Saturday, December 31, 2011

Palimpsest:: Language - with convoluted commentary

In a previous post, I showed you the beginning of this piece, and the second unfinished part was featured here.  It has taken me quite a while, what with Christmas and other projects, but here is the final result.

 Palimpsest: Language
ingredients: vintage book cover, vintage maps, handwriting from 1930's composition book, vintage newspaper pages, vintage book cut-outs, 1950's dress pattern pieces, stamps on vintage paper, Chinese Hell notes, inkjet print, acrylic paint, acrylic gel mediums, Caran d'Ache crayons, watercolor pencils, stitching, vintage ledger paper, image transfers, brads, metal spinner, metal thingie (?), feather, pen nib
languages/alphabets: English print, English handwritten script, shorthand, Chinese, Spanish, Tibetan, Tibetan ideograms/ pictographs, cuneiform (2 Types), Mayan pictographs, English numbers/mathematics

Several of you indicated you wouldn't be bored by reading more about the concepts, symbols, and meaning of this piece, so here goes.

As I said, I started to consider the concept 'palimpsest' to my way of working, and drawing parallels between those ideas.  Palimpsest is defined by Wikipedia as "a manuscript page from a scroll or book from which the text has been scraped off and which can be used again.".  (recycling!) These manuscripts have often been disaggregated, deciphered, and used to recover important lost writings and other information.

palimpsest with Greek text of Luke  (Wikipedia)

Much of my recent collage work has incorporated a process of layering in which materials are partially scraped off to reveal parts of what's beneath. The idea of the interplay between the transparency of layers and the mystery of covering other sections has always been present in my work- probably because I so inherently see everything as connected to every other thing; I just can't seem to separate them.

Angel of the Sunrise

So, back to the language thing. (If you're not at all interested in linguistics or the human brain, skip over the next 3 paragraphs.) As I shared before, language is my business, in a sense.  As a special educator, I think a lot about ways to remediate my students' reading, writing, and spoken language deficits.  As I watch them struggle with these skills that come so naturally to many of us, I can't help but wonder how the human brain processes language, and ultimately, how language came to be in the first place.

Needless to say, the topic is too complex for me do an in-depth study.  However, I did encounter some interesting and useful ideas, foremost among them the widely-held belief that the human brain is hard-wired for language.  Many would argue that this is the one characteristic that separates humans from other animals. Thought and language appear to be inseparable- we think in words, and apparently can't think without them.  (You might be interested in watching this.)  Why some of our brains seem to be hard-wired differently (or less) than others is unclear, but calls into question that whole "nature-versus-nurture" debate; research indicates that both are involved in this case. 

As for the origin of language, no one can say for certain, because it happened so far back in prehistory that there's little evidence available.  Research into this subject continues, and perhaps someday more clues will be discovered.  I was surprised to find out, though, that preeminent linguist Noam Chomsky believes that language acquisition occurred over a short period of time as a result of a sudden gene mutation, while most other experts think it evolved slowly.  Chomsky says: 'To tell a fairy story about it, it is almost as if there was some higher primate wandering around a long time ago and some random mutation took place, maybe after some strange cosmic ray shower, and it reorganized the brain, implanting a language organ in an otherwise primate brain'. While cautioning against accepting this literally, Chomsky insists that 'it may be closer to reality than many other fairy tales that are told about evolutionary processes, including language.' (Wikipedia, Origins of Language)

This brings me to myths, folklore, and mystical stories concerning language.  There are plenty of stories about the invention of language, often imbedded within larger creation myths. What I found particularly fascinating is that the concept of the power of "the word" is basic to virtually all of the world's spiritual traditions.
"We find in the Bible the words: 'In the beginning was the word, and the word was God', and we also find that the word is light, and that when that light dawned the whole creation manifested.... It teaches that the first sign of life that manifested was the audible expression, or sound: that is the word."  - from The Power of the Word.  This same idea is echoed in the Hindu Vedas, in the Hebraic Kabbalah, in Sufism, Islam, Zoroasterism, and many more.

I normally don't like to explain the meaning and symbolism in my work to a great extent, because I believe  each viewer brings his/her own experiences and perception to the piece, constructing an individual interpretation which has meaning for them.  Please don't think that my meaning is the only one; it's simply the perspective from which I created the piece.

The idea of the invention of language and of the creative power of the WORD is embodied by this figure, who speaks the word of creation, OM, in Tibetan script.  The sweeping shape of the dress pattern piece with stitched lines coming from the figure's (other) mouth represent the sounds being put forth into the world, and reinforce the idea of something being made, or created.  The bird in symbolist art has long been seen as a messenger, due to its ability to fly to realms beyond our reach; the map within its body implies access to all parts of the world.

 This part of the piece has so many layers of print and symbols that they blend together to form almost a unified surface.  The red symbol tumbles out of the original utterance from the figure's mouth, breaking open like an egg to spill out letters and symbols.

I started on the bottom part first, before I really knew where the piece was going as a whole.  I knew it was going to be about 'palimpsest' and 'language', but beyond that, my idea had yet to gel.  I was hoping that it would reveal itself as I proceeded.  After scratching and scraping and rubbing paint into the surface, I cut the book cloth and ripped a big hunk of it off, then stuck part of an old piece into the hole (yes, 'hunk', 'hole', and 'stuck' are the correct technical terms).  I glued things on, ripped things off, scraped, peeled, and transferred.  I did lots of this for a long time, and can't really remember what came first, next, or before.  It was very therapeutic!

Some of the first things I glued on were from a girl's high school composition notebook, circa 1931, that I bought at a used book store.  The girl, Margaret Duncan, was apparently quite fascinated with the newly discovered "Life of Our Lord" by Charles Dickens, which had just been published for the first time as a result of the death of Dickens' last surviving family member.  As each section was published in the Lexington Herald Leader, she cut it out and glued it over her own compositions.

I was more interested in her writing than in the newspaper clippings, so I started pulling them apart in places where there was no glue. 

By accident, on the back of one part of the Charles Dickens story, I uncovered an article about the execution of someone from the Dillinger Gang, which you can see in this detail.  In another section, there was an article about the possible repeal of prohibition!  As I scraped and uncovered and dug down into these old books and writings, I felt at times that I was time-traveling- it was really the oddest feeling.  And so it seems fitting, I guess, that I finally finish this on the last day of this year.

I hope you've enjoyed my long and winding explanation, or, at least, that you didn't die of boredom.  Happy New Year, my dear friends!  Happy New Year, Margaret, wherever you are!   Please give my regards to Mr. Dickens, and to the Dillinger Gang.


  1. I love this process of recycling words and text...beautiful works so continue your journey. Happy New 2012! Blessings, Mary Helen Fernandez Stewart

  2. It reminds me of the image rush in dreams or in the middle of creative adventures, something like the inside of my's beautiful and I love it. Happy new year. Ax

  3. Not bored at all, oh how I wish we lived closer so we could rave about language and linguistics over a cup of tea. I love the piece. Happy New year!

  4. you've closed the year with a flourish!
    Happy New Year Sharmon, and that all your dreams become reality!

    a big hug,

  5. The symbolism is deep, and this mixed media art is very intriguing. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I am a bit of a word junkie myself so fun to hear the process and meaning behind this lovely detailed piece. It adds to it, I think! Best of 2012 to you!

  7. What a glorious wrap to your grand year in and out of the studio...and I appreciate the tour of your's such a great bonus...

    palimpsest...a love of a word.

    Happy Newest Year...just imagine all the green lights ahead '-)

  8. I love the bird coming out of the chest!
    Chomsky's "fairy tale" makes me think of an ancient ancestor getting beaned by a meteorite, yelling "OUCH" and thus language is born...?? Gave me a chuckle, thank you. :)

  9. Wow! I enjoy reading the thought behind a piece and am happy to see you kept the interesting section at the bottom. Great work Sharmon!

  10. beau travail avec une multitude de symboles!

  11. Once again the journey taken with you is a pleasure. I am again enamored by the boldness with which you blend and layer. Each time I visit I am reassured that there is much to be found in allowing the layers of life to breathe.

  12. Thank you for taking the time to talk about your amazing pieces.

  13. This post, the story of your piece and explaining palimpsest, and your magnificent art is stunning to me. And that it all connects with your teaching. I use bird images in my art all the time, I love to paint them and photograph them, but I never have thought of their symbolic meaning... the messenger. You have given my art new meaning, to me! Thank you so much.

  14. This post is a treat to dip into Sharmon. Loved the entire things... the artwork plus hearing of the process!
    Exciting work indeed!
    Hope 2012 is going really well!

  15. The article is very useful, familiar greeting from our institute study course “ KAMPUNG INGGRIS PARE ”.


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