Weekly Update – Jessica Gath, Secretary to the World

Want to send a letter but don’t have the stamp? Jessica Gath wants to help you out with that. In fact, she’ll even type it for you.

Jessica Gath, The World Famous Secretary, in her “office” at Rebekah Templeton, March 5, 2011

Gath, otherwise known as the World Famous Secretary, will type a note, postcard or letter; address it; stamp it; and mail it—all at no cost to you, not even the stamp.


Perched at her Royal Deluxe typewriter, the Boston artist explains why she insists on responding to everybody’s demands. (By the way, if you want the Secretary to type a letter for you, submit a request at her website,

The World Famous Secretary at work. Note the Forever stamps

“I work for the world,” says Gath, who performed at Fishtown’s Rebekah Templeton gallery a few weeks ago. Well, she really only works for the part of the world that wants to send sweet missives—no ransom notes, hate mail or term papers for this Secretary. Once, Gath says, someone asked her to type a fictitious eviction notice. “This isn’t in the spirit of my project,” she recalls. What is the spirit of her project? “If I can make someone smile, that makes me really happy. The more love I’m putting out in the world the better.”

Gath says that at age 6 she was struck by the typing sounds and office atmosphere in the movie 9 to 5 , and even used to play a game called “The World Famous Secretary” with an imaginary boss. When her mom found out the boss’ name was Mr. Hitler, she told Gath it was time to get a new one. At that point, Gath says, she stopped playing the game. Many years later, she actually became a secretary.

Instructions on the wall and forms to fill out to have your letter processed

“I was an administrative assistant for Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation,” says Gath, who really hadn’t done any performing before this. She says she doesn’t even like to memorize lines. “It was my first job after college—for a nonprofit company I believed in. Then I realized I needed a more creative job.”

Gath doesn’t dress in a Mad Man-era suit for her performances, although the ambiance of her project — the typewriter, the wood “in” and “out” boxes — is vintage.  Like all good secretaries, she maintains control over her product. She uses vellum paper (easy to erase mistakes and no messy correction fluid) and she picks the postage stamps carefully — those Liberty Bell Forever stamps.  “I want people to get a beautiful object, but it’s not about the stamp,” she said.

Her undergrad degree, from Tufts, is in Chinese.  She’s been to China twice.  When she started graduate school, she wanted to be a painter but quickly switched to the “Studio for Interrelated Media,” i.e., the conceptual art department.  “I was having trouble with painting.  They wanted to talk about color and I wanted to talk about why,” she said.


Gath’s full time day job is producing oil portraits on commission in her painting studio ($1500-$2900, depending on size and number of people in the picture–see her website for samples).  She makes a living from her paintings and funds The Secretary project, too. But really, this secretarial labor of love will most likely go forward even if the artist needs to fundraise for the stamps.  After all, the need is enormous.

Gath’s Secretary represents a kinder, gentler side of performance art that focuses on serving the public. Two other recent local examples: Candida Pagan’s 2008 office performance at the Philadelphia Institute for Advanced Study, which registered people to vote; and Beth Heinly’s 2010 psychic reader at Old City’s Bodega gallery, in which she read cards for a long line of people. If Gath and others are channeling a little social work, that’s not a bad thing.  We all need some help, and why shouldn’t art mail a letter for you?

Read this at Philadelphia Weekly.  More pictures at flickr.

Outtakes from our conversation that didn’t make it into the article:
Why did the secretary come to Rebekah Templeton?
Sebastien Leclerc and I went to Mass Art together and I saw his show and thought the gallery was the perfect size. Also, it’s a storefront–doesn’t look like a gallery.

Did you start out as a performance artist?
I started with painting. Then switched to the studio for interrelated media…

What’s that?
It’s a long name for the conceptual art department. It started in the 80s. I was having trouble with painting. They wanted to talk about color and I wanted to talk about why.

Where did you grow up?
I’m from Connecticut, when I was small we moved to Maine.

Did you study theatre? high school drama club?
I didn’t do theatrical. I don’t like to memorize lines.

How about Improv? standup comedy?
I was on the speech team in high school. We did poetry, prose. My category was impromptu.

What does that mean?
I could do any topic picked out of a hat.

Were you the world’s best impromptu performer?
I was ok. I’d get a bronze medal. But one time I teamed with a guy who was the Best and we won gold!

Your furniture here is all wood, old fashioned.
I like having everything wood. Typewriter is “Royal” Cambridge. I got it at a shop in Arlington, MA.–it’s an amazing shop that specializes in typewriters. I go into the shop and guy says “Are you a writer or an artist? How much do you want to spend?” He showed me 4 models including a cast iron one.

Why did he want to know if you were writer or artist? Are the keys easier on typewriters for writers?
For a writer it was even harder to use! I chose Royal for price and material. Quiet Deluxe

When did you learn to type?
In high school…on an electric

Demonstrate the world famous secretarial skills for me.
I have a letter from my website. Begins to type slowly…it takes a long time for the ding (end of one line)

Is this like social work? And are you world famous?
The more love I’m putting out in the world the better. If someone wants to give me credit ….but I don’t even want to be famous. But if I were it would be good.

What does the World Famous Secretary wear when she’s typing alone at home with nobody watching? Are you like a blogger in pajamas?
I really am like what I am.

Did you grow up in a religion?
Catholic. I went to Catholic schools and had some good teachers who were nuns.