Work in Progress

Gathering And Sharing Secrets

Frank Warren found his calling in the anonymous postcards he receives every day

December 30, 2007|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,sun reporter

Frank Warren, keeper of the country's secrets, is never alone. What started three years ago as an unknown community art project, has become one of the most popular blogs and cathartic outlets for anyone anywhere who has a secret.

At his Germantown home, Warren receives about 1,000 weekly PostSecrets -- anonymous cards that fuse confessionals with artwork. Of the 200,000 secrets he has read and saved, many appear in four PostSecret books and in exhibits -- Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum will display select PostSecrets through next year. Warren still religiously posts secrets on his ad-free Web site:

"I use my husband's money as an excuse to not live up to my potential. I almost wish it wasn't there."

"I'm a total idiot but I'm pretty sure God loves me."

"The only good thing about this job is that it made me realize I want to do something meaningful."

As always, Warren posts instructions for his secret-sharers: Be brief. Be legible. Be creative. And he still lists a suicide hot line, where he volunteers.

Warren is now helping create a PostSecret project in France. (Canada has its version.) Film, cable TV, animated secrets and video secrets are project offspring. But the heart of his art remains the postcards that keep arriving at his home address, which he has never kept secret: 13345 Copper Ridge Road, Germantown, MD 20874.

It's the house with the big mailbox.

TOP SECRET THEMES --I still see a lot of secrets about longing for intimacy -- which can also be seen as frustrations with a boyfriend or girlfriend, not wanting to be alone. I receive a surprising number of postcards having to do with issues of body image and eating disorders and, I might include, self-harm.

A number of spiritually based secrets I receive are from people concerned with the afterlife or with finding a purpose in this life. People are concerned that maybe they are just going through the motions.

LAW OF DIMINISHING ARTISTIC RETURN --I think there is a risk. From the beginning, I've tried to structure the project as being more than a hot Web site. I share secrets on the Web. I share them in book form. There are the art exhibitions. I travel to college campuses and speak about the secrets. I'm exploring film and cable TV opportunities to share these stories.

Someone e-mailed me a video PostSecret. It's amazing. It was on YouTube and nearly a half-million people watched it in about three days. It's one of most moving things I've ever seen.

SECRETS' SHELF LIFE --In the same way you don't run out of poetry or songs, there's something about a secret that is inexhaustible. Just recently we had our 112 millionth visitor to the Web site. It keeps resonating with people. It's been over three years and unlike the typical hot Web site, ours certainly hasn't peaked yet.

COMMERCIAL APPEAL --A recent survey said that, among college women, PostSecret is viewed more often than eBay, Amazon or Yahoo. So, there's a huge commercial potential there that if I chose to really exploit it, I could. But I really feel there's something much more meaningful that's being created there in terms of a community.

I always saw PostSecrets as having a higher purpose. I do profit from royalties from the books and speakers' fees, but I turn down more and more offers. I recently turned down nearly $200,000 because I didn't think it was the right decision.

PRIVATE LIFE --I'm kind of haunted by secrets, but not necessarily in a bad way. Almost every hour of every day I'm reminded of a stranger's secret that will make me smile or gasp. But I see that as allowing me to have a deeper sense of empathy with people. I see this as a gift.

I've discovered a lot of things on this journey and one of them is: The longer the journey goes, the more it feels like a spiritual journey than an artistic journey.

I feel like I'm not wasting my time on the planet anymore.

BURN OUT? --I don't know if it's possible for me to ever escape all the voices that I have allowed inside. But I feel more connected since I have them there. As I read these secrets every day, I don't feel like they are depressing me. I feel less alone.

Every day when I walk to my mailbox, I still have that sense of a kid waking up early Christmas morning about to receive gifts.

rob.hiaasen@baltsun.com

To see Frank Warren's postcard secrets, go to postsecret.blogspot.com.

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