06 April 2012

A time for letters

I love how the passing of the months and seasons is marked, among other signs, by what shows up in the bakeries: panetone is offered at Christmastime; during Carnevale there are baskets of cenci, and for Easter the sugarcoated colomba. My all-time favorite bakery treat appears in August: fig walnut tart, which is baked in long rectangular trays. Currently it is Lent—time for quaresimali.

We always look forward to these crispy, lightly chocolatey cookies that mimic the letters of the alphabet. (The bag I bought this year contained a rather reduced set of letters, which constrained me to the odd selection of words in the image below.) While quaresimali were traditionally the only sweet allowed during Lent, and are somewhat austere as far as sweets go, they are nonetheless very tasty. {Click here to read more about quaresimali in a past entry introducing an artist's book structured around the alphabet.}

On the subject of letters, in January I signed up for a project called A Letter a Week (ALaW). Fiona Dempster, an Australian artist, initiated this creative challenge in 2010, and the group has grown to include an international mix of members. I have enjoyed 
not only watching each artist's alphabet unfold over the past few months but also learning more about their work. Many have chosen some form of paper as their principal media, but many alphabets are made of or incorporate fabric, beads, wood, and metal, and the artists have tried out a number of unusual approaches and techniques. I am very drawn to Fiona's work—her concepts are simple in the purest sense of the word, with an execution that is both incredibly tactile and rich with meaning. {Click here to visit her website. Her blog, Paper Ponderings, can be accessed from my "Inspiring places to visit" side bar.}

On the drawing board: preparing to glue the shapes to the base sheet.

I like how this challenge offers a bit of structure while still allowing plenty of flexibility. The choice of media is made by the artist, as is the final presentation format, as long as each letter is interpreted within a 7-cm square. The other constraint is that one of the alphabets must somehow relate to a predetermined theme: "Going dotty—polka dots and pixels."

Ideally, artists are supposed to create one letter each week, but since I only learned about this project in the New Year, I spent  the first few weeks considering various ideas, visiting the site to see how other alphabets were taking shape, and perusing the pieces created in past years. The letters must come together in a final form for a possible group exhibition, so it was important to me to identify what this might be before jumping in. My first tangible efforts appear in this entry on the ALaW site, where I noted my difficulty in sifting through the possibilities and choosing a direction.

For the next few weeks, I experimented with flowing cursive-style letters that were linked to one another, but after my daughter and I watched the documentary Helvetica, I decided to base the letters for my first alphabet on Helvetica. The clean lines of this spare, rather ubiquitous, font are not at all what I had envisioned using, but I found a new appreciation for it after watching the film. From the beginning, I was attracted to the idea of depicting only a portion of each letter. It was interesting to see how little of a letter was necessary to ensure that it was identifiable—what made it a C instead of a D, for example. I chose a font size of 450, which is large enough that the letters remain somewhat abstract but still provides a large enough glimpse to distinguish each—though perhaps with a bit more thought than might normally be required to read individual letters.

The large, single-sheet format is also a change from my original plan to put the letters in book form, but I wanted to be able to see the relationship between all of the shapes simultaneously. Scoring the lines with a bone folder, I created a grid of forty-nine 7-cm squares, allowing some breathing space for the letter shapes.

The two-color scheme also deviates from my initial infatuation with the dozens of colors of Canson Mi-Teintes papers (shown in the first entry for ALaW). I ended up choosing two that I had been wanting to pair together for some time: tomato red played against a purpley-brown background (which unfortunately shows up a bit differently, depending on the light present, each time I photographed my progress).

As always, I'm intrigued by the process as a project develops. In this case, the interpretation become simpler and more streamlined as I worked through it. My "dotty" alphabet will likely be the complete opposite—layered, multimedia, more colorful. Though I suppose only time will tell . . .

{Below are a few details of the letter shapes, followed by a view of the first three months-worth of letters.
My favorites so far are G, K, and M.}



  1. I am slow in posting a comment Lisa - sorry. This was great walk through your process, and thinking and the experience of starting in one place and taking divergent paths along the way - and ending up with something more gorgeous than we could probably have imagined at the beginning. I really love how you explored how much of a letter still makes it a letter? I have been thinking about that myself lately! Thank you also for your kind words - it's lovely to make connections across the world, and be inspired by folk we may only ever meet on the interweb. Go well. F

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Fiona. I am fascinated by what happens from the time the seed of an idea is first planted until the moment it comes to fruition...being able to see this process is one aspect I so enjoy about visiting other artists' blogs - and something I would like to get into the habit of sharing as well. One of the greatest joys of being an artist is when you set out on a creative journey, not knowing just where you might end up...
      - Lisa


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