Having just finished the two signs for the new Perry building on the Champlain College Campus, I had just one more Endangered Alphabet carving on my list. I can’t tell you all the details, as it’s a surprise present for someone, but even so it’s worth talking about.
For a start, I am using an astonishing wood called Padauk, thanks to my daughter Zoe, who knows me well enough to buy me a piece, roughly 30″ by 3 1/2 inches by 1/4 inch, for my birthday. Padauk is very hard and incredibly rich in color: at heart (literally) it is blood-red, but exposure to air and sun turns it darker and darker until it looks like dried blood, and then becomes almost black. A woodworker friend said he cut into a slab of it once and it was like slicing barbecued steak: black on the outside, bloody in the middle.
Padauk turns out to be quite difficult to carve on the small scale at which I’m working. The surface is almost…um…scaly, and it’s easy to take off more than I intend.
But what I really wanted to write about was the writing, which has illuminated (pun intended, and coming up) all kinds of insights into language and the way we see and think of it.
You see, almost everything I create is in a light to mid-colored wood (maple being a favorite, cherry being anther wood I’ve used perforce) with the writing in black. I’ve loved this combination ever since I did my first Chinese piece, on a particularly light piece of maple, and the result looked like black pen-drawn ink on off-white silk–perfect for Chinese.
Black on white is, of course, pretty much the default way in which we reproduce language, and it embodies all kinds of unquestioned assumptions. It means, for example, that a letter is defined by its edges. If I make the slightest mistake along the margins of a letter, it immediately looks wrong, and I have to fix it. The letter, then, is riparian–from the Latin ripa, a river-bank or shoreline–and goes along with cognitive science research that tells us our eyes are drawn to borderlines, and even as babies in our cribs we look for the place where light and dark meet.
What makes this piece different is that, padauk being darkish-and-likely-to-get-darker, I decided to use not black paint but gold. (There’s another reason why I’m using gold, but to tell you that would give away both the endangered alphabet I’m using and the person I’m going to give it to.) And as soon as I started laying the metallic gold paint into the cut letters, something entirely new happened.
With black paint, we see all the paint; with gold paint we see only the flecks of reflective metallic gold in the paint. So straight away the lettering looks less solid but, paradoxically, brighter and more vivid. And that brightness is concentrated not at the edges of the letters but in the heart of each letter. The letters cease to be riparian; instead, they are cordic, from the Latin word cor, meaning “heart.” They glow from within.
Almost as soon as I started painting, I found the word “Nebuchadnezzar,” running through my mind, and then “Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.” I had to look it up to make sure my memory from 40 years ago wasn’t playing tricks on me, but sure enough, there it was: Nebuchadnezzar was the king who dreamed he saw letters, written by a mysterious and presumably divine hand, glowing on a wall, prophesying his downfall.
And at once it all made sense–Neb’s dream, writing as divine communication, the gold-leaf illuminations of biblical manuscripts (I told you we’d come back to that concept of illumination), the notion that in the beginning was the word. Because these remarkable letters were in many ways the opposite of what I usually paint, and the opposite of letters as we usually think of them. Instead of being defined by physical limitations, industrial processes, the paint-by-numbers restrictiveness of writing to get things right, these gold letters were defined by the spirit of whoever was speaking through them, and the spirit of what was at the heart of the message. They glow with the importance of meaning–with the meaning of meaning.
Most of my work looks best in a strong and directed light, like most artwork, like most writing.
This piece looks best in half-light, my desk lamp falling on just a few of the words and making them leap from the darkness. And again I’m reminded of how often the Word is beseeched to lighten our darkness, to give direction to the confused, inspiration to those whose own lights are burning dim.