Imagine a portal to the past and future at your disposal, answers to all the questions in the universe. Where do you start?
“How old is Santa Claus?” one curious child wanted to know. So she deposited her question into the golden mailbox currently parked at the south edge of Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square.
The idea behind the mailbox public art project, an endeavor by three local artists, is to allow people to — symbolically — send messages through time and space.
The mailbox was installed on Sept. 4 in the downtown square to encourage people to support the U.S. Postal Service. It accepts “questions, grievances and love letters to the past or future.” With the help of a dedicated team of “portal professionals,” it supplies responses, too.
Local artist Jessica Rasmussen came up with the idea for the “Portal Service.” Using a grant from the Open & Out program in downtown Santa Rosa, she called on friends and fellow artists Julian Billotte and Anna Wiziarde to help coat a USPS mailbox in solid (imitation) gold.
“Using a full-size post box and making it gold was an homage to the post office, something we were feeling was really important at the time,” Billotte said, noting concerns about decreased funding for the USPS.
“Part of it for me was to make something that symbolized the sacredness of the post office and its importance,” he added. “As we talked about it, the idea of a solid gold box became iconic.”
Now, the original team of three have recruited a group of 35 “responders” who reply to any mail received with a return address. Many letters describe a sense of worry about the present or the future, from pandemic panic to election unease.
“The community did not shy away from going deep into a lot of touching subjects,” Wiziarde said. “Things people were concerned about, anxiety about the future. So it was a good conduit for people to address their concerns and their worries and their fears.”
Sometimes, responders struggle to find the right words of comfort for letter-writers, Rasmussen said, such as when a mother asked for a response from the future about whether her children’s safety would be threatened by climate change.
“I’ve had more than one responder receive questions to the future and (ask), ‘Can I be over-the-top optimistic?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, go for it. Go for your heart,’” Rasmussen said. “Some (responders) have done videos; some have done artwork. It’s not necessarily a direct response. Sometimes it’s a little bit more vague.”
The Portal Service posts all the letters and responses from the mailbox on an Instagram page. The project has resulted in a lot of engagement from the community, though in different ways than the artists anticipated.
“I feel like it’s living a life out there,” Billotte said about the golden mailbox. “As an object, it’s just getting abused and tagged and the skaters are thrashing on it. But standing out there, it still looks great. That’s something I really enjoyed, watching it.”
In addition to inquiries about climate change and Santa Claus, people have left offerings like dollar bills, a teddy bear, bags of marijuana and a package of Top Ramen.
“People are using it like a wishing well,” Wiziarde said.
Although the artists intended the project as a tribute to the Postal Service, the federal agency had a different take. The artists received a cease and desist letter from the USPS on Nov. 9, requiring them to take down the portal on Dec. 4, the date the project was already planned to end. While it recognized that the Portal Service was meant to elicit support for the Postal Service, the USPS said the project is too similar to the Postal Service’s collection boxes and could cause confusion.
As for the curious child asking about Santa’s age, after some research by the Portal Service, she received a response:
“A little older than the Easter Bunny.”