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Rubber stamp: Office tool or art object?
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Rubber stamps were first used as office and teaching tools, but then became popularized in kids picture sets. (MPR Photo/Marianne Combs)
The paint brush, camera, pen and pastel are all recognized as instruments of the artists' trade. But what about the rubber stamp? Originally created for small businesses and teachers, rubber stamps have a long history in the art world as well. The Minnesota Center for Book Arts documents the rubber stamps rise from utilitarian tool to art object in its latest exhibition.

St. Paul, Minn. — On opening day of the MCBA's exhibit Multiplicity for Millions adults and children crowded around display tables, learning how to make their own rubber stamps or how to use stamps to make art.

Ann Bitter was one of them. She says rubber stamping is a long-time obsession she finds both creative and calming.

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Image Modern rubber stamps

"I just think it's creating the unlikely from the mundane," says Bitter. "When you think about stamps, they were created for very mundane purposes. They were in store windows, they were used for all kinds of things, and now people have found a creative use for them and I think it's fabulous."

Multiplicity for Millions traces the history of rubber stamps since their first use in the late 1800s. They were originally marketed to small businesses as a way to make labels without having to go to the printer every time the price of a product changed. Then stamps became popular as an educational tool for teachers. Door to door salesmen offered up large wooden boxes with rubber stamps for every letter and number as well as common words that might be used in lessons.

Scott Helmes is an architect, artist and collector. His collection makes up a large portion of the Minnesota Center for Book Art's exhibit. Like many stamp art fans, Helmes doesn't believe in holding back. He's scoured flea markets over the last 30 years buying just about any stamp set he found. Helms says he has approximately 650 rubber stamp sets; he estimates that's around 35,000 to 40,000 stamps.

"I have numerous examples of the same set just because I like the box," says Helmes, "or because I like the type style or I like the lithographed backs on the stamps. Sometimes I'll buy a box because of the top of the box or what's inside the cover because it's got things like street car signs, for example, or trade signs, how much the sets were... just the graphic nature of it."

Once rubber stamps became more widespread, they were marketed to children as toys for creating their own pictures.

Helmes describes the children's sets as "the Game Boy of the time."

"I have Sean Connery in six sizes so I pretty much have a stamp of anything you could want."
- Roz Stendahl, mail artist

"We have Yogi Bear, we have Huck [Finn], we have the Brownies, we have Lil' Orphan Annie, we have Snow White in two versions, we have Tom Sawyer, we have a circus, we've got a defense set, we've got western, we've got 'Over Land and Sea' with a zeppelin and a motorcycle. So there was more than enough to keep kids happy," says Helmes.

Rubber stamps were first incorporated into serious art in Russia around 1912. Artists -- now known as the futurists -- were rebelling against the fancy and costly publications of the symbolist poets. The futurists instead used rubber stamps and cheap paper to print out multiple copies of their own work. From Russia the rubber stamp moved to Germany and the Dadaist movement where it was combined with drawings to create collage art.

But the rubber stamp really had its hey day in the 1960s and '70s when the New York-based avant garde group Fluxus adopted it for the creation of "mail art." In defiance of juried shows and elitist galleries, artists created art, added a postage stamp, and dropped it in a mailbox.

"Bottom line it is making some art piece with rubber stamps, collage, Xeroxing, putting it together somehow and sending it off in the mail and not expecting money for it and not particularly seeing that it's going to be in some gallery and be shown," says Roz Stendahl, a modern-day mail artist (Watch multi-media slideshow).

Stendahl says she still gets on average about four pieces of mail art each week. Back before computer graphics and e-mail were readily accessible, she got at least one a day. She now also receives "e-mail art," but she says she tends to prefer the pieces she can hold in her hand.

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Image Mail artist Roz Stendahl

"Part of the fun of getting mail art is that it's been distressed, it has been crumpled, it has been handled by however many people and machines before it gets to me," says Stendahl. "It's been stamped with official stamps, sometimes before it left the artist its been stamped with pseudo official stamps. SO there's an accumulation of stuff on this piece that adds to its life for me."

Stendahl first began using rubber stamps in her artwork after an accident made it impossible for her to sit at her drawing board for long. She ordered rubber stamps out of a catalog. Many were images taken from 18th century pictures and advertising. Then she began designing her own rubber stamps. She'd make a drawing and send it to a stamp manufacturing company. The company converted it into to a rubber stamp, mounted it, and sent it back to her. Stendahl now has a collection of over 3,000 images all stacked in drawers and neatly catalogued so that she can find whatever image she needs at a moment's notice.

"I have quite a lot of dog stamps because of my interest in dogs," says Stendahl. "I have a lot of stamps of my own dogs. I also have an Arnold Schwarzenegger and I have Sean Connery in six sizes, so I pretty much have a stamp of anything you could want."

However Stendahl says there are some rubber stamps that every artist needs.

"If you're just getting into rubber stamps, getting hands is very essential; to have hands of all different sizes doing different things. Because you can always have hands reaching into your composition, pulling someone away or putting something in, so you've got this whole external force acting on your composition," says Stendahl.

Stendahl used to print her own rubber stamp zine called Stretchmarks. But she abandoned the zine when she realized that the majority of her subscribers were proponents of "cute stamps." Stendahl will never be caught using a teddy bear stamp in her collage art, unless it's the victim of some terrible act. She's sad to see that so much of today's stamp art consists of pretty roses and rainbows, as opposed to her more eclectic images.

But artist and collector Scott Helmes sees it differently. He says it's the natural progression of an art form to eventually make it's way to the masses. The Russian futurists would be happy, he says, to see the rubber stamp being used to create art on so many levels. Helms says the value of a rubber stamp -- that it's cheap, portable and readily accessible -- will never go away.

"You can do wonders with computers, but they're expensive and you have to have great printers and programs," says Helmes. "And you can do the same thing with rubber stamps. I think alot or people -- if they know about (rubber stamps) -- will really begin to say 'oh that's kind of a way to be an individiual both artistically and in society that we've gotten away from.'"

Helmes says he hopes visitors to the Multiplicity for Millions exhibit will be inspired to buy their own rubber stamps and stamp away.

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