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Photo of envelope by Miorti (CC BY-SA 4.0)

When I was 25 years old, I finally decided to stop trying to kill myself. 

I had already been in prison for several years at that point, chipping away at my 100-years-to-life sentence. It was, perhaps, the darkest time in my life. I had just landed back in a regular prison cell after bouncing around among various suicide cells, prison mental health wards and other places that I shudder to remember even now, a decade later. 

If I were going to live, there ought to be some purpose for it, I reasoned with myself. I knew I had plenty of reasons to die — hollow, selfish and self-serving as they were — but I’d never considered any points to the contrary. 

It was tricky. I didn’t even know who I was, apart from being a barely sober ex-drug addict who had shot two people for absolutely no reason at all. Living a life and doing things for no purpose had never served me well, so I decided I should get a sense of who I was before I committed myself to any course of action.

I started with my most basic interests: reading and writing. I didn’t yet have anything to say, but I read anything I could get my hands on. 

I read everything from fiction and true crime to science fiction, newspapers, legal work, cheesy romance novels and hardcore anarchist magazines. Somewhere — I believe it was in a mail art magazine called Node Pajomo — I saw an ad for the Museum of Mail Art. The address was in Ukraine. 

Mail art originated as part of an artistic movement in the 1960s, centering around the circulation of small-scale art through the postal service. It was a form of art that diverged from the commercial art market, museums and galleries. Artists from all over the world would send their work to recipients. The craft continues even to this very day.

I answered the Museum of Mail Art’s call with some terrible poetry and some collages I cobbled together from hacked up issues of Maximum Rocknroll and other used magazines. I used anything that could be used as glue, including soap, tape and toothpaste. 

Several months later, my life changed. I got a big, fat envelope from a man named Lubomyr Tymkiv, curator of the Museum of Mail Art. He had enclosed several half-completed pieces of art which he asked me to complete and return or share with others. 

He also enclosed some random bits of Ukrainian ephemera — book receipts, magazine clippings, stickers, calendar pages, doodles, trading cards and so on. The envelope was covered in canceled Ukrainian stamps and postmarks in Cyrillic. I was enthralled. 

Lubomyr also sent me a note encouraging me to continue contributing to the Mail Art network. I learned that this was a global, interconnected web of artists, woodcarvers, painters, stampmakers, zine writers, sculptors, bookbinders and so on. Using the addresses he provided me, I sent art and mail to everyone. 

Over the months and years that followed, I made new friends in countries all over the world: Germany, France, Canada, Argentina, Spain, Australia, Lithuania, Denmark, South Africa, the Netherlands, Italy, Russia, Taiwan and even Iran. 

I asked questions, learned about other countries, built lasting friendships and embarked upon a campaign to acquire at least a working understanding of other languages. Because of my mail art contacts, I am now reasonably proficient in German as well as French, Dutch, Afrikaans, Russian, Danish and Polish. 

Lubomyr and I continued to correspond at the pace of the postal service and the prison system — a letter every few months or so, jam-packed with art. The ironic thing is that Lubomyr does not speak English, and I don’t speak Ukrainian but over our 10 years of friendship, we’ve found ways to communicate, mostly through his judicious use of Google translate. I also pick up my Russian dictionary from time to time and manage to write in Russian, which he can read.

Our primary vehicle for communication, however, was art. 

I learned and am continuing to learn how to express myself via art by being open and honest. Lubomyr gave me a deeper understanding of the wider world, including when he was recalled to military service when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014.

I’ve made lifelong friends, explored my other interests and finally got over myself and wrote seven novels and counting. He also personally introduced me to the woman who would become my wife. 

Now we are weathering a global pandemic and at a time many people inside of prison and art are feeling more isolated than ever, I feel as if I’m at the center of a great confluence of empathetic hearts and deep-thinking minds. 

Mail Art allowed me to move beyond my past and find enough self-worth to embark upon a journey of healing. Engaging in the self-help programs available to me; finishing college, even planning for my parole as laws shifted to give me a glimmer of hope for freedom — these are just a few of the many gifts I found when I sent a letter to Ukraine, and someone saw me. 

Lubomyr gave me a path to regain my humanity, and I’ll be forever grateful for that first letter, which became an impetus of change and forward movement in my life.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Cameron Terhune is a writer incarcerated in California.