When a set of postcards started arriving at my house over the course of a week from Atelier Jean d’Eaux, I knew I was in for a mystery. The artist gained notice initially for sending sets of cards cut from record albums to chefs in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That set off a series of articles by a food writer in Milwaukee to suss out why the cards were sent. Now I have a set. And I set out to discern what they mean.
I’m joined in this episode by journalist and novelist, Ana Clara Padovani, who helps me unravel some of the clues that came with the set of six postcards from Atelier Jean d’Eaux. We play amateur sleuths and professional journalists. Do we answer all the questions? You can read this article, listen to a podcast, and watch a video to find out. Let’s go. Let’s play detective.
This is beyond exciting. And mystifying.
I got six Atelier Jean d’Eaux postcards. The last one arrived two days ago. Now it’s time to unwind the mystery. And it’s a big mystery that’s been going on for a year. Who is Jean d’Eaux? I want to know.
If you’ve followed the Atelier Jean d’Eaux story in postcard circles, you know getting these postcards imbued with a little edginess and a lot of intrigue. Early recipients of Atelier Jean d’Eaux cards didn’t know what to make of them. And whether they should be delighted or defensive. Lori Fredrich, Senior Writer for On Milwaukee.com, does terrific work explaining reactions to Jean d’Eaux postcards received by Milwaukee-based chefs last year. In Cool or Creepy? Mysterious Postcards Delivered to Local Restaurants, she writes:
The postcards, most of which were mailed out over the past couple of months, had a great deal in common. Each set of six postcards was cut from an album cover (or the backside of an album). All were hand-written…. Most were addressed to the chef at the restaurant….
… All feature the German word “verschmelzung” which means “amalgamation” or “fuse together,” a likely reference to the nature of the postcards which, when put together in the proper order, form the image of the album cover. I’m inclined to believe that this means that both the messages and album are somehow connected.Lori Fredrich, Cool or Creepy? Mysterious Postcards Delivered to Local Restaurants
I’m no chef, but I got mystery postcards, too. All the cards had the title Verschmelzung no. 4 (basically, series number 4) and then what appears a sequence indicator: 43-48/60. The postcards were postmarked in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, starting with the first one on March 8 to and going to March 15. Each of the cards contains the origin phrase, Atelier Jean d’Eaux (phonetically: John Doe).
The Verschmelzung — fusion — makes sense when the six pieces are assembled. As you can see in the photo below, the six pieces are cut from an album called The New Sound of Folk-Dixie. Is there anything to be said of the songs? Maybe La Cucaracha, the Mexican folk song? And is that a reference to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis?
The image side of the assembled cards
So, it’s time to extend our research. As you can hear in the show, Ana and I first examined the cards as a set. Here’s a composite of the message side of the cards.
The message side of the six cards from Atelier Jean d’Eaux
Card 1: Space
Card 1/6 came with a yellow USPS sticker on it that I’m afraid to peel off. It appears this card was forwarded. I don’t know if the ZIP code wasn’t right, but it looks like USPS had to have a person determine where this card should go. (Thank you, diligent postal worker!) The card has a Star Wars Droid Series stamp that’s rotated 90º to the right, so the stamp is horizontal. There’s also a 1962 Czechoslovakian stamp called Man Conquering Space clear taped to the card in the middle-left position. The stamp was cancelled, but I can’t discern where or when. Ana points out the space theme here. Is that the link?
Card 2: 1973 and Badminton
Card 2/6 has a small label with the year 1973. Or is is a year? Is it just a number? The postage stamp is of a badminton shuttlecock from the USPS Backyard Games series. In the podcast, you can hear Ana talk about her research that led to a song from called The Mauritian Badminton Doubles Champion, 1973. There’s the link. And here’s a sampling a lyrics from that song:
The artist used a ball-point pen to write these cards. I also examined these cards under UV and black light to see if there were any hidden messages. There weren’t I also did a rubbing of a couple cards using thin paper and a light pencil to see if there were any impressions written into the material. There weren’t.
Card 3: Pink Rose
Card 3/6 features a single pink hybrid tea rose in a tight bud. And I thought about what Gertrude Stein said: Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. In effect, so did the artist from Atelier Jean d’Eaux. (We don’t know the artist’s gender, do we?) Stein’s phrase means oftentimes things are as they seem. I want to analyze this one more. But should I go with Occam’s Razor and say rose is a rose is a rose is a rose?
Again, or is it? The postage stamp is from the USPS Tap Dance series by the Broadway photographer Matthew Murphy. The stamp is a photograph of Michela Marino Lerman. Wanna see her tap dance? Wanna see me tap dance and wonder if rose is a rose is a rose is a rose? I want to look underneath this image.
Card 4: Harvest Celebration
I’m laughing at myself as I look at Card 4/6. I misread the cutout letters, and even went so far as to look up “Harve Street.” Um, it says HARVEST, as in Harvest Moon by Neil Young. Or tomato harvest. Or harvest celebration, as Ana points out. The postage stamp is called Let’s Celebrate; it was released on February, 14, 2020. Valentine’s Day.
The artist uses three typefaces on the word HARVEST. The red capital H in Times New Roman. The reversed ARVE in Helvetica. And the St in a variation on the German typeface Fraktur. Unlike any of the other cards in the set, this card has a piece of clear tape along the lower edge in the front. In the image below you can see the bit of tape near my ZIP code. Also, you’ll hear us talk about wondering if there’s anything under the rose. I haven’t yet used an X-ACTO knife to slit along one edge and peer inside. But I think I’m gonna. I’ll let you know.
Card 5: Volkswagen
Onto Card 5/6. This one has the word Volkswagen along with four black bars. Also, the artist drew two parallel lines in Quadrant II, which seems to frame the word and…tire tread? This card has a Happy Birthday stamp. Linn’s Stamp News writer Michael Baadke describes the stamp this way:
The letters represent a red and green pinata (H), an orange and yellow striped birthday hat (A), a red piece of frosted cake (P), a green birthday candle (P) and an orange balloon sculpture (Y). “BIRTHDAY” is printed in smaller simple letters below.Linn Stamp News, U.S. Happy Birthday stamp will be the first at new rate
I will say, this postcard has me the most perplexed. My first car was a Volkswagen Beetle. I have a dream about driving a VW Microbus all over the world on the Peace, Love & Postcards Tour. But what else am I missing?
You’ll hear in the podcast and see on the video that Ana had more in-depth analysis on this one. She points out the word Happy pairs well with the 1990 Volkswagen ad called Fahrvergnügen. That German word, loosely translated, means “the happiness of driving.” And Ana asks if the four parallel lines, that I initially thought were tire tracks, might be a deconstructed VW. Hmmmmm.
Card 6: George Washington and the Eye of Providence
And now we’re to Card 6/6. The last in the series from the mystery artist at Atelier Jean d’Eaux. It came with an American flag stamp. And then….hmmm. We have a George Washington one-cent stamp. Which leads to the pyramid and Eye of Providence that’s from the back of the U.S. one-dollar bill. And that leads to George Washington’s face from the front of the U.S. one-dollar bill. (The pyramid and Geo. Washington’s eye seem to be cut from an actual dollar bill.) Wiki describes more about the phrasing around the seal:
At the top of the seal stands a Latin phrase, ANNUIT COEPTIS, meaning “He favors our undertaking.” At the bottom of the seal is a semicircular banner proclaiming NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM meaning “New Order of the Ages” that is a reference to the new American era.Wikipedia
This one seems all about America. Or, is it more? This is where crowd-sourcing comes in. Leave a comment if you have more thoughts about this one — or any of the cards.
What do you think it all means?
So…where does this lead us? What happens when we stand back and look at the piece as a collective? We’re still looking.
Speaking of looking — if you’d like to watch what Ana and I were talking about, we recorded a video that I published on The Postcardist YouTube channel.
Hope to hear more from the artist behind Atelier Jean d’Eaux
Finally, a note to the artist at Atelier Jean d’Eaux. Thank you for this set of cards. And the intrigue. On the podcast, I ask you if we got some of this right. And what we missed. I’d love to hear from you again. But even if I don’t, I hope you’re out there and see this. And know that you added some joy and mystery to a fan of Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys and Scooby-Doo.