Interview with Ashley P. Owens

The End of an Era

Global Mail logo

During the early 1990's, the name Ashley Parker Owens is almost as synonomous with mail art as the name Ray Johnson. with a flurry of chain letters and ads, she grew her zine, Global Mail, into a monitor of network activity, as close to a central mail art publication as we had ever seen. In 1995, she moved to San Francisco to join the growing group of mail artists living in the bay area. Recently, however, she has passed on Global Mail to Michael Dittman. I interviewed her by e-mail in early February, 1997. . .

Shouting at the Postman: Do you feel that being in San Francisco and being surrounded by mail art people takes something away from the network (as far as removing the mystery that mail artists tend to create around their "mail personna"), or does it enhance your involvment with the network to meet them in person and see what they're really like?

Ashley P. Owens: It definitely enchances the relationship to meet in person. One thing I have found, though, is that I rarely contact people I have met by letter. It's easier to pick up the phone or get together. I think its good to have the mystery removed. It makes you feel closer to the person to find out that they are a geek just like you instead of some really cool, obscure artist.

S@TP: Do you feel that this "mail art community" environment fosters creativity or dilutes it?

Ashley: Definitely encourages more and more creative and outlandish artworks and actions.

S@TP: Is the general "mail art community" concept real, or is it a myth?

Ashley: It is real. It is constantly changing, full of all types of people, it has elders and newcomers, and most importantly, it is OPEN.

S@TP: Are mail artists fun to hang out with socially or are they as antisocial as they seem?

Ashley: I would say they are as fun as any other group of people. Some are very antisocial (like me). However, that's part of the charm. You put up with it more than you normally would, because you already know that the person is really interesting, and has a rich and vibrant brain.

S@TP: What about the network were (are) you most displeased about?

Ashley: Strangely enough, my own personal annoyance was all the letters I got from prisoners wanting "a lady" for a relationship. I can understand human loneliness, but too many of the prisoners made it clear they were looking for money and other goods, and a wife to make their parole go easier. After a while, I just got really disgusted with the whole thing. I'm not saying all prisoners were looking for this, or all prisoners are bad, I'm just saying that even NOW I'm getting about 10-15 letters a week from prisoners, and very few are really interested in art, writing, or networking. It also creates a mail overload for me, because I have to respond to all those letters explaining why I won't run their ad.

S@TP: What pleases you about the network?

Ashley: I am most pleased that all my high ideals have been proven by my interactions with individuals within the net. There are some really great, ethical people out there trying for a new society. It helps to know that. It sets you free in a lot of ways. I am more into living a life I know can exist, now. There's nothing to hold me back except myself, and I know that now.

S@TP: Do you think that people are inherently good with some evil traits or vice versa?

Ashley: I think all people are god. Unfortunately, they have these horrible personalities on top of their true selves that obscure the goodness.

S@TP: Is there anything funny that you've noticed about people in San Francisco?

Ashley: I don't think it's just San Francisco, but Californians in general are awfully laid back. Their work ethic stinks. They tend to take things for granted, and I've found a lot of shallowness and disconnectedness. I don't get much of a sense of community here. I think some of it has to do with the weather. When you and all your neighbors are snowed in, or are all melting in the heat, you sort of bond with each other.

S@TP: What is the most surprising thing that's happened to you since you've moved to San Francisco?

Ashley: A lot of things! Like having a near-death experience, changing my whole life around, letting Global Mail go, and getting pregnant to name a few! Pretty weird for a 37-year-old renunciate living in an ashram, huh? Leave it to me to get knocked up by a sannyasin. I guess I goofed somewhere, or God's playing tricks on me.

S@TP: Congratulations! I'm not really sure what an ashram is. . . could you explain a bit about it?

Ashley: An ashram is a community (usually Hindu) where everyone has jobs to do (karma yoga) and we participate in group meditations and other activities together. I do computer work. The cool thing about it is that meals are prepared, bathrooms cleaned, etc. by whoever, but not me. All food is provided, space is cheap, and we all basically have to get along and support each other in a peaceful way. It's sort of like religious practice put into action. It's supposed to be Utopian, I suppose; it falls way short of that, but still, it is inspiring to live with people who have very high ethics and morals and live by them. It's depressing when they don't, or their human frailties affect you in some way, because generally you give everyone here the benefit of the doubt and you don't confront them unless they're really screwing up bad. It's a nice sheltered environment. Vegetarian, no smoking, no alcohol, no drugs, no household chemicals, pure water, etc. We live in an urban environment, a house in San Francisco. It's a yoga center, so there are free yoga classes, meditation every morning, meditation with a fire ceremony every evening in the temple, etc. I have my own room, TV, music, computers, phone, e-mail, etc. I'm not missing out on anything.

The only reason I'm going into detail about this is that there is a network rumour going about that 1) I've joined a cult, and 2) I've gone religious. Neither of these is quite right. Cults usually have leaders, and the guru here died three years ago. There is no leadership or indoctrination of any kind. In fact, interaction on any deep level between housemates really isn't done too much. We socialize, but it is basically superficial, which is interesting to me. As for "gone religious," I suppose this may be partially true. Basically, I got sick in February of last year and had 6 days of visions followed by a near-death experience. So I received grace of some sort and realized there is something of the spirit out there, which I did not believe before. It changed my life completely, destroyed everything and left nothing. I don't know what to say besides that, except that it left no option but to leave the world in a sense and cross over to another dimension. And I can't go back. It's permanent. That's a lot of what the passing on of Global Mail is about.

S@TP: I'm also a little foggy on what a "sannyasin" is...

Ashley: A sannyasin is someone who has given up all possessions, and is basically a wandering monk. No family ties. Usually dressed in orange robes only. I suppose this is probably more than you would ever want to know. So you see, dabbling in the underground can make your life veer off into uncharted and strange territories. So be careful. Once you cross over, there is no going back.

S@TP: Does all the money come from what you pay or do you produce things for sale too?

Ashley: Most comes from what is paid in the form of rent; however, stuff is sold, mostly in the way of services, classes, and such.

S@TP: What sort of computer work do you do for them?

Ashley: Mostly advertising and poster work, but also laying out a calendar (that's sold).

S@TP: What kind of illness did you have last year that led to all these changes?

Ashley: Believe it or not, the flu. The hospital called it a "gastro-intestinal virus", but basically, it was the flu. It was compounded by a doctor diagnosing me with diabetes [wrongly] and giving me diabetes medicine. That is why I almost died. Basically, I was one sick chick and my whole body was off and the tests were all over the place, which is why the diabetes diagnosis. The first doctor thought it was either diabetes, or cancer. But he was an idiot.

S@TP: Your near-death experience sounds like the kind of spiritual awakening that alcoholics or disaster survivors experience. So you left everything and moved into this place?

Ashley: Yes.

S@TP: Are you thinking of leaving the mail art network?

Ashley: I'm already gone. . .

© 1997, Ken B. Miller & Contributors as Listed. | Reproduced from Shouting at the Postman #23, May, 1997 | 5526

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