The post office seems like an odd place for an epiphany. But artist Franck de Las Mercedes found his life upended after one routine trip. A postal worker noticed the abstract designs de Las Mercedes had painted on the outside of boxes used to ship other artwork. The employee pointed them out and said, "You know, these boxes are works of art."
De Las Mercedes says he returned to his studio that day struck by "the power of art to interrupt the daily grind." Right there in the post office, amid postal scales and dingy counters, the bright colors on the boxes had captured someone's attention.
The wheels began to turn in his mind. What could he make of this unexpected gift of an idea? "We expect something of value to come in a box," like a shirt or a book, he says. "But what if the box were 'empty' of everything except a message? A message that has no price, such as 'Peace,' 'Love,' or 'Hope'?"
That was the seed of de Las Mercedes's "Priority Boxes" initiative. The Nicaraguan-born, New Jersey-based artist would offer to mail a small box with an abstract design on the outside to anyone, anywhere in world for free. Pasted under the address would be a label that read: Fragile. Handle with Care. Contains Peace. He hoped these labels would encourage conversations about such intangibles as peace or freedom.
The initiative, started in 2006, has become almost a full-time operation for the artist and his wife. To date, they have mailed more than 9,000 boxes to people around the world. He asks recipients to send him e-mails with photos of themselves and the boxes. He relies on donated art supplies and contributions to keep the project going.
The idea has spread to schools and churches that are now making their own Priority Boxes using de Las Mercedes' guidelines. "Kids are not apathetic, they're not just Xbox addicted, they want the world to change," he says. "When they make these boxes, they begin to see they have agency in creating that change."
De Las Mercedes knows that some in the art world might dismiss the Priority Boxes as "corny." "Artists want to keep their edge," he says, "But the project has opened doors in my own work. What started as an experiment has become a mission."