Secret Admirer

Those embarrassing things you can't tell even your best friend? Trust them to Frank Warren -- and the millions who click on his Web site.

June 23, 2005|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

My name is Frank, and I collect secrets."

How could you not hear him out?

Frank Warren, secret postcard man of Germantown, was doing his art thing at The Book Thing in Baltimore, a clearinghouse of donated books up for public grabs. Warren has roamed here before, passing out postcards and tucking other blank cards into used books.

You are invited to anonymously contribute a secret to a group art project. Your secret can be a regret, fear, betrayal, desire, confession or childhood humiliation, say Warren's postcards. Be Brief. Be legible. Be Creative.

"You're the secrets guy! That's so cool," says Lorelei Brown, a Web designer from Washington. "The images are so beautiful and nice." She has obviously seen Warren's Web site with its weekly offering of 4-by-6-inch postcards that are virtual works of confessional art. She does not offer her own secret here because, duh, it wouldn't be a secret. She does take a blank postcard.

By day, Warren runs a medical document delivery company - an occupation that probably would lead any 41-year-old man to troll free-for-all bookstores for something, anything, creative to do. In November, he began distributing the first of 3,000 blank cards at bookstores, theaters, restaurants and Metro stops and trains in Maryland, Washington and Virginia. More than 2,000 secrets (and not one revealed Deep Throat) have since arrived at Warren's home in Germantown. He doesn't use a post office box or e-mail - too impersonal. Score one for snail mail.

"I have learned we have two kinds of secrets," he says. "The ones we keep from ourselves, and the ones we keep from others."

His art project, PostSecret, is the last in his trilogy of postcard projects. In 2002, he exhibited three postcards at a Georgetown art gallery; he had re-created the postcards and their messages from a dream he had in Paris. Last year, he masterminded the mysterious bottle project outside Washington. He created postcards from photographs of his left hand, imprinted with sayings such as "Your question is a misunderstood answer." The bottled messages appeared weekly in Clopper Lake near Warren's home.

After a year of anonymous bottle making, Warren moved on to another medium. And, again, he chose a smaller, more personal document: a postcard.

He receives about 20 cards a day, mostly from females ages 6 to 67. He requires no return address, just proper postage. As "mediator," he knows what he likes (the uncommon, the creative) and what he doesn't (please, not another "I pick my nose" confession). A confession's credibility can't be proven since he avoids contact with the authors; art rarely fact checks. But, as he tells everyone, the main requirement is that the confessions be true.

"Do I believe that all 2,000 secrets that I have received are true? No. In fact, there are a few that I pray are fiction," he says.

Each Sunday he posts a representative batch of secrets at www.postsecret.com. The entries are often funny, familiar, creepy and creative salvos. It's hard not to scroll through them and not secretly craft your own confession. Would it be creative or daring enough? Would it be suitable for framing? It's also hard not to recognize something of yourself in others.

From Warren's online gallery:

I cried for Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode III. ... But not for the tsunami victims.

I used to be pretty.

I am ashamed to have felt such joy after my abortion.

I miss feeling close to God.

There was no deer. I was just driving too fast.

I say I don't like the food but really I hate Hooters because I'm gay.

Sometimes I think my fiance isn't the one.

I lied: I want her to save me.

I deleted the Pope's funeral unwatched off my TiVo to make room for an episode of Survivor.

I think my actor roommate is ugly and untalented.

My parents are related.

(OK, maybe that last one is not so recognizable.)

There are other online confessional Web sites, but PostSecret uniquely marries image and self-image. Each postcard is intended to be a canvas for these "graphic haikus," as Warren calls them. The most beautiful illustrations submitted by the secret tellers frequently accompany the most painful confessions; the secret and the art forming an appealing, uncomfortable tandem. Cheery settings often offset (or complement?) troubling messages. One postcard has a soothing purple background and features a ripe daisy: I am homeless and no one (not even my family) knows about it.

Through them all, Warren can relate. "I feel I have something in common with the people who tell me their secrets," he says.

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