Franck de Las Mercedes painted boxes carry peace message globally
The small brightly colored package arrived via the U.S. Postal Service, all six sides hand-painted in vibrant, abstract patterns. It was so light that one could mistakenly think it was empty. But in fact its contents are precious.
The attached label read: FRAGILE. HANDLE WITH CARE. Contains: PEACE.
I had received a "Priority Box," an ongoing public art project by Nicaraguan-born artist Franck de Las Mercedes, who grew up in New York City and lives in Weehawken, N.J.
Mr. de Las Mercedes began "The Priority Boxes Art Series" in 2006. Since then he has mailed close to 10,000 boxes to more than 70 countries representing every continent except Antarctica. Each is an individually made work of art. Signed by the artist. And free for the asking.
He started the project "to engage people in a dialogue," Mr. de Las Mercedes, 38, said by telephone from his home Monday. "At the time the Iraq War was very much in people's minds, as it is today. I asked, 'Why wait for leaders to galvanize us?' I wanted to challenge the public directly. Just to spark a little conversation. Just to interact. So people could think about the value of peace. How we as individuals can take responsibility, take action, without waiting for the leaders."
He never thought he'd be doing it five years later.
At the beginning he sent boxes randomly to friends. Then he listed the project on New York City's Craig's List and received more than 100 requests overnight. "It blew my mind."
After the U.S., he's received the second largest number of requests from Argentina. More than 2,000 have gone to Latin America, including Mexico, Chili and Brazil. Canada is at the top also. Priority boxes have made their way to China, Pakistan, India, Vietnam, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. He'd received several requests from Japan over the years but those slowed considerably after the recent natural disaster. Before the revolution, he received three or four requests from Egypt, and one from Saudi Arabia.
The boxes that travel outside the U.S. for the most part carry the words "peace," "justice" or "freedom."
"They're going through borders, through customs," he said.
Other boxes contain one of more than 20 words that he generally assigns randomly.
"I make sure the message out there is positive," Mr. de Las Mercedes said. "There is a very harsh society online. People will trash you on Twitter. I refuse to do something that can be interpreted in a controlling way, or negative way. I stay away from words that could be interpreted as having a different meaning."
Still, he's no Pollyanna.
"[The boxes] are beautiful, they are inspirational, but don't be fooled," he said. "They can be aggressive. They force you to see the challenge."
Whichever the content, the boxes are equally seductive with their jewel-box exteriors and single word that has the power to arrest.
That was the way it happened to Megan Post, a seventh-grade English teacher at Union City Middle School in Erie County. A couple of years ago, she noticed several priority boxes in the art room. "I asked 'What are those? How can I get one?' " Ms. Post said by telephone from her North East home last week.
Ms. Post visited the artist's website and followed the steps to request a priority box. Then she had each of her students order one. At the start of the school year, she uses the box request as an exercise to activate the students' school e-mail accounts.
Because of the volume of requests, Mr. de Las Mercedes cautions that it can take four to eight months to receive a box within the U.S., and 10 months or more outside the country.
"Just as we're forgetting about them," Ms. Post said, "they start showing up in mailboxes at the students' homes."
In the meantime, the class visits the artist's website and watches a video he's posted. "They see a real artist doing his work and they think it's pretty cool," she said.
Ms. Post uses the boxes in her abstract nouns unit. "Most of the words he puts on the box labels are abstract nouns," she observed. "They discuss abstract nouns they would like to receive, abstract nouns they would like to send to someone, and those they would never send."
Students also use the priority box experience as material for their assigned journal entries, and to spark discussion. When someone receives a box, he or she is asked to "tell about how your box is perfect for you. The word may be 'peace' or 'tolerance' or 'joy.' How does this relate to your life?"
And priority box applications go beyond the classroom.
"When they arrive at the homes, the parents will ask 'What is this?' and that sparks a conversation between the students and their parents, which is always a good thing," Ms. Post said.
Occasionally a student has to come to the defense of a box, explaining to parents that they shouldn't open it and why. Being students, they've even come up with some suggestions for Mr. de Las Mercedes, such as creating a map that would show where he's sent priority boxes, and word suggestions. "He needs more words. My class would love to create a list for him if he wants."
Most of the students take their boxes home at the end of the school year. Last year, two students left their boxes in Ms. Post's classroom. "Both kids came back to visit them this year."
As the project has expanded, it's consumed more of Mr. de Las Mercedes' time and money. Although he's received offers, he hasn't been willing to accept the kind of sponsorship that would brand his packages and alter their intrinsic message. He wants to keep them free because "that sends a message that there are some things you can't put a price on, like peace, joy, hope, justice."
He receives donations for the project from friends, clients and admirers. Ms. Post said that she'd sent a contribution, figuring it was time to "pony up" after so many of her students requested priority boxes.
The artist sets aside a portion of the sale of his paintings, and now makes "special edition" priority boxes that may be purchased at his website with the proceeds going to the project (http://fdlmstudio.com).
He's also posted, for the first time, on www.Kickstarter.com, which claims to be the largest funding platform for creative projects in the world. Individuals pledge to a listed project, which collects only if the goal sum is reached. Mr. de Las Mercedes is looking for $5,000 to support the boxes for another year. By yesterday $2,989 had been pledged. Contributions must be made by June 2.
His largest expenses are postage and art supplies. He does all of the painting himself, and his wife helps with administrative aspects, such as making address labels. He paints the boxes in groups, beginning with one large painting that he divides into 20 boxes, "a sisterhood of boxes."
Sometimes other family members chip in. "One day my sister helped me and by the end of the day she said 'Franck, this is work. ... Like 8-hour-a-day-job work,' " the artist related with a laugh.
The priority boxes have legs, including their adoption, and sometimes adaptation, by several schoolrooms at various grade levels.
One instance led to the "Peace Flyers Project," launched in January. An educator in Juarez, Mexico, contacted him after receiving a box and asked whether Mr. de Las Mercedes would consider designing a project that would help to address the drug cartel violence in his area. The district is very poor and the artist went for basics. "All you need is a computer and a printer."
He designed a flier based on those that advertise services on countless community bulletin boards. Under the words "Free, Take One," and a peace sign and heart symbol, he quotes author Robert Fulghum: "Peace is not something you wish for; It's something you make, Something you do; Something you are, And something you give away." At the bottom are little tear tabs that read "peace, love, hope." He invites individuals to "Post them at your school, work, street corner and especially in places where conflict has or is taking place."
"You're challenging people to become an activist in their own communities. You're offering a moment of peace, of hope."
"Everything I've learned from the boxes has been from people when they receive them," Mr. de Las Mercedes said. "There is a collective need to be taken into consideration. To be loved. For someone to know that you're there. We want peace. We want love. We want hope. And we aspire to do better, we aspire to a better world. There are still people who want to do something out there.
"It breaks the ice in a room, in the work place, when someone asks 'What's that?' "
Outdoor grilling and tarot card readings, jock attire, sports models, DJs Huck Finn and Pete Spynda, enliven the 7 to 11 p.m. opening Thursday at The Andy Warhol Museum of "Mixed Signals: Artists Consider Masculinity Sports" and "Contemporary Magic: A Tarot Deck Art Project." Cash bar and lite bites, $18; $15 students and museum members. 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org.
First Published May 25, 2011 12:00 am