One day last year, John Essex, art teacher at the Indianapolis Juvenile Correctional Facility, was exploring the Internet in search of ideas he might use in his classes. That"s how he discovered Artist Trading Cards, a relatively new international art movement originating in Zurich, Switzerland, and inspired by the Dadaists of the early 20th century.
As Tristan Tzara, Dada"s chief theoretician, wrote about art in 1922, "Ö what interests me is the intensity of a personality transposed directly, clearly into the work; the man and his vitality Ö" For Essex, this means trying to find forms that will engage the incarcerated young women and girls he works with every day. Artist Trading Cards, inspired by common 2.5-by-3.5-inch sports cards, allow his students to readily express their own forms of personal intensity. Artist trading cards are miniature works of art. Apart from the fact that they must conform to traditional trading card size, there are no restrictions on what form they may take - cards may feature paintings, collage, rubber stamps and found images. Although some artists turn their cards into 3-D creations, most artists favor working in two dimensions so that they can more easily send their cards through the mails. Last December, Essex"s students traded a number of their cards with artists at Vanci Stirnemann"s gallery in Zurich, Switzerland. Stirnemann is widely regarded as founder of the Artist Trading Card movement. "I told him to expect a wide variety of quality and materials," Essex recalls of his first contact with Stirnemann. "To keep in mind it"s a junior/senior high school. I just wanted him to be aware of that. He wrote back saying they"re so inclusive with this movement that all expressions are welcome." So far Essex"s students have produced about 100 cards. They also make custom mailing envelopes by hand - a touch that Stirnemann has indicated makes them even more desirable. "The response to the cards was very positive," reports Cat Schick, a co-organizer of the Artist Trading Cards project in Zurich. "We thought they were as good as anyone else"s cards. Meaning that just because they are students doesn"t mean they can"t produce a "good" card (and "good" is subjective anyway - the point being actual making and trading, not "quality"). One could see that a lot of work had been put into them." Students in Essex"s classes are assigned to IJCF by the courts. There are around 230 girls and young women in residence at the treatment-oriented facility at any given time; they are there for a full gamut of offenses ranging from running away from home to Class-A felonies. An average stay at the facility lasts 10 months. Essex says that making cards helps students see beyond their immediate circumstances. "Now many of my students have a connection with Zurich, Switzerland, which never in their wildest dreams - nor mine - did they ever think they would." The cards themselves are striking, a tremendous array of designs, textures, colors and visual strategies. "At first I thought it was nothing," says one student, "but when I traded and got something back; I cherished that." Adds one of her peers: "The first art card was just an assignment, but now I put my whole self into it." Essex has also been in touch with the New Gallery in Calgary, Canada, another center that is actively involved in the Artist Trading Card phenomenon. The New, along with Stirnemann, helped stage the first international biennial exhibit of Artist Trading Cards last year in Australia. Five thousand cards by 103 artists from 15 countries were on display. According to the New Gallery"s Web site: "The democratic and free exchange involved in trading these cards creates a space for the production of a vernacular artform outside the hierarchical high-art world." So far, money does not play a part in Artist Trading Cards, the cards themselves are the currency. Essex would like to link his students" works with art classes throughout the city and state. He"d like nothing better than to hear from other art teachers with an interest in setting up some trading programs. He would also like to find a local gallery interested in exhibiting the cards and possibly serving as a base where trades with all sorts of artists might take place. "I can"t help but think this should be out there more," he says. Essex believes that finding this artform has provided his students with an important sense of validation. "Someone over there in Zurich picked up a card and liked what they saw." He quotes from one of his students" evaluation forms: "I never knew something so small could mean so much." To contact John Essex about Artist Trading Cards, e-mail Essexjpjh@aol.com.