Kirsten McCrea was fresh out of art school, working at a fancy restaurant in Edmonton, Alb., when she got the idea for a subscription service that delivers monthly art prints by mail. The restaurant’s walls were adorned with beautiful lithographic prints for sale, but McCrea quickly discovered that, like most things in the establishment, they targeted a well-heeled demographic. “I couldn’t even afford to eat there, let alone buy the $2000 prints,” she recalls.
So, in 2008, the Montréal-based artist called on her network of fellow artists to participate in a project she called Papirmasse — the Dutch word for pulp, “a sly reference to our preferred place in the trenches of popular culture and the paper we print on,” McCrea, now 27, writes on her website. She wasn’t the first person to think of distributing art through mail subscriptions. Shepard Fairey, the artist best known for his Obama “Hope” poster, releases a print every month for $45 a pop.
But McCrea wanted to do it even more cheaply — for $5 a month. Subscribers pay $60 up front, and each month for the next year they receive an “issue,” or print, on archival paper — anything from a 5-by-7-inch accordion booklet to a 6-by-9-inch reversible book to an 18-by-24-inch, double-sided poster. McCrea calls Papirmasse “a magazine, piece of art and social experiment all rolled into one.” On the flip side of each image may be printed short stories, essays, poems or other texts.
The system is not unlike the community-supported-agriculture-style business models some Vermont artists have been trying out recently, such as Burlington’s Arentzen & Ohlander Glass’ CSArt — in which people pay in advance for seasonal pieces of art glass throughout the year — and the dance collective of Ellen Smith Ahern and Lida Winfield, which offers workshops and discounted tickets in exchange for investments.
“We want everyone to have art — real art!” McCrea writes on her website. “Not the fake paintings sold at IKEA or the same tired old posters every college student has.” How does she do it so cheaply? Well, for one thing, the prints are digitally produced. Also, she doesn’t pay her artists for the digital prints. They are compensated through the sale of a more traditionally created fine-art edition, sold at Maison Kasini, which has provided administrative and overhead support to Papirmasse since January.
A year after McCrea launched the project, she decided to take a break and restructure. That’s when she met the Maison Kasini co-owners, Ric Kasini Kadour and Chris Byrne, who also publish Art Map Burlington for each month’s First Friday Art Walk. “We have a strong interest in the accessibility of contemporary art and liked what she was doing,” says Kadour. When he and Byrne heard McCrea was putting the project on hold, they volunteered to help.
Kadour also helped McCrea get a show of Papirmasse prints — some framed, some collections from past years — at Burlington’s S.P.A.C.E. Gallery through May. He says he’s excited to introduce her to the Burlington art scene. “As a person in [her] twenties working as an artist, she’s just really got it together,” says Kadour. “She has a really collaborative spirit. I think Burlington artists would learn a lot from her.”
Papirmasse has 130 subscribers so far, with circulation focused in Montréal and Edmonton, McCrea’s hometown. But it’s expanding, she says, citing a subscriber in Australia who must have discovered the service on her website. “It’s an incredibly popular subscription, in this day and age,” when people rarely get anything meaningful in the mailbox, says Kadour.
Most of the 15 Papirmasse artists and writers McCrea has used to date are based in Montréal, but that’s beginning to change, as well. Last month’s print featured Vermont photographers Stephen Shaub and Matt Hovey. On one side was Hovey’s photograph of a peeling wall of layered posters on a street in Madrid; on the other, an essay by Shaub called “Is Photography Dead? No, Honey, It’s Just Sleeping.” Next month’s featured artist is Alan Ganev, a Costa Rican-born, Montréal-based graphic designer, musician and street artist.
McCrea aims for diversity of style in the prints. To that end, she tells subscribers, “In a year, I hope you get something that you absolutely love and something that you absolutely hate.” And she hopes that the $5 price tag encourages people to hang artwork in unusual places, such as on the bathroom wall or in a cubicle at work. “I hope it makes people feel a little less precious about art,” McCrea says.