While other members of our team are developing digitized font versions of endangered alphabets and coloring books for Bangladesh, I’ve been recovering from knee replacement surgery in the usual way–by carving. Thanks to the excellent Tom Way of Tom Way Photography, here are a few of the results, all of which are available on our new Etsy storefront here.
This was one of the last pieces I completed before the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, where it was a huge hit and occasioned a constant stream of questions. There’s a whole chapter on Glagolitic in the new edition of my book Endangered Alphabets, due out shortly. In the meantime, check out the story here.
The second carving was completely unexpected. My friend and mentor Dave at Sterling Hardwoods found me a wonderfully irregular piece of walnut, probably from somewhere near the crotch of the tree, that was berippled with all kinds of fascinating grain, plus a bite-shaped chunk out of the corner. Dave explained that his wife, an artist in her own right with a substantial reputation, worked again and again with the theme of moon over water. Could I maybe do something in the Endangered Alphabets that worked a new variant on that theme?
Thanks to my friend Alissa Stern of Basabali, I managed to get the Balinese text, held the piece of wood every which way up, and eventually made a decision that seemed to hint at the last clouds of sunset, the waves breaking on rock.
The most original conception, though, came about again through Dave at Sterling. From his apparently bottomless stash of odd bits and pieces of wood, many of them so odd or so old he has no idea what they actually are, he produced a plank of some extraordinary reddish-brown wood, bespeckled with a rash of little burls, and challenged me to do something with it.
It was something of a trap. The burls would be impossible to carve, and even the rest of the wood was oddly fibrous in unexpected places, hard to work cleanly at all. I’d have to design something that worked in between and around the burls. I checked with my artistic advisor, my daughter Maddy, who thought about it and said, “I think you should do something new and different.”
I pondered the idea of doing a single letter, and browsed through two of my favorite scripts, Javanese and Balinese. To my astonishment and delight, I discovered something even more fundamental than a letter: a piece of punctuation.
It turns out that both Balinese and Javanese use punctuation in a way we don’t even imagine. Javanese has a cluster of characters that are used to introduce the beginning of a poem–not the first words of the poem, but a kind of alert, announcing a new tone–emotional, spiritual, intellectual–about to arrive. And Balinese has the same kind of punctuation to announce the start of a sacred text.
So it struck me: if I took one of these symbols out of a piece of text and instead carved it into three dimensions, it would become a commentary not on words but on space. As a sign on a door it would suggest: “This is a sacred space–for worship, for meditation, for reflection. Prepare yourself for the experience.”