Detroit artist Kristle Marshall sends handheld joy...

Detroit artist Kristle Marshall sends handheld joy around the U.S. via snail mail

This mail is not a bill.

Do you remember when checking the mailbox sent a rush of excitement? 

There’s a time in most of our lives, pre-adulthood, when the only things bearing our names at the mailbox are sealed with a kiss or a smile. They’re 50-cent paperbacks our aunties bought at library thrift sales or updates from a pen pal—someone you’d likely never meet, but who read a few sentences about you in a packet at school and decided to send you a #10 envelope packed with delight.

These days, pen pals are a relic. But Kristle Marshall has revived the art of sending mail for the sole purpose of delivering joy.

The multimedia artist, born and bred in Detroit, created This Is Not a Bill in April 2020, a project where she sends customized illustrations depicting joy to strangers. Marshall sees the project as a prompt generator to sharpen her creativity, but more than anything, it’s a gratitude practice. Rather than center on what’s happening in her life, it forces her to focus on what to be grateful for out in the world, connecting her to people in a deeper way. 

This Is Not a Bill is a regenerative gratitude and joy service that Marshall shares with the world. Here’s how it works:

People visit this website. They fill out a form with their address and a brief response to the prompt “Tell me something GOOD!” and hit submit. A couple of weeks later, joy they can open, hold and hang on the wall reaches their mailbox, in the form of a hand-illustrated postcard from Marshall. 

There’s no cost to request or receive this mail; Marshall is funding the project completely from her own pockets. People interested in supporting her efforts can help replenish the art supplies she uses for the postcards. That supply list is here.

Importantly, no joy is too small to share. “There are so many ways to be happy,” Marshall said. 

It’s not just birth announcements, marriage engagements or new jobs that are worthy of celebration. Finding the perfect breakfast combo, taking a walk, witnessing a toddler see butterflies for the first time or even finding exactly what you need at the grocery store matters. One of her favorites was the submission, “Hey, my chicken started laying eggs!”

The opportunity to enrich human connection is just one part of what fuels Marshall’s overall work as an artist. 

There’s a binary code that she feels ran through the background of much of her life growing up that didn’t always encourage a communal view. It was very centered on individuals “living right” and being right, i.e.: outgoing, straight, cisgender, churched and constantly achieving, she said. It’s messaging that Marshall says places a lot of pressure on people as they work to become fully realized. 

“The older I get,” she said, “I’m just like, there’s only so much you can do, by yourself, for yourself. You have to let people in and you have to make yourself available to others. Yeah, you have to have boundaries, but the biggest problems in our world need collective action to even give us a hope of solving them.”

Marshall continued, “The level of overwhelm I feel when I listen to 15 minutes of news is a testament to the fact that I don’t want to face that alone. And, I don’t think any of us does. We need each other to survive.” 

For nearly two years, the project has served as a way for Marshall to use her craft as an illustrator to integrate her artistic voice into an ever-streaming fount of joy from the world. Besides This Is Not a Bill, her artistic practice includes photography, graphic design and book cover illustrations, with a distinctive lettering style that has become popular enough to sustain her freelance career. 

One idea she’s been ruminating for much of the pandemic is from the poet Marilyn Nelson. Nelson asserts that poetry is an invitation to communal pondering. That idea has helped shape both Marshall’s artistic evolution and This Is Not a Bill. 

“That [idea] was so brilliant: art can set the stage for communal pondering,” Marshall said. “So what I like to do is set the stage for us to ponder on, not just life’s problems, but its joys, the world’s beauty and the solutions that we can come up with in a way that sees as many people as possible.

“I just want to invite more beauty into my life and I want people to engage with more beauty in their lives and in the lives of others—and let us rejoice together,” she said.

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter with a heart for people and their stories. A WDET Storymakers Fellow, she also writes for nonprofits and individuals through her small business Keen Composition.