STORY BY DANA HUCH, PHOTOS COURTESTY JIA HIREMATH
Jia Hiremath once sent a letter so heavy that it took six stamps — even though it only needed to travel a few streets away. The envelope, with calligraphy of the recipient’s name adorning the address line, contained a personal letter along with stickers, washi tape and other cute bits of stationery for her pen pal to use in their own creations. Apparently, the Palo Alto High School sophomore regularly sends stuffed envelopes like this to her 18 penpals.
“I go through more stamps than the average person,” Hiremath said. “I don’t know why.”
The stationary and decoration are part of the fun, but Hiremath said she finds the exchanges most rewarding for the genuine connections that come from taking time to write vulnerably. The art of letter writing has made a resurgence among Hiremath and her pen-palling peers with a new, less utilitarian take — using elaborate mail art as a way to make friends.
“It’s something that you make and then send out and never see it again,” Hiremath said. “You want your pen pal to have a nice letter from you. I think it inspires you to write well and decorate it in different ways and find your style.”
Hiremath’s visual style shows through in her creative layering of unconventional materials including doilies, translucent stickers, washi tapes and even rough-edged pages torn from books.
Hiremath said that for contemporary letter writers, the physical medium offers something no other modern communication technology does: the opportunity to connect through artistic keepsakes.
“When you receive a letter, that’s the only letter you’re going to get that looks like that and you can have that for however long you can keep it — hopefully forever,” Hiremath said.
Her interest in letter writing was first sparked when she “fell down the YouTube rabbit hole” of artists using mail as a creative medium. But it wasn’t until Hiremath was in Arizona away from her best friend for a few weeks that she decided to explore this interest. The friends communicated by letter because it felt like the most personal way to stay in touch, Hiremath said.
“It’s a really cool way to expand your relationship with someone or make genuine relationships if you’re open,” Hiremath said.
Once Hiremath discovered her passion, she sought to find more pen pals through Instagram, which is how she has gotten in touch with most of her correspondents. Since August, Hiremath has been writing to the same 18 people. She said that her current pen pal pool size strikes the right balance of being personal and broad. Hiremath said she has been surprised at the depth and authenticity of pen pal connections she has made through Instagram.
“I think everyone has been really nice because [with] letter writing, it’s really easy to express our feelings and be vulnerable,” she said. “I’ve only had good interactions and met kind people.”
Hiremath said she often finds pen pals easier to confide in than friends with whom she goes to school or shares social circles in person because she knows her letter will remain between the two of them. Her secrets are most certainly safe 6,000 miles away with her most distant correspondent, who lives in Hungary.
Hiremath has met many different types of people through her fascination with letters, and she said much of the magic comes from seeing her different pen pals’ personalities shine through visually. Down to the handwriting, everything knits together to create the quality of “realness” in a letter that allows deep bonds to form in the exchange of just a few pages.
“It’s kind of developed into something new,” Hiremath said. “With the rise of technology … letter writing has been turned into more of an art form than before and I think that’s really cool.”