Courtesy of the artist
A card from Erica Botkin's series of satirical Valentine cards.
Erica Botkin’s long-running mail art valentine project involves the artist posing for pin-up photographs to be sent through the mail as valentines. The photos feature Botkin posing seductively in attitudes ranging from corny to kittenish to risqué. The dose of zany running through it all testifies subtly to Eureka native Botkin’s affinity for deep Humboldt funk and pop esoterica. Botkin, who received her MFA in photography at the University of Texas at Austin, currently teaches photography at College of the Redwoods. (Full disclosure: We are pals and colleagues.) Her Valentines have become an awaited annual rite for quite a few, both in Humboldt and in parts abroad. But they have remained underground until now.
GG: Valentine's Day: over- or under-rated? Favorite/least favorite aspects of the holiday?
EB: I think this holiday was rooted in good intentions. However in our current sex-crazed, celebrity-obsessed culture, any sweet and innocent associations have completely de-railed. It’s definitely overrated and I’ve always found this to be a strange holiday.
GG: Is it hard to satirize something that already seems like it’s on the verge of self-parody?
EB: Not at all — don’t forget about Las Vegas. Just when you think Vegas couldn’t get any Vegas-ier, it does and we welcome it with open arms.
GG: You objectify yourself in these photographs; is that challenging? Empowering? Fun?
EB: I feel good about it, since it’s my goal. If I couldn’t step outside myself and reflect on the experience of female sexual objectification that all women undergo, then these cards wouldn’t work. The poses derive from different sources: advertising for sex work, pornography and YA novel illustrations, to name a few.
Courtesy of the artist
Botkin's poses range from corny to kittenish.
GG: Would you describe yourself as an extrovert?
EB: Yes, I’m very curious about people. What do they think? How are their feelings similar to or different from to mine? How might their values change over time? It seems like we’re always trying to show that we’re unique individuals ... yet not so unique that we become social outcasts. I’m fascinated by this paradox.
GG: You’ve been making these photographs since 2010. How long are you going to keep up the tradition?
EB: I intend to do this for 25-ish years, until I’m about 50 and/or have reached menopause.
GG: some of these valentines are plausible, in the sense that you look adorable and the captions, while corny, are totally believable. Others are more obviously tongue-in-cheek, and a few are cartoonish. The illusion starts to drift a little — the grin gets a little too toothy or the captions are a little too out there, and so a certain kind of viewer's art radar is going to go off and start beeping: alert! social critique. Which kind sells better? Do you aim for a certain point on that spectrum between plausible and self-parody?
EB: Since my buying audience is primarily friend-based, the HOTT rated cards tend to sell the most. I think buyers want to be ambushed with surprise. It’s also extremely important to me to incorporate a range of plausibility, because without it, this project would solely be a harsh social critique. And believe it or not, it’s about empathy and understanding via participation.
GG: I understand there’s a fairly brisk secondary market for these valentines on eBay?
EB: I haven’t tried to promote my cards too aggressively. So most of my customers are friends, or at most, people with one degree of separation from the art world. Most all of my customers are repeat offenders, collecting for themselves and sending a brief moment of titillation to someone else.
GG: You're selling these valentines for four dollars apiece. It seems like it’s important for you to put these out there in the world in a way where they don’t declare themselves immediately to be works of fine art.
EB: I’m at odds in terms of the way in which I think of them. The cards need to be able to be successful independent of the art world. However, using a “fine art” analysis regarding larger social concerns strengthens them as printed material.
GG: How do you hope these Valentines are received?
EB: The short answer is: I hope these cards make people laugh, because they make me laugh. The long answer is: While being photographed, I mostly feel embarrassed and uncomfortable — my body isn’t perfect and though I don’t consider myself ugly, I don’t think of myself as “hot.” I hope these cards promote body positivity and raise awareness about women’s objectification. Like many challenging social topics, softening the blow with a little humor helps.
GG: I’m scrolling through past years’ valentines on your website, and each year has a theme - you're posing in the swamp, or on the baseball diamond, or with rollers in your hair. I know you maintain secrecy around each year's theme in advance. Can you drop any hints about what shade of risqué we can expect in 2017? This is after all the year when pussy is supposed to be grabbing back, although I’m not sure your average Valentine consumer sees that as a selling point.
EB: My environment always inspires/influences me. Although sometimes it is the virtual world that grabs my attention, as was the case in 2014 with my baby-themed cards. Last year the topic of conversation that surrounded me was the drought and the winter El Nino predictions. I can say this year’s theme drew from some related outdoor issues …
Botkin’s mail art valentines can be seen here