Does anyone write old-fashioned letters anymore? In front of the Howard Center at 300 Flynn Avenue in Burlington, a collection of 13 decorated mailboxes pays tribute to the history of the United States Postal Service and to the human bonds forged over centuries by handwritten communication.

The outdoor installation, titled Connections, opened to the public on Sept. 10 during Burlington’s South End Art Hop, an annual three-day festival, with members of the Howard Center Arts Collective uncovering their veiled works one by one before a crowd.

It was one of two major fall events for the arts program. Call and Response is an exhibition hosted by the Fleming Museum.

The Arts Collective describes itself as “an alternative arts program for people who have lived experience with mental health and/ or substance use challenges” and includes Howard Center clients, staffers, and unaffiliated community members.

“Our mission is really to create opportunities to make art together, to share our art with one another and learn from one another – and then also to exhibit our work to the community,” Arts Collective Coordinator Kara Greenblott said.

Connections casts a skeptical eye upon the dominance of email, Facebook, and Twitter today. An introductory statement by artist Sarah Robinson, read aloud at the opening, criticized the “fractured” thought processes of the internet era and the “reduced services” and slowed delivery times at USPS.

According to Eryn Sheehan, the group’s studio manager, the project that would become Connections began in 2020, when the Arts Collective started to solicit donations of old mailboxes. “We posted on Front Porch Forum and different places around town. And then we’ve been painting them and working on this exact project since spring,” she recounted.

Each mailbox sits on a six-foot post, sunk into concrete. Sheehan expects the installation to withstand Vermont’s winter weather and to last for one and a half to two years in the Howard’s meditation garden.

The painted mailboxes display both abstract and figurative designs. Sheehan, who joined the Arts Collective four and a half years ago as a Howard Center client, pointed to the “little musical symbols” on her mailbox, noting that she had drawn inspiration from what she called “the music of the spheres” – the sounds that she can hear “coming from trees and different celestial bodies.”

A newer member, Vesna Dye, joined the collective after hearing about Connections at Pathways Vermont. “I’m not much of an artist, but I said I’ll do it because I love the post office, and I’m writing hundreds of letters everywhere in the world,” she explained.

Dye borrowed her mailbox design from a “thinking of you” card that she received shortly after signing up for the project. Raised in Croatia, Dye lived in Canada and California before moving to Vermont and, by her account, relies on letters, cards, and packages to stay close to family members and friends.

“I only write short emails,” Dye related. “The letters are, I think, much more personal. They’re much more creative – you can say more. I have this nice paper that I like to get, and then a nice card, and I’m hoping people are saving this.”

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