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  • [applause]

  • - As a visual artist, I incorporate text into painting,

  • 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.

  • So I'm gonna talk about how language can function in the context of painting.

  • The manuscript archives of historical societies and libraries

  • are where I pore through linear feet of boxes of family papers,

  • business journals, bank ledgers, from the 19th century.

  • Why do I do this?

  • Because one day, many years ago,

  • I came across some handwritten correspondence

  • that changed the way I look at the world.

  • Looking at that 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?

  • The texture itself, of written language, divulges something of the author.

  • In this example, I see confidence, determination,

  • a fidgety boredom,

  • a desire to plant one's self firmly in the world.

  • Indeed, the shape and ornamentation of letter forms reveals things.

  • In the 18th century, handwriting style signaled

  • the writer's gender, social class, and profession,

  • and oftentimes, 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 this letter from 1881,

  • the handwriting style of the time called Spencerian Script,

  • is evident at glance.

  • The steel-nibbed pen makes a distinctive 19th century mark

  • with its rhythmic deposits of excess ink punctuating the space.

  • But I see more than that.

  • What if we were to look at this in reverse, so that we can't read it?

  • In the slowly and carefully drawn strokes, there is earnestness, and sincerity,

  • and a youthful schoolboy's desire to please.

  • The Victorian Era placed great emphasis on conformity

  • in all modes of social conduct, and penmanship was no exception.

  • Business schools flourished where students flocked to learn

  • how to create the correct stroke.

  • Now, I need to explain that I'm not necessarily interested in calligraphy.

  • Calligraphy is a highly-refined, ornate script practiced by masters of the form,

  • and used for display.

  • The everyday penmanship of ordinary 19th century Americans

  • is so much more expressive.

  • Practice workbooks reveal a diligent striving to conform to the established rules,

  • but short of achieving perfection, there is a tender awkwardness in the attempt.

  • This is an 1870's field journal entry by Lieutenant James Bradley.

  • The very texture of the marks on the page communicates thoughtfulness,

  • patient observation, dedication to duty,

  • and a desire to get the facts straight.

  • This is a detail from a large painting of mine.

  • In my work, I appropriate text from various 19th century sources.

  • Of Slaters and Tilers Work refers to roofing laborers

  • and appears in an 1843 arithmetic workbook in my collection.

  • The page it's on explains the calculations a roofer would need to know,

  • but I want to let the text speak through the language of painting.

  • In my painting language, I've placed the words in a repetitive grid,

  • like shingles, in an atmosphere suggesting wet weather.

  • In all my work, I'm exploring what happens to words

  • in the context of composition, color, space,

  • and the materiality of paint.

  • There's more to see on a page of handwritten script than just words.

  • The spaces between the words hold messages too.

  • Let's go back to those archives from the Montana Historical Society.

  • This, to me, is the image of immediacy.

  • With that ink splot,

  • you experience the very instant of 18 minutes past five o'clock

  • on February 24, 1882.

  • The shift from one era to the next in the history of the west

  • is indicated by a mere crossing out of a word.

  • Can text create landscapes? Even landscapes of time?

  • The lines in this small painting of mine consist entirely

  • of facsimiles, of signatures

  • from the generation of our great-great-grandparents.

  • Layering the signatures horizontally, with some receding,

  • and some floating to the surface, suggests horizon lines,

  • and atmospheric perspective.

  • Smear a signature in a painting, and that can imply rejection,

  • a change of heart, a search for someone else,

  • or a person who is disintegrating or forgotten.

  • A note on my technique,

  • I digitize the text samples I come across,

  • and burn the imagery into a photo silk screen.

  • In this way, I can print across a stretched canvas.

  • What's important to know about this technique,

  • is that the bits of text that appear in my paintings,

  • are exact facsimiles of historical artifacts,

  • But I'm not necessarily interested in the content of the words

  • because I'm using language as imagery.

  • The imagery in this painting, which measures six feet across,

  • comes from 19th century books that were scribbled into.

  • There is a language unto itself of off-hand marks,

  • marginalia, doodles.

  • These tiny off-the-cuff gestures, express a spirit at odds

  • with strict rules of Victorian stylistic conformity.

  • The humanity shines through.

  • This painting is called Alluvium.

  • A friend had visited New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina.

  • She found a 19th century autograph book there

  • and sent it to me knowing I collect such things.

  • Alluvium features facsimiles of these signatures,

  • and in this close-up detail,

  • you can see that I imagined people surrounded by waist-high water,

  • their signatures representing them metaphorically.

  • 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.

  • The Cinema Reef was where I first saw Gone with the Wind.

  • It was dubbed in French.

  • [quiet laughter]

  • From Tangier, I entered college in New England.

  • I had to catch up to American history and culture.

  • Along the way, I discovered American folk art.

  • In particular, I became interested

  • in the 19th century religious sect of the Shakers.

  • Partly because their last remaining outpost was near my campus.

  • The Shakers are best known for their exquisite craftsmanship

  • and simplicity of their furniture and domestic objects.

  • I decided to make still-life paintings of these artifacts.

  • So I spent the next couple of years making paintings of Shaker objects

  • as a meditative exercise.

  • Each one I painted represents, for me, a culture of discipline and devotion.

  • Achieving practicality within a sublimely refined aesthetic.

  • One day, while looking more deeply into Shaker culture,

  • there was a significant leap in my own artistic development.

  • This is the letter that changed the way I looked at the world.

  • I wasn't even reading the words.

  • While going through some archival Shaker documents,

  • the look of that 19th century penmanship just leapt off the page.

  • My fascination with this phenomenon of line

  • has propelled my work forward ever since.

  • The Shakers also put pen to paper to achieve something well beyond practicality.

  • We're looking here at what is known as Shaker Spirit lettering.

  • These are mystically inspired scripts,

  • requiring an interpretation different from reading.

  • Maybe these are conduits from and to the spirit world.

  • I'm inspired by these alternative alphabets.

  • I draw lines into my paintings that aren't really text,

  • but seem to be readable, and take me somewhere.

  • I consider this mid-size painting of mine to be an aerial landscape.

  • I've used the text as marks to punctuate the space,

  • and to create rhythm and depth.

  • Text becomes texture.

  • This is a close-up detail.

  • The imagery comes from Civil War era ledgers

  • and includes the illiterate autographs of slaves.

  • I suspend them into translucent layers of paint,

  • so that they become ghostlike, receding into the past.

  • Maybe this battle, maybe this landscape, is even a battlefield.

  • It's called Cavalcade.

  • I do think of the layers as periods of historical time.

  • Looking through them is like peering back into another century.

  • This work is called Old Glories.

  • Here, I've used wide brushes dipped in solvent to draw,

  • and uncover secret and forgotten layers.

  • My gestures are in a kind of conversation with the shape of unprinted signatures.

  • They reflect that very human impulse to let the mind stray, with pen in hand.

  • Making paintings is a way for me to amplify the subliminal potential

  • of handwritten characters.

  • Compositions themselves are inspired by letter forms.

  • I wonder, can text have an inner life?

  • Is it possible to explore the inside of a letter?

  • What I've concluded from my involvement with words, and paint,

  • is that on the surface, text can only dance around,

  • and suggest the content of a painting.

  • More nuanced, complicated meanings can be felt

  • within the context of color and space.

  • The letter R, implies range,

  • and the snowy Montana landscape of wandering bisons' well-worn paths.

  • Maybe you can make out the letter forms here.

  • K, H, Y, F.

  • Or, in texting language, know how you feel!

  • My newest paintings do take their compositional cues

  • from texting acronyms.

  • These represent language at its most stripped down,

  • but I'm working to inject a sense of complexity back into them.

  • So with a visual back-and-forth of obscuring and revealing,

  • obscuring and revealing,

  • I'm working to achieve a semantics

  • of readable text, color, surface,

  • line, and pure form.

  • Words may be written in black and white,

  • but when interpreted through the language of painting,

  • their meanings are changeable, evolving,

  • hard to pin down precisely.

  • Like vibrating colors and shifting translucencies across a canvas,

  • language is an unstable medium.

  • RBTL,

  • another texting acronym:

  • Read Between The Lines.

  • That's what I'd like my work to invoke.

  • To pay attention to the context of what we read,

  • as we navigate the daily barrage of messages,

  • and take time to experience a painting,

  • rather than read it.

  • Thank you.

  • [applause]

[applause]

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B2 painting language century letter shaker imagery

【TEDx】The Phenomenon of Line: Language as Imagery | Catherine Courtenaye | TEDxUMontana

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    VoiceTube posted on 2015/06/09
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