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For Md. Postcard Artist, Mystery's in the Mail

'Secret' Project Follows Bottled Messages

By Cameron W. Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 17, 2005; Page B03

Frank Warren runs a prosperous document-delivery service out of his tidy home in a pleasant subdivision in Germantown. Tall and thin, he wears mock turtlenecks and a closely cropped beard. He is 40, a husband, a father, the owner of a small dog.

He has all this, and yet it has not been enough. In recent years, he has worked through a mid-life crisis by becoming a part-time artist.

Frank Warren collects mail at his Germantown home, which these days has included postcard responses to his request last year for secrets. (Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

His medium is secrets -- yours and his.

Last year, he created a series of postcards made from photographs of his left hand. He affixed antique stamps to the postcards, imprinted them with enigmatic phrases and inserted each one into a bottle.

Most of the bottles found their way into Clopper Lake in Seneca Creek State Park, near Warren's home. To engineer publicity for the project, he used false names and posed as a "finder/collector" of the bottles. When a Washington Post reporter came to his door in the fall, Warren said he couldn't speak about them.

Now Warren unveils what has been hidden. He is finished with the bottles and has embarked on a new project, which he calls PostSecret. Warren asks people to send him postcards with their secrets, offering anonymity and urging creativity. He displays a selection on his PostSecret Web site. One bears a drawing of the twin towers shrouded in smoke. "Everyone who knew me before 9/11 believes I'm dead," it says. Another is written in several colors: "I hate people who remind me of myself."

Here is one of Warren's secrets: "When I was in the Fourth Grade, a new kid moved into our neighborhood. He was a charismatic leader who quickly became popular. Soon after, he convinced two of my friends to pin me to the ground and hold open my eyelids. They took turns spitting into my eyes."

Warren was born in Arizona and grew up in California and Illinois. He attended the University of California at Berkeley in the late 1980s, where he studied social sciences and made money delivering documents.

After graduating in 1990, he drove with his wife to the Washington area to start a company. They provide documents, usually copies of articles from medical journals, to lawyers and other clients.

Tedium is a problem. Warren cannot specify the number of copies he has made, but it is in the millions. "I don't have a profession where I can express my creativity," he says. A few years ago, this frustration contributed to a personal crisis. A psychiatrist suggested that Warren take Xanax, a drug that treats anxiety.

Then, in late 2002, he visited Artomatic, a show in the District that gives local artists an opportunity to exhibit or perform. Warren felt a passionate, garage-band energy in the artwork he saw. That Christmas, working in his basement office, he devised the first piece.

A sometime collector of postcards -- the simplest form of document delivery -- he uses them in every project.

In 2004, Warren moved on to the bottles, which he imagined as the communications of a "reluctant oracle." The palms on the postcards contained puzzling statements. "Your question is a misunderstood answer," was one. Another was, "We discover the answers we deserve."

Warren exhibited the bottles at Artomatic late last year and launched PostSecret. At the show, he distributed more than 2,000 postcards with his address and an invitation to send him a secret.

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