The Boise Public Library is bucking the trend of communication via Facebook and 140-character Twitter posts, enlisting a new attraction installed at the Main Library, 715 S. Capitol Blvd.
“The Letter Box Project” was created by Two Quarters Collective — a cousin duo, Nicole MacDonald of Boise and Chris Copelin of Salt Lake City. Their creative vehicle is a rehabbed snack vending machine on the library’s first floor that dispenses handwritten letters for 25 cents apiece. In most cases, but with just a couple exceptions, MacDonald and Copelin have composed the letters themselves.
Letters address a wide range of topics. You can choose one that fits your needs like you might choose between a Hershey’s bar or a Snickers. There are love letters. There are letters from animals to their humans. There are letters written in Spanish, Farsi and Basque.
The Basque letter is not a Copelin/MacDonald original, but is a hand-transcribed historic letter from a man to his father in the Basque Country. The artists worked with the staff at the Basque Museum and Cultural Center to find a fitting missive. The envelope of each Basque letter is sealed with a sprig of lavender. The writer of the original letter was a sheepherder. Each envelope also contains a little piece of wool. Other letters come with a wax seal or stamped hearts. Letters intended for old friends come wrapped in a map.
MacDonald and Copelin were determined to reach a wide and varied audience. A $5,000 grant from the Boise Department of Arts & History paid for the project. Part of the grant application involved finding a project that was accessible to people with disabilities. As they had reached out to the Basque Museum, Copelin and MacDonald also reached out to the Idaho Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The result: letters written in large print as well as those embossed in Braille.
The cousins were inspired to create the letter-centric project because they’ve been life-long pen pals, exchanging letters since they were children. They’ve kept every letter, “hundreds and hundreds,” said MacDonald.
At the same time, they acknowledge that letter writing has fallen by the wayside in the era of social media. They want to help anyone who hasn’t had the thrill of getting a handwritten letter in the mail to know how magical that can be.
Mary Beth Nutting is a page at the Main Library. Both employees and patrons were curious when the vending machine showed up at the library, she said. People bought letters throughout the first day.
“They would buy the letters, then step aside and quietly read them,” Nutting said.
Before she left work, she bought a “Love Letter” to give to her husband at dinner.
“I told him that he could open it any time, perhaps when he needed a reminder that he was loved. And it sat on his dresser (unopened). Torture,” Nutting said.
Impatient, she bought a second love letter and opened it.
“I was a little surprised when I found it wasn’t necessarily a love letter between a husband and wife or between two partners. Instead, I interpreted it as a love letter to myself,” said Nutting.
It read, “Dear Beautiful One, Do you know you are loved?”
It then went on to say things Nutting said she needed to hear.
“I was feeling especially low that week, and this letter really moved me and reminded me that there is joy in my life and family and friends that love and value me. Whether or not that was the intention of the ‘Love Letter,’ that is how it affected me.”
Her husband, she added, still has yet to open his letter.
First ‘professional project’
MacDonald and Copelin have collaborated on other art projects in the past. And MacDonald, a graduate of the City of Boise’s Public Art Academy, will soon have a piece installed on a bus shelter on Vista Avenue as part of the city’s public art program. But the letter project is their “first professional project,” said MacDonald. They unveiled it to the public on June 1, First Thursday. People were eager to buy a letter. Some patrons ripped the envelopes open right away, said MacDonald. Others told her they wanted to savor their letter and wait to open it.
Copelin and MacDonald have been surprised at the success of the project, said MacDonald.
The vending machine — one MacDonald bought online and had prettified with new paint and a hand-lettered sign — has dispensed around 400 letters so far. Keeping the letters written and re-stocking the machine three times a week has become a part-time job, MacDonald said.
Kevin Winslow, library spokesman, said the project reinforces the library’s desire to support local artists. The library, he said, has been increasing its partnerships with the Boise Department of Arts & History and saw the letter project as an opportunity for hands-on learning and community engagement.
“The Letter Box Project” will be on display at the library through September.