What I Did Last Weekend

Make sure burners are off...

Just thought you might like to see another carving, and yet another glimpse into the high-tech operation that is the Endangered Alphabets.

This sign is a present for the poet John Balaban, renowned for his translations of Vietnamese poetry. He is also one of the founders of the Vietnamese Nom Preservation Foundation, “founded in 1999 as a public charity devoted to preserving 1000 years of writing in Chữ Nôm, the Chinese-like script that Vietnamese used to record their own language and its vast heritage of poetry, history, medicine, and religion. Today, that entire literary culture is about to go extinct. Out of 80 million Vietnamese, less than 100 scholars worldwide can read Chữ Nôm.”

That’s from the Foundation’s website, and the text on my carving is the Foundation’s name written in Chu-Nom, also called simply Nom. I’ve just put the first coat of polyurethane on it, and my kitchen gas stove’s extractor fan is the closest thing I’ve got to what the guitar-makers call a spray booth–that is, an enclosed, ventilated space where you can apply semi-toxic finishes without driving your family from the home.

The wood, by the way, is the sumptuous tigerwood from Central and South America, also known as Bossona, Bototo, Coubaril, Gateado, Gomavel, Goncalo alves, Guarabu, Gusanero, Jejuira, Kingwood, Locustwood, Muira, Muiraquatiara, Mura, Urunday, or Zorrowood. Wonderful stuff.

To learn more about the Foundation, visit http://www.nomfoundation.org/.

The West African proverbs

For the past couple of months, Charles Riley at Yale has been sending me proverbs in (mostly) endangered alphabets from West Africa. I’m hoping to set up a proper gallery for them shortly, including translations, but I couldn’t resist posting some hasty cell-phone pictures before driving down to Connecticut tomorrow. The wood is just that amazing.

The mahogany half
The cherry half
The whole thing. Tell me you've ever seen wood like this before...

And while we’re at it, here’s the Balinese Om (the wood is called pau amarillo, or Yellowheart) I’m presenting to Millbrook School tomorrow:

The Millbrook Om

Yet More!

Staggering in the kitchen door, carrying the five-foot-tall panels of the Endangered Poem Sculpture on my way back from a great presentation/discussion with the artists and designers at JDK Design Studios, I was greeted by yet more good news about the Alphabets–to wit, Nataly Kelly’s fine article in the Huffington Post.

Yet even this isn’t the extent of all the exciting stuff that has been going on over the past few days. Still more amazing stuff tomorrow, dot dot dot…

The Atelier! No, the Studio! No, the Garage!

Photo and mess by the author

It doesn’t get much more high-tech than this, folks: here’s the fourth and final panel of the Endangered Poem Sculpture getting its coats of polyurethane–in my garage.

Yes, this project, 15 months in the making, is nearly done. But I have lots more exciting news, too. More tomorrow.

Digital Himalaya

Digital Himalaya, drying on my hi-tech drying device

The latest carving is a piece for Mark Turin of Yale. For those of you (like me) not fluent in Nepali, it reads “Digital Himalaya”–the name of a multimedia ethnographic project gathering information from the Himalayan region.

Even more unfamiliar than the script is the wood. The guys at Sterling Hardwoods saved it for me, but even they have no idea what it is. An incredible swirling grain, full of whorls and knots, like blood stirred into mercury. Anyone got any ideas what it might be? (See bottom of post.)

And speaking of Yale, the Alphabets will be there on April 3rd after a very busy March. (And the promise of a trip to Thailand in December.) See the calendar for details as they emerge.

The latest guess is that the wood is ipe (pronounced ee-pay), also known as Brazilian walnut or ironwood. That would certainly tally with the incredible hardness of this wood. Turns out that ipe has the same fireproof rating as steel and concrete!


Third Panel Complete

After a delay of nearly five months while I’ve been dealing with the astounding fallout of the Kickstarter fundraiser, I finally got back, right before Christmas, to my long-incomplete Endangered Poem Project. It provided all kinds of challenges I haven’t had to deal with for a while. The recent work has been large, in familiar endangered scripts, and in all kinds of exotic woods. This latest phase took me back to familiar wood but unfamiliar letters–what’s more, unfamiliar tiny letters. And all that sent me back to research, one of the driving forces of the project that I’ve neglected all these months. So here are photos of the panel; and in the next couple of days I’ll add an update on the scripts themselves, including thanks to the amazingly helpful people who did the translations for me, and the creation process, which as always has its own excitements and challenges.

The third panel of four--or maybe five!



Okay, so let’s take a closer look at each of the five scripts….



Credit to Piers Kelly for contacting me, introducing me to Eskayan (which, as with most of these scripts, I’d never heard of), then arranging for Maria Dano and Decena Nida Salingay to translate the poem from English and then Nida to write it out in the Eskayan script. Eskayan is spoken on the Philippine island of Bohol.




Credit here to Shantimoy Chakma, who met me in Dhaka and subsequently sent me the poem in both Chakma and (below) Mro, the unique scripts of the Chakma and Mro people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh.







Javanese, or more properly Aksara Jawa, came to me via Nurbaini McKosky, with the actual translation being by Dr. Sastri S. Sweeney. As with all of these scripts, any mistakes are mine rather than theirs!




Thaana is the traditional script of the Maldives, and it appears here thanks to the contribution of Maryam Mariya. In a sense the script is not endangered, as it is the script in use by the roughly 300,000 inhabitants of the Maldives, but given that in the 1970s the president decreed that Latin script should be used in all official correspondence (a ruling subsequently overturned), it’s clearly vulnerable. I’ve also included it because it has all kinds of fascinating features, just one of which is that words are written from right to left, denoting the script’s Arabic roots, but numbers are written from left to right!

Endangered Tableware

The Endangered Trivet

Struck by an idea–and the almost incurable itch to carve endangered scripts into pieces of beautiful wood–I have invented the Endangered Trivet. Intended to keep food and drink stains off our beautiful cherry table, it’s made of mahogany, and I glued a piece of green pool-table-style felt (what in England is called baize) on the underside to protect the table from scratches. The text, in Mandaic, is from my friend the indefatigable Charles Haberl of Rutgers, and it means, “May the name of Life and the Knowledge of Life (Manda d’Hayyi) be pronounced over you, o Good (Food)!”

Support the Alphabets with Endangered Gifts!

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Give your friends and family presents that are at least unusual and maybe even downright unique, and support the Endangered Alphabets Project in the process. All proceeds go toward the Endangered Alphabets World Tour.

A coffee mug featuring the Endangered Alphabets logo, which in itself features Inuktitut, the Inuit script. A talking point at any breakfast table. $25 including packing and mailing within the U.S.

A copy of Endangered Alphabets, the coffee-table-style book I’ve written to accompany the exhibition. It has stunning photos and a short essay on each script I’ve carved, raising fascinating questions about the history and nature of writing. $32.50 including packing and mailing.

A carving of the Balinese character for Om, in my view the most graceful and remarkable letter in the world. Dimensions will be roughly eight inches by eight inches. I’ll make only three of these, or I’ll never get them done in time for Christmas. Must order before December 12. $200 including packing and mailing within the U.S. (I’m sorry but I can’t guarantee that overseas orders will arrive by December 25th. I could tell you stories about the mail that’d make your hair curl….)


Work in progress, featuring my latest piece of hi-tech equipment--the emery board, for taking off the remaining outline marks left when I transferred the image to the wood using carbon paper.

One of the most stunning woods in the world is paduak (pronounced pa-duke, at least in Vermont, and confusingly spelled “padauk” as often as not), an exotic tropical hardwood from central and West Africa and Southeast Asia. In its raw, sanded form it’s a brilliant tigerish orange striped with gold and darker reds and browns. With a coat of finish it can be blood-red, though in time it tends to darken and brown up. Yet as much as I love to look at it, it’s a bear to work with.

And work with it I do, because the final product is so irresistible. At the moment I’m doing a Kickstarter piece for the stellar Toronto guitarmaker Linda Manzer. Needless to say, I was looking forward to this piece with both excitement and a certain amount of dread, and on top of it all I decided I would try to describe exactly why it’s so hard of wood to work.

I set to carving with my smallest and sharpest gouges, and eventually came to the conclusion that paduak, for all its brilliance, just isn’t put together very well. If you carve with the grain, each individual fibre tends to detach, which you really, really don’t want. At one point I found myself working literally one fibre at a time to prevent the wood from splintering away from the curve I was trying to create.

Working across the grain has its own problems. The wood is so brittle that instead of slicing neatly across the fibres, the gouge seems to snap them off one by one. The wood is almost crystalline: instead of leaving a nice clean cut, the gouge snaps off each fibre at a breaking-point that may be a tenth of a millimeter away from the cutting-line. In other words, a jagged edge.

It finally hit me: it’s like carving a thin slab of orange sugar.

Working on the Kickstarter Rewards

Carving season is here: I’ve started the first three of the thirty or so carvings promised as rewards for some of my Kickstarter backers. Oh yes, you say. Where’s the proof? Hmmm. How about these?

I have no idea what wood this is, or even where I got it...
...but it's amazing stuff.
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