Joseph Uphoff, in his mid-50s with a white beard and white hair, is the only person at Boulder Street Coffee Roasters in a suit.
Most of the people here are in their 20s if not younger but Uphoff seems to know some of them. He exchanges hellos with the poets on hand for the open-mic night. Then, on a table, he sets his vita, a 3-inch-thick folder stuffed with biographical notes about himself.
Included are movie critiques that read like poetry. Also, huge accompanying mathematical equations cryptic codes translating the text into formulas. Uphoff calls this work "Theoretical Surrealism / Visual Poetics," incorporating math, poetry, social critique and art.
Uphoff also has a typed, 10-page list of mail art shows he has participated in around the world. Taking a cue from pop artist Ray Johnson, Uphoff belongs to a network of artists who send collages, packages and postal-sized bric-a-brac to one another, as well as to mail art calls from official museums.
For Johnson, who began mailing letters prolifically in the mid-1950s, the point wasn't the items he sent but, rather, the act of sending those items.
Bill Wilson, art critic and friend of the late artist, explains: "It's not about the aesthetic product that can be framed on the wall. The point is community, and Johnson has helped to define art as community."
By 1961, Johnson began sending instructions in the mail along with pieces he would send to his friends and fellow artists. The rules were simple: to pass along each mail piece and create reticular networks of chain mail among the involved artists. The idea was to take art out of the galleries and make it available to everyone.
Stand and deliver
Uphoff became involved in the mail-art scene after discovering that he couldn't make a living as a poet, sculptor or painter even with a degree in fine arts from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. It took a few years of working at a bank to refocus his energy entirely on his art. The lack of money didn't deter Uphoff, who lived on food stamps for more than 30 years.
"There's a problem with the system," he says. "There are vastly more artists than opportunities for employment."
In 1983, Uphoff began mailing samples of his work, along with biographical information to poets he liked, senators, even then-President Ronald Reagan. "There was nowhere I could exhibit," Uphoff says. "So I just started mailing poetry and art. If I left mail with somebody, they could either value it or not. Maybe it could get back to me somewhere with an opportunity."
He begins looking through his vita for information about his first invitation to a mail-art show. The vita is seemingly well-organized, but there aren't any tabs separating the stack of loose pages. He comes up empty.
Three days after this interview, Uphoff mails me some art. In a business-sized envelope, there are photographs of broken pottery, photos with brilliant ballerinas twirling, stamps with Celtic-looking designs labeled "Arjuna Digital Visual Dream Laboratory," and a series of mathematical equations in large, clear handwriting, labeled "Tautologies in Dialectics."
Getting Uphoff's art in the mail is like receiving a vignette of his totally unique worldview. The act of correspondence inherent to mail art is an exchange of perspectives; Uphoff sends some reflection of himself and his receivers, in turn, send something back that reflects the way they see things.
The mathematical formulas, meanwhile, seem to use logic and geometry to build a system that qualifies the text.
Without intense study or a degree in calculus, it's difficult to discern the legitimacy of Uphoff's formulas. They definitely deal with different systems of logic, built by unusual mathematical codes. As Uphoff explains, a whole field of mail art is devoted to mathematical arts, including fractals and drawings created by plotting numbers on a graph. Regardless of whether or not he is pulling it off, Uphoff's mathematical surrealism purports that different systems of logic can be created to support many different realities.
To say that he's one of a kind would be fair.
Uphoff shows a certificate he received from the International Non Euclidean Society in Berlin, Germany, recognizing him as "The World's Supreme and Most Eminent Representative of Mathematical Surrealism." I couldn't verify the legitimacy of the society, much less the certificate.
Mind over matter
Mathematical surrealism is an actual study, but it's so obscure that Uphoff's place in that realm is difficult to ascertain. Uphoff himself isn't quite sure how to discern recognition for his obscure talents from a morass of other documents, such as those verifying his Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center membership.
He says that the vita he carries is only a small part of his library, the "Arjuna Library." He says that it's real, although he admits that some of it only exists in his head. He also tells me about a shed behind his mother's house where he keeps archives on himself, recordings of poetry readings from throughout Colorado Springs and calculus books he studies diligently.
Poetry lines like, "they composed interpretation / but symbols were not meanings only colors," are as engrossing as the critiques and formulas that accompany them. His work is at the fringes of these different disciplines, explained by a language he has created to link them.
In a poem titled "Sensory Overload with Blue Animals," Uphoff writes, "to make the accurate calendar / he was using to coordinate the barking dogs / and the delivery of mail." Uphoff's lines speak to his ability to categorize items in a way that most people wouldn't.
While his ability to obscure traditional boundaries makes his art compelling, it marginalizes his position in mainstream society. Luckily, Uphoff has found an audience in art lovers around the globe.
Mail art isn't just about giving artists like Joseph Uphoff a venue to show their work. It's also about giving people the opportunity to see totally different worlds. firstname.lastname@example.org
Send or request mail art
Ct. Pf. Joseph Uphoff
1025 Garner St., D, Space 18
Colorado Springs, CO 80908-1774