My daughter – who lives and works in New Mexico – needed to do a lettering project on fabric, and she called to ask for advice. Her concerns had to do with the kind of paint she should use, and brushes, and she knew that I was familiar with those specific matters. I was flattered she had thought of me, and very happy to answer her questions in great detail. We talked for a long time.
But as soon as we hung up, I realized there was more I needed to say.
I don’t think anybody ever actually asked me “What do you want to be when you grow up?” but they didn’t have to. I posed the question to myself when I was little, because I knew exactly how to answer. I wanted to be a sign painter. And I knew why. My dad was a painter in the construction industry who did fine lettering and calligraphy on his own. I admired him enormously, and wanted to be like him in any way I could, so I was familiar with the craft. But this was a time when hand-painted signage (the kind that has become an excellent niche practice now) was simply the workhorse of communication in every form of retail, from the grocer to the liquor store, from the used-car lot to the pharmacy. You saw it everywhere.
By the time I was in high school, the stop where I caught the bus was directly in front of Fettes package store. I imagine my employment aspirations had evolved by then, but my fascination with the letterer’s trade had not. Many winter mornings I could pass indefinite amounts of time waiting for the bus by staring at the prices and brand names of whiskies, wines and beers posted in the window, tracing the painter’s brush strokes with my eyes, reconstructing his every movement (I imagined it was a “he”), following his hand as he pulled each curve and chiseled each angle and corner. I could become totally lost in the reverie. Some people thought this was peculiar.
Sometimes even I wondered if I was okay.
I don’t think I have any psychiatric or attention disorders, but I can empathize with people who do, especially children, which is not unusual. Medical science tells us that people can exhibit the symptoms for many such conditions, without having the actual disease. Children with autism spectrum disorder, for example, often thrive on routine and repetition. This can take many forms. They may need to take the exact same route home from school every afternoon. They may need to have their sandwich made the exact same way every time. They may fixate on the geometric patterning of textiles or floor tiles.
Is the order of strokes that compose a painted letter much different? What about the compulsion to identify those painted strokes in your imagination one by one, to take apart how this letter was made, then watch that making in your mind’s eye, to feel those motions as though through a phantom limb? And then to do the same for the next one, and the next one, and the next one.
I learned about autism spectrum disorder through my daughter – the same one who called about the lettering project – when she was studying to be an occupational therapist, which is what she now does in New Mexico. My curiosity was such that I even tagged along to a therapeutic facility where she was working and, with the director’s kind permission, was allowed to act as visiting artist there for three months in the Spring of 2018. It was an amazing experience.
The facility serves kids with learning and behavioral disorders. Initially, I was interested in the setting there, which was unique, and the amazing interactions that transpired between the clients and the therapists. As I got deeper into the project, though, I found myself drawn more to the inner world of these young people, the way they saw things, and the puzzle of how their experience, in turn, could be visualized.
This painting, “Secret Agent,” was composed from sketches I made during that magical period of observation.
In part, my empathy for those kids is what motivated the unexplained pattern on the left. It was a hold-over from the fascination with hand-lettered signs that I had when I was their age and, truth be told, still have to this day. But I think about it a little differently now, this breakdown of letters into lines – the track marks left behind by pigment being drawn out of a brush as a person pulls it across a surface. How that action has – or doesn’t have – a kind of legibility in and of itself, parallel to and simultaneous with, the legibility of the words being composed.
“Imported beer – Six packs”
“ ‘73 Corolla – Runs Good”
“Sweet corn – farm fresh…”
What if, as artists and draftspersons, we tried to teach our lines – any lines, all lines – to behave more like writing? Would those lines have anything to say? What would happen if we asked our letters to act more like lines; would they make different sounds?
While still in the initial stages of painting “Secret Agent,” I found myself staring again – this time at the panel on the left where I laid in the first strokes of the pattern. Against the white ground, those dragged tracks seem to gather into regularity out of nothingness. Yellow against white, they seemed to vibrate right on the threshold between letters and lines, as if they yearned for a legibility that evaded them, or else were written in a language no one knows how to read.
When my dad passed away in 2001, my siblings were generous enough to let me take the set of reference books he had collected. I had loved these books when I was a kid – encyclopedias of decorative motifs, pattern books, faux-finish manuals, craft anthologies – they mesmerized me, but none more than this: Sign Painting Course, by E.C. Matthews.
It was my Almagest, the mother of all books – a portal that opened onto another culture, another history, where I felt I belonged.
Recently, another experience brought Mr. Matthews book back to mind. I have students from China. For many of them, English is, understandably, a struggle. I admire them, their bravery. I was an international student once too, and remember very well that feeling of not having full control of the very sounds you’re asking your own mouth to make, no matter how hard you try; that awful feeling of having so much you long to say, but with thoughts that always run short of the words to which they must be fitted, like being forever stuck in a suit of clothes that is TOO DAMNED SMALL.
On the last day of classes, one of these students gave me the most wonderful gift: a primer for learning to write in Chinese, the traditional way – with a brush.
When she showed me how to use the primer and brush, this student was pleased with how I could instinctively understand the diagrams, and pull the beautiful lines of the first ideogram. She smiled and nodded approvingly. “You can do it…”
And I could, with great, great pleasure. I stared proudly at the beautiful design on the page.
And had no idea what it meant.