Seated on a vintage sofa in his Nampa home, Elijah Jensen watches light flood through the mail slot in his door and puddle on his wood floor. As the hatch squeaks shut, a few letters and a medium-sized package slide across the floor. Jensen's eyes light up as he grabs the pile and thumbs through its contents. Unlike most of us, Jensen still eagerly awaits the mailman.
In April 2009, while living in a New Jersey hotel for a job, Jensen got the idea to start the Dying Letter Office. His goal was to revive the lost art of letter writing and make some tangible human connections along the way.
"Really the impetus, the idea was, I want to connect with people," said Jensen. "The idea itself was I'm going to send nice things to people and give them a chance to smile."
So Jensen did what anyone looking to revive the dying mail system might do: He started a Facebook page. Jensen began collecting friends' mailing addresses online and prepping eclectic, artful packages to send out.
"I was using the Internet to compile these addresses, but really, I was using those addresses as this sort of fight against intangible communication," said Jensen.
Jensen's first package included a typed letter, a mix CD, a hand-plucked dried plant, and a fill-in-the-blanks "summertime party" invite for people to photocopy and send out. The letter's mission statement read:
"1. Sending packages is fun, let's do it!; 2. Receiving packages is even more fun, let's accept them!; 3. We will circumvent less expressive 'social networks'; 4. And make new friends!; 5. This is not a scam."
DLO was a hit. Jensen mailed the first package to 50 people, and the list continued to grow from there, hitting approximately 100 at one point. He filled his packages with delicate handmade items: pocket letterpresses, fill-in-the-bubble comics, a build-your-own 3D model of his home. Soon, friends of friends of friends who Jensen had never met were asking to be involved with the Dying Letter Office. Now, a large portion of those correspondences—both Jensen's packages and the items people sent him back—will be split into two public exhibitions: one opening on First Thursday, Feb. 2, at Bricolage, and the other on Saturday, Feb. 4, at Black Hunger gallery.
"It's exciting to get something fun in the mail," said Chelsea Snow, Bricolage co-owner and DLO recipient. "It's kind of the only cool thing I get unless it's like my birthday—it's bills and junk and the occasional awesome thing from Elijah."
Though the DLO packages are all unique, there is a uniting thread: "A painstaking effort to avoid ease," as Jensen puts it. There are tiny drawings, vintage slides, instructions for how to make black tea-ringed tree stumps and delicate hand-bound books of poetry featuring musings like, "Who cares? Everyone. And I think that is the most beautiful thing."
"When we get them, [my husband] Ben and I wait until we're home together to open it," said Bricolage co-owner Juliana McLenna. "It's become kind of a sacred thing; we would never open it without the other one."
But the project hasn't gone exactly as intended. Though Jensen has received a number of things back from DLO participants--hand-spun yarn, bird stencils, pressed flowers—DLO hasn't been nearly as collaborative as he had originally hoped.
"How many I send out and how many I receive back, it's about the same ratio every time, it's about 10 percent," said Jensen. "If I sent out to 50 people, I'd get like five back."
For Snow, the act of getting an envelope, stamps and mailing out a package turns out to be harder than it sounds.
"I have been pretty lame about responding," admitted Snow. "I don't send it because I'm not good at things like that. But I always do the activity, and I feel like that's part of it."
Eli Craven, Black Hunger gallery artist and DLO participant, agrees.
"Even when you really believe in something someone's doing, it's really hard to step up and put forth the effort and do it," said Craven.
But when Jensen mailed out a comic about a fictional drink called the "Menstruating Yeti," he got back something spirited: Three Menstruating Yeti drink recipes from 10th Street Station bartender Dan Krejci. Jensen decided to throw a party for DLOers featuring the specialty drinks. The back-and-forth collaboration inspired him to take a different approach with the project.
"That's when I stopped giving the assignments out," explained Jensen. "I was just trying my best to gather artifacts and I realized that was the wrong approach. I just send out what I want to and then people send back what they want to. And it'll just sort of naturally flow."
That flow will be on display this First Thursday, Feb. 2, at Bricolage from 6-9 p.m. Jensen has crafted a few DLO-related specialty items for purchase and has teamed up with Collapse Theater's Kelly Broich for an interactive event. The party continues at Black Hunger Gallery on Saturday, Feb. 4, with another, more elaborate exhibition of Jensen's DLO collaborations, starting at 6 p.m.
Though Jensen might not have resurrected the mail system, his dedication to the art of mailing his thoughts and gifts has helped draw attention to the simple joy of opening a folded letter and unwrapping a handmade artifact.
"Although it is seen as an archaic method of communication, people still do care about it," said Jensen. "Even if it's like 10 people. That makes it almost more powerful to me."