece of mail art for a friend. We also got to give her fabulous dog, Churro, lots of pats.
Amber Esner is an artist dabbling in many areas. On her website, she describes herself as an illustrator, designer, doodler, screen printer, mail maker, snacker and power napper. We were introduced to her through the Cozy Up! Collective art shows in Cleveland that she runs with bff and fellow artist Phoebe Thomas. Amber is so easy to talk to, and can get anyone excited about art-making. We asked Amber more about making mail art, scaling your artwork from zines to murals, knowing when to say no to a job, and more.
How often do you make mail?
I did it a lot in college, but now that I’m an adult and I have a job and I want to make other work, this usually comes on the back burner. So I would say, once every two weeks or something. But that’s the thing I like about it, is that there’s no rush with it because no one’s ever expecting any mail. This is a project that I know I have so many archived on my Making Mail tumblr, that I’m okay with it just being a side thing now.
It’s nice when I’m not working on a show or anything, or I don’t have to do any freelance work, I’m like, I could make something today and send something. When I did the Just a Phase project, I made zines knowing I was going to send them to people. I’ll make stuff that I know I can send. That’s a little bit of a push to be like, “Amber, just send it. Just make it.”
We were looking at your Making Mail tumblr, and you have a ton of people on there that are inspired by your work. It’s so cool.
There’s an hour-long documentary called Making Mail that my friend Mike Polk made. He went to high school with me. Mike was like, “Amber, I love this stuff that you’re doing. Let’s make a documentary about it!” And I was like, “Um, okay!” It was in the beginning when I was making stuff, in the thick of just starting to learn why I made mail, and why I was doing it. We made a Kickstarter, [and] we made our goal in under 24 hours. [Mike] went and interviewed people in I think four different locations...which was really cool. He interviewed all of us and pieced parts of our stories together.
When I started making [mail], I was just making letters to send to my friends, because half of them went away to college, and stuff like that. Specifically my friend Jack – I would go and visit him, and then I met all of his friends. ...They were seeing the mail I was sending to Jack, and they were like, “Can you send it to me?” And I was like “Yeah.” So that’s when it kind of started to blow up. And then I remember Jack being like, “You should scan these and document them so that you have it.” And that’s when tumblr was big, so I put it on tumblr. Over time, people started sending me messages, asking me if I could send them stuff, and I was like, “Sure, why not.”
I was making more mail art than actually sending letters. I feel like I’m bad at my words, and writing and stuff, so that’s why I emphasize on the making part. A lot of the times I’ll send stuff that won’t even have a letter in it. It’ll have the mail, and then I’ll put [a zine] in it, and sometimes I’ll [add in] these tiny envelopes, and I’ll [mark them] “Open when you’re upset” and fill them with glitter. Just weird little things like that.
Do they send mail back to you?
Yeah! I would say only [about] 30% of people send something back, but that wasn’t the point. When people on tumblr would send me their address, they were pretty much just like, “I want a piece of mail art. I don’t know what this is or what it entails.”
It’s cool that you can do fun, creative stuff and it doesn’t just pile up and stay around the house. You get to spread it out.
Exactly. And that’s why I think I also like making zines. A lot of my artwork will end up in zine form because I want people to be able to see it and have it. Whereas a lot of people, surprisingly, don’t know what to do with prints. If you give someone a print, a lot of people don’t hang [them]...or they don’t know the purpose of it. But with a zine, you’re able to flip through it, and put it on a coffee table, or keep it in your bookshelf...and it has a bigger purpose. So yeah, the mail art is nice because you can make it, scan it, and then ship it off and hope it gets there. A lot of times, my stuff doesn’t end up [there]. There have been multiple times where [people] will be like, “I never got it.” And I’ll be like, “I don’t know where it is.” But that’s what I kind of like about it.
A lot of what I’ve been sending lately has been bigger things like boxes and stuff, so I’ll have to go to the post office and hand it to them, rather than just putting stamps on. So it’s kind of nice knowing that that stuff will get there. And it’s fun too because I go to the post office and I don’t ever know what their reaction is going to be, like: “‘This idiot again, bringing all this crazy stuff in here that I have to figure out.’” You know? But the one lady was like, “[Gasps] Look at this cute box!” and I was like, “Oh my god, thank you!” And she was trying to put the stickers [on], and I was like, “You put them anywhere, this a collaborative experience, this is me and you.” [Laughs]
How does it feel when you have to do art-for-hire, compared to making mail?
It’s nice, I feel fine doing it. I don’t say yes to everything, because I learned early in college that I would always say yes to things that people wanted me to do, just because they knew that I made art. [For example] doing a logo for some law firm – you’re just asking me because you know that I can make [things]. I would say yes to that stuff and do it and kind of feel like – not empty at the end – but like, “Okay, here it is, that’s the end of it, and I don’t know what you’re going to do with it.”
You basically hand it off and then you’re never going to see it again.
Exactly. And they do stuff with it, and it’s fine, but I started accepting [local clients like] Cleveland Flea came to me to do a couple posters, [and] I did their map last year, it was awesome. I just did a map of Hingetown – there’s a big cut vinyl on the side of Harness [Cycle] now, and that was a really fun project. It’s nice to work with people who know and respect your time and money. They’re in the business, they’re in Cleveland, they know all the things that have to happen to make those big things happen. And it’s good because I know I’m getting paid at the end. Which is not shallow but like… I’m a server and that’s my main life money, but then when I make money off [of] actually making art, I’m like: extra dollar bills, extra things, I can save now, this is awesome. And I can just sit in my room and focus and just make stuff.
Do you like making things that people can use? Since you’ve made maps and things that are more public.
Definitely. Things that people will see and be able to take home, and almost use as an art piece. The big cut vinyl that we made was also a little hand map that people could take. And it’s definitely more artistic and illustrative. If I saw that, I would take it home and keep it.
You make zines and mail art, but you also make murals. Is it difficult to translate from small to large?
[The RTA mural I made] was the first mural I’ve ever done. And the actual act of doing a mural is very physical and very straining. But I was working with LAND Studio, and being able to work with someone who “gets it” [is so helpful]. They knew that I’d never done a mural before, and they trusted me, they liked my work, and they knew that they were going to be able to help me if I needed anything. It’s not hard if you have the right group of people [as a support system].
Do you have goals to be able to just do art only without having to have an extra job? Or do you like having both?
I realized I love doing a bunch of things all at once. I start to get anxious when I’m only doing one thing. When I was working at CLE Clothing, I was a visual manager there and I [realized] that it was taking up so much of my time and energy, and then I’d come home and wouldn’t make [anything]. You saw this lull in my work. I wasn’t making anything for myself. Being a server allows me to work three days a week, and then I can go to Zygote [Press], and then I can do stuff here [at home], and I can do all of my side-jobs, and then I can walk Churro too.
I was interning at American Greetings my summer of my junior year, and I realized too [that] working 9 to 5 in an office building, in a creative job, [wasn’t for me either] because it was like: I’m here for how many hours making, and then I want to come home and make but I’m just tired. And I was like, “Well, I made stuff today.” But it wasn’t mine.
After becoming a server, I’ve loved my life so much more. I have time to reorganize things, and buy plants, and go on trips and get inspired, and go get coffee somewhere and see a new print hanging up. So I like when it’s busy. I have all my little different groups and families that I can see and hang out with, and the people that I can’t, I can just send them stuff.
It’s interesting that you said you sometimes don’t include text or an actual letter with the mail. So much of your artwork has text in it.
That’s true! I was thinking about that too, and as I get older and grow, I definitely think I’m becoming better with my words. But if you look at my work, a lot of the times it’s quotes that people have said, or song lyrics, or other people’s words. But I relate to them so much where I’m like, these are the words I’ve been searching for. And that’s why I love including lyrics or music with a lot of my work. A handful of my zines have CDs in the back, and that way people can listen to what I was listening to and hopefully feel what I was feeling. [I like to use] just little snippets, because I feel like that’s how my feelings in my brain work – one-liners, in-the-moment, quick little things. So I’ll layer those all together, and then that’s my final feeling. With the letters, it’s also hard to send full paragraphs and sentences because the timeline between sending it and receiving it, there’s such a huge gap. They’re more of just an update on what’s going on with my life.
Where do you get all of your magazines and books that you use to make mail?
A lot of the times I’ll get them from thrift stores or Half-Price Books. I love to get [magazines] that are [from the] 1990s and under. I always thought about that too because I was just like, “Why don’t I use the Glamour magazines or the stuff that I get sent?” And I was like, well, that’s stuff that people see every day and they’re definitely used to it. But with these, [they have] these crazy images and over time – see how this printing, it’s really crummy? – I love that. [It’s] not as in-your-face, there’s not a Kardashian on it or anything.
All of my envelopes and card stock [are] from Hollo’s in Brunswick. It is a frickin’ dream world, for anyone who’s a crafter. It’s a family-owned business. It’s a huge warehouse.
This seems like such a fun hobby, it makes us want to do it.
Good! That’s the point.
I realized I started making [mail] because I wanted to maintain the relationships I couldn’t have. [Then] I wanted to stop making for the random people [on tumblr], and really focus on all of my [close friends]. I miss them so much, so I wanted to start focusing on just those people who I want to continue having a relationship with. Anyone who gets [these] probably isn’t going to throw [them] away. But if they do, that’s fine, it’s just paper. Clearly I’m working with super cheap materials, so it’s nice knowing [that] if it does get lost – yes, my time is thrown away because they can’t see it, but that’s why I scan it and post it and [the intended recipients] can look at the outside of it and wonder, “What was inside for me?” [Laughs]
I want people to look at [this mail] and be like, “I really miss my friend, I’m gonna make something for [them] and send it to [them].” I made a How to Send a Letter zine – that way, people can have it and it’s just 10 simple steps. This stemmed from a project at CIA [Cleveland Institute of Art] – we had to show a process in grid form, so I showed the process of sending a letter. I made this handmade book for it, and a lady actually bought it, which was crazy cool, but then I was like, shit, now no one can look at it. So [I thought], why don’t I put it in zine form where it’s totally reachable, it’s like $5, [and] everyone can have it and use it and send [mail] off to their friends.
One time, I got a styrofoam mannequin head in the mail. I walked home and there was a styrofoam head on my porch, with stamps on it. And the only rule was: add to this and pass it on. So you could draw on it, you could glue on it. So I sent it to [my friend’s] kids because they wanted mail and I thought that would be fun for them to get. And to walk in to the post office [to send it] – you have to be so brave! It’s so fun, I’m getting all giddy now. I need to make more!
Making this mail art, it’s something that I absolutely love to do, and I don’t feel like I’m faking it. One year, I screenprinted Ohio-themed Christmas cards, and they didn’t sell well, because I wasn’t in it. I was literally just doing it for the money. And I was like, the world knows that I’m bullshitting this right now. But all the stuff that I actually care [about] and...don’t expect money out of, that’s what people like from me. And that’s what I frickin’ love. I just make it, it makes me happy, my friends love it, and that’s really all that matters. If someone wants to buy it, awesome, but if not, I’ll just send it to you for free probably. [Laughs] All the stuff I make, clearly I try [to] not spend too much money it, because at the end of the day, it could all be thrown away.
It seems like you’ve made so many connections from this.
It’s so dumb how many I have! [Laughs] It’s crazy. I was able to have a mail art show at Zygote [Press]. I got to be in charge of it, and curate it, and I got to build all these things...and of course they give you a stipend so you can make stuff. When I was in the gallery all the nights of the week, I was like, this would be so cool...if this were just my life.
I’ve had all this help from everyone, and all this push from everyone. I was just doing this in my day-to-day, and everyone that is around me is just like, come on, keep on going. And I was like, okay! I can do this! This is great.
A through-line of much of what you’ve mentioned is “keep going.” That push to keep moving forward.
I mainly am just doing it for myself, so when I can’t push myself, it’s so nice to have that backup support system to be like, “Dude, you’ve got this. Don’t think about what people are going to say, just do you.” Because that’s what people end up liking.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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