Last year writing organisation 26 and lettering artists’ group Letter Exchange collaborated on an exhibition. 26 Words paired writers with visual artists, setting them a brief designed to explore the visual and verbal representation of language. First, each creative pair was asked to select a word to represent a particular letter of the alphabet. They were required to do this by inserting a knife into the relevant section of a dictionary, which added a touch of fortune to proceedings (and ensured there was no debate over which word to choose).
I was paired with James Salisbury, an accomplished lettering artist who often works with limestone, slate, paper, brick, steel and glass. Given the letter ‘V’, the word selected for us by the dagger of fate was ‘Vinca’, which is a periwinkle. The road from dictionary to exhibited work took us through misunderstanding, bloody history, the birth of a new verse form, extraordinarily precise letter sculpting, experiments with glass and long hours of work in dangerous air. We describe what happened, and set out the thinking behind our piece, in a short diary, below.
From random selections to choosing to create a strict Vinca verse form, this project was brought to life through the liberation of constraints. This is something John Simmons has long appreciated and talked about (and he was one of the initiators of this project). The toughest brief is the open brief, partly because it often seems to close down your imagination. Set limits and the mind works harder in search of connections. Like a plant crawling across dark ground in search of light.
One observation I failed to make in the diary: proofreading words to be sculpted wracks your nerves. There are no tracked changes when you’re working in stone.
All in all, I’m rather late in covering this project as it launched last year, but I’m delighted to say it continues to tour the UK and the Continent. The show is currently in Bruges and will visit Snape, Hereford and Cambridge before the year is out. It may go on from there. But you can see and read about the pieces online over here (make sure you read Neil Baker and Mark Noad’s simply stunning ‘Hearse’). There’s also a lovely catalogue.
In the meantime, here’s the story behind ‘Vinca’. And the poem is reproduced below too.
The selection of ‘Vinca’ didn’t overwhelm me with creative joy, but the word began to bloom as I unearthed its etymology and history. Vinca is a flower that we know better as the periwinkle. Verbally, the Latin root takes us to ‘bind, fetter’, perhaps because the plant grips the ground as it spreads. As a species it’s invasive but pretty and useful. Today alkaloids are extracted from it for use in chemotherapy, but its healing properties have been recognised for years. In Germany it was considered by some to give immortality. There again, in Italy it might decorate the bier of a dead child. In England, garlands of periwinkles were sometimes placed on the head of a despised political prisoner en route to prison or execution – an ironic crown. It continues to be used to treat haemorrhages. So, we had something to work with and I was looking forward to meeting James.
It proved difficult to get together. Finally we arranged to rendezvous in the Sherlock Holmes pub near Charing Cross. I had a rough idea of what Tim looked like, but after 45 minutes no one fitting his appearance had arrived. Appropriately enough given the pub, I had to solve the mystery and try to find him in the crowd. This proved far from elementary. Then my phone went and it was Tim. He was sure we were due to be meeting the following week. A shaky start to a creative collaboration.
At last, our paths crossed over a beer in Kennington. That meeting was all about sharing ideas, but also sharing something of ourselves and how we work. I was struck by the solidity and significance of what James produces – careful, thoughtful, hand-carved stone pieces that mark a place, an event, a life. Here we were at the opposite end of our creative process, where thoughts and words are quick and malleable and disposable. He sketched as we spoke, and something lovely started to take shape when he illustrated each of the five letters of our word as standalone elements. I pointed out that our periwinkle has five petals. And then there’s the V of Vinca, of course…
We agreed that at each stage we would share our work with the other and only move forward once we were of one mind. From my side, I didn’t want to spend days cutting letters for a work that meant nothing to me. I awaited Tim’s draft with some anxiety.
I felt the piece should be a story. I particularly wanted it to capture the potential for a medicine to free someone from the captivity of their injury or illness. Also, the brutality of the prisoners’ garland had stayed with me. When they arrived, the words came out unexpectedly bloody, with a life and death of their own. It’s written in what I now call Vinca form – a prose poem with five verses of five lines of five words. Each verse starts with its corresponding letter from ‘Vinca’.
The written piece is complex and dark. I felt I could certainly work with these words. Tim had picked up on my sketches of the versals and I started to develop them and the lines that follow. There’s no specific period in the piece, but the reference to All Hallows church – by the Tower of London – took my thoughts back to its founding years around the seventh century. I found myself drawing softly rounded uncials in a tightly packed form. I felt that copper might make a good material for the versals. And I thought it would be interesting to introduce glass into the piece but wasn’t sure how.
I had two main concerns about the lettering work. First, it should reflect the atmosphere of the piece without feeling like a pastiche of a historical period. Second, it had to be readable. The sketches-in-progress James sent were intriguing – almost like ancient musical notation. We pressed on.
Working with glass artist Lizzie Davison, I embedded the copper versal letters in two sheets of glass. For the body of the piece, I used York stone. This gives a soft and gritty look and feel, as if it’s already been worn by the passing years. The Vinca literary form is lovely but required a Herculean effort, each verse taking about eight hours. It’s ironic that, given the health properties of our subject, I had to wear a medical mask while carving. The silica in the stone is dangerous if you breathe it in.
I’m writing these final words on a Mac in a clean, quiet office while James the stone surgeon is in his dusty workshop, pushing on through the tiredness to chisel and chip our shared piece into permanent form. He told me he started from the bottom, so he began with a line about immortality and it probably now feels even longer than eternity since he began. The deadline keeps him working through the nights. At project’s end we will have a remarkable piece. We have no idea where the work will live or how people will feel about it, but I sense it may end up leading an interesting life.
Verses and prayers failed to
calm the high tide of
blood washing across his boneyard
of a chest. He panted
hard, like a trapped fox.
Insolent traitor, the guards said,
but we knew that the
life pulsing from those wounds
carried with it our hope
of liberation from kingly terror.
No bandage could seal his
gashed flesh, so we went
to the scented ground by
All Hallows to find the
Madonna-blue blossom called Salvation.
Cutting each head from the
limbs that bound flower to
earth, we made a tonic
from the petals and hurried
back to heal the prisoner.
A laughing sentry lifted our
friend’s shoulders and poured the
solution into his unblinking eyes.
Flower of death! he shouted.
Flower of immortality, we thought.