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.
The Arizona native and University of California at Berkeley graduate (at times homeless, he worked his way through college the hard way, taking eight years to do it), Warren himself harbored a painful childhood secret he never shared with anyone. He finally wrote his secret on an anonymous postcard and displayed it last November at Artomatic, an art show in Washington. He felt a sense of relief, of deliverance. He also felt a higher artistic calling than floating bottles in Clopper Lake. He still keeps his secret, "which keeps the rules for the project consistent."
It's no secret that people have secrets in common. Eating disorders are commonly revealed. Suicide re-emerges as a postcard theme, too. A creative canvas doesn't change the fact some people are in real pain and might pose a real threat to themselves.
So, Warren posts a national suicide hot line number on his Web site. A band called The All-American Rejects will premiere a video on MTV next month that will feature 60 images from Warren's project. Rather than accept $1,000 for use of his copyrighted postcards, Warren asked the band to donate $2,000 to the suicide hot line.
Warren, a husband and father of a 10-year-old daughter, is protective of the secrets. Hauling two lock boxes full of postcards, Warren recently went to New York to meet the publisher of his coming PostSecret book. He was treated to a visit at the Museum of Modern Art, where he declined to check his postcards at the door. He wasn't going to let them out of his sight.
He would like to see his postcards up at Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum.
PostSecret shows no sign of running its course. City Paper in Washington carries a weekly PostSecret. A theater project in Australia will be based on the postcards. There's talk of organizing PostSecret parties, where people could meet and reveal themselves as postcard authors. And the Web site has attracted international attention - and 3 million hits.
But the site's popularity is, in a way, beside the point. "I don't like to think of this as a hot Internet site," he says. "This is about building a nonjudgmental, trusting community - even if it's just virtual."
Many of the postcards read like opening lines to poems or novels. Many, because they are brief by design, invite readers to finish the stories in their heads:
I wished on a dandelion for my husband to die.
He's been in prison for two years because of what I did. 9 more to go.
I thrived on the attention I got when my brother was dying.
I waste office supplies because I hate my boss.
I tell people I was in the Gulf War when in fact, I have never served in the military.
I used to get high and watch Lawrence Welk.
I think women who don't wear makeup ... are lazy.
After an hour at The Book Thing, Warren finishes his mission. One day, blank postcards will be going home in some of these used books. Outside in the parking lot, a woman sits with a book and her belongings - clothes, food, pills. She says she goes to church a lot, but didn't go today.
Frank Warren introduces himself to Rochelle Snead.
"My name is Frank. I collect secrets."
He explains, gently, his art project and the postcard requirements. He does not take up too much of her time. Snead nods and accepts a blank card. She might mail him a secret.
"I believe I will."