Three Approaches to Imagery
As a visual artist, I incorporate text into paintings. But I don’t necessarily want you to read that text. I use language to explore abstraction. And I use abstraction to get closer to understanding subtle meanings behind words. In the most recent group of paintings, my study of the natural world makes a featured appearance. These paintings seek some sort of equivalence between handwritten letterforms, various species of birds, and pure gesture.
Many years ago, I came across some handwritten correspondence that changed the way I look at the world. The manuscript archives of libraries and historical societies are where I pore through linear feet of boxes of family papers, bank ledgers, business journals from the 19th century. Looking at one particular handwritten letter, I was suddenly awestruck by how a single penstroke can conjure an era so keenly. Can the shape of an alphabet convey meaning? Can we “see” words without reading them? Indeed, the shape and ornamentation of letterforms reveals things.
In the 18th century, handwriting style signalled the writer’s gender, social class, and profession, and often, even the very decade in which it was penned. In the 19th century, good penmanship demonstrated that the writer was disciplined, self-restrained, and virtuous. For me, this phenomenon of line gets to the heart of visual expression. Even though handwriting style was rigidly dictated, it’s still a form of drawing.
In all my work, I’m exploring what happens to letters in the context of composition, color and space and the materiality of paint.
A note on my technique: I digitize the text samples I come across, and burn the image of the text into a photosilkscreen. I can then print onto a stretched canvas. What is important to know about this technique is that the bits of text that appear in my paintings are exact facsimilies of historical artifacts. But I’m not necessarily interested in the content of the words, because I’m using language as imagery in my paintings.
How did I become so captivated by the shape of language? My high school was in Tangier, Morocco. The “look” of Arabic signage was perhaps my first awakening to the abstract power of line. From Tangier, I entered college in New England. I had to catch up to American history and culture, and became interested in the culture of the nearby Shaker community.
I spent a couple of years making small paintings of Shaker objects, as a meditative exercise. Each object I painted represents, for me, a culture of discipline and devotion, achieving practicality within a sublimely refined aesthetic. One day—quite by surprise—while looking more deeply into Shaker culture, there was a significant leap in my own artistic development. Gazing at a handwritten letter, the look of that 19th c. handwriting just leapt off the page. I wasn’t even reading the words.
My fascination with this phenomenon of line has propelled my work forward ever since. A closer look at the natural world is uncovering new pathways and approaches to gesture and line, color, texture, composition—the language of painting.