Making Space for Creativity
Most Senate staffers, whose jobs often are filled with frantic deadlines and demanding bosses, must at some point look with envy at the seemingly serene existence of the typical Senate postal employee.
The Senate post offices rarely are busy, the employees look decidedly relaxed, the job descriptions are specific, and work schedules are regimented.
It’s just the kind of sensible job that might leave someone with enough energy to do something productive after working hours. Like make art.
“I see some of these staffers, working at all hours and answering phones all day, and I just feel sorry for them,” said Jim Duckworth, a longtime mail deliverer and part-time artist.
Duckworth is one of three postal employees in the Dirksen Senate Office Building’s basement mailroom who moonlights as a contemporary artist. Duckworth, Tom Kenyon and Alan Stone all hold degrees from the Corcoran College of Art & Design, and crushing the stereotype of government workers, they all have used their amenable work schedule to make room for producing creative pieces of art on the side.
[IMGCAP(1)]“It’s a great day job for an artist,” said Stone, the Senate’s superintendent of mail.
Stone joined the post office in 1972, having earned a patronage position from then-Sen. Bennett Johnston (D-La.). The Louisiana State University graduate landed in Washington after working for then-presidential
candidate Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.). The son of an artist, Stone enrolled in the Corcoran’s studio program, studying ceramics and sculpture and working shifts with the post office while earning his degree.
Duckworth and Kenyon have similar stories. Kenyon moved to Washington from New Mexico in 1976. The culture shock of the transition from a quiet life in Albuquerque to fast-paced and competitive Capitol Hill pushed him to find comfort in creativity. “I needed to find something to keep me here, and the Corcoran did it for me,” he said.
Though he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Corcoran, Kenyon said he never expected to make a career as an artist. “You kind of buy into the idea that it’s not about money anyway,” he said, reflecting on the art world from his envelope-flooded office. “I decided to get married and pursue other things.”
Duckworth, who earned a certificate from the Corcoran, enrolled in the art school because “at the time, the teachers were at the top of their field, and I wanted to rub elbows with real artists.” He studied under abstract painter Gene Davis and multimedia artist William Christenberry.
The longtime Washington residents developed their crafts at a time when the city’s art scene was “more edgy,” Stone said. The nonprofit Washington Project for the Arts was a burgeoning group in the 1970s, composed of visual, literary and performing artists. Stone, Duckworth and Kenyon worked out of the organization’s warehouse at Seventh and D streets Northwest, developing their own pieces and hosting shows. Stone said the WPA anchored a vibrant arts community in Washington not seen since.
“Washington’s arts scene stays the same in a way because Washington is Washington,” said Stone, who lives in Dupont Circle with his wife, a documentary filmmaker. “Washington is about power, and art is not about power.”
Stone was chairman of the WPA in 1989 when the group made the controversial decision to host an exhibit of homoerotic photographs by artist Robert Mapplethorpe. The Corcoran was scheduled to show the exhibit but canceled it after several conservative Members of Congress spoke out against it. Stone said Washington’s museums have been reticent to makes waves with daring exhibits ever since.
Stone, Kenyon and Duckworth say their day jobs have enabled them to pursue their talents in art while still earning a steady paycheck.
“Art is about time and money, and this job gives you both,” said Duckworth, who with a mere 29 years at the Senate post office is the novice of the three. “This job is not intrusive on your life. You do your work, and then you go home and can focus on other things.”
Stone and Duckworth knew each other as artists and Corcoran graduates in the late 1970s, and Stone encouraged Duckworth to apply for the job at the post office. The three have worked together for nearly 30 years.
Senate Postmaster Joe Collins said the three Corcoran graduates don’t bring up their artistic endeavors very often.
“They’re all talkers if you want to talk to them, but they’re all very humble about their art,” he said.
Tim Locke, a lobbyist with the Smith-Free Group who worked in the Senate post office in the 1980s, said his former co-workers made the mailroom more interesting.
“I never knew people with such passion,” Locke said. “Hearing about all the classes and work that goes into translating what was in their head to a tangible object was an enlightening experience for me.”
Duckworth, straight-faced and focused, does the Capitol mail run every morning and afternoon. His working space is one of the most ornate and historical buildings in the city, and though Duckworth’s taste is more contemporary, he says it’s a treat to move in such surroundings.
“We’ve also lived a lot of history,” Duckworth points out, recalling the late-night legislative debates, diplomatic visits and inaugurations he’s witnessed. Duckworth remembers being just steps away from a mad gunman who shot and killed two Capitol Police officers in 1998 and Kenyon’s mailroom office was contaminated during the 2001 anthrax scare.
Duckworth, Kenyon and Stone all have displayed their artwork in or around Washington. Stone contributed a video interpretation on the future of flight as part of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s 2005 exhibition honoring the Wright brothers. He’s currently working on a project from his studio on the Western Shore.
In a nod to his day job, Kenyon showed a collection of decorated postage stamps at an art gallery in Baltimore several years ago, and more recently has taken to keeping a sketch journal. Duckworth has sold a handful of his “street medals,” medallions made from everyday materials like bottle caps and coins. The medals, he said, look similar to the pieces worn by the military officers he sees on his mail run.
“The Capitol is like a little town,” Duckworth said. “It’s fun to see it, and it’s fun to work some art around it.”
Correction: Feb. 14, 2008
Tom Kenyon’s name was originally misspelled in the article.