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The cataldic alphabet: the letter as event and environment.

It was not meant to be an alphabet in the ordinary sense, but rather a group of letter forms that would function as paintings and/or sculpture--each form a complete idea shaped in a separate environment. I attempted, in an intuitive way, to relate to the generative energies and critical processes that give the initial shapes and meanings to the twenty-six letters of our alphabet. In using the same fertile source which generated the forms of all known alphabets, I tried to use a comparable kinetic energy to project models for further letter forms.

As a starting point I chose extraordinary examples of letter forms from the book of Kells, the book of Durrow and the Gospels of the Incunabula (i.e., the period from 800 AD to 1500 AD). These powerful, glowing, iconic representations were then juxtaposed against contemporary letter forms, particularly those which had been modified to accommodate computer generated graphic media and processes.

Obviously, I had created a tension-filled relationship by this extreme association and in order to stabilize the mix, I introduced the magnificent examples of the Trajan alphabet (ca. 114 AD) so as to effect an aesthetic alliance between medieval and contemporary letter forms. The classic geometric proportions of the Trajan letters would also serve as a structural frame for the sculptural effort that would follow the design and drawing process.

Letter forms are changing under the unrelenting pressures of computer media--particularly those forms that are projected onto film, video screens and other light surfaces. Surface textures and tensions are resulting in distorted letter forms that require a nontraditional design attitude. It is possible, however, to draw a visual analogy between the light frames and surface effects of computer media and the illuminated letters and page surfaces of early manuscripts. I found this comparison to be productive as I began to extend and elaborate from known letter forms to the concept of the letter as an environment--one that could contain and resolve these ambiguities and distortions.

As I developed this concept, I made some decisions of a delimiting kind. My images would not include any text or illustrative (pictorial) materials, only minimal value would be given to the phonetic and visual characteristics of letter forms, and each letter form would be regarded as a separate and distinct design problem. The idea of the letter would now be contained within a shaped environment. Being abstract in its properties, the shape would resemble an attitude, but not the forms of Chinese ideographs.

At this level, in addition to the Trajan letter as mediator, I needed a "change agent" for turning the highly energized mix into new models of letter forms. A metaphor would need to be developed for each letter environment and I began a four-month drawing process.

The drawings became, in effect, a map of the thought process involved in the shaping of the metaphor. The drawing exercise was continuous. Feelings, attitudes, conditions, ideas, images, letters and words were scanned and edited until I could give a name to each metaphor. For example, the letter A became the idea of beginning (alpha), an opening, then exuberant new life; the letter O (omega) became the idea of lunar emptiness, void, lunar cycles, then tidal energies; and so forth until I found the matching metaphor for twenty-six letter environments. This entire conceptual process became an exciting mental and visual game. As I worked, I found I could incorporate increasing numbers of visual and graphic elements as well as more complex, deep-level ideas.

A description of the developmental drawing process

During the informative stages, while the drawings were evolving into graphic equivalents of first thoughts, I adhered closely to the ideal proportions of the capital letters inscribed on the Trajan column in Rome, the definitive model of our Western alphabet. However, as the drawing-design process proceeded, it became apparent that each letter form would require a distinct graphic resolution.

Subsequently, I surrendered all concern for the predictable shape of letters, allowing aesthetic factors to influence changes in the design of letter forms. Letters no longer functioned as alphabet, but rather as shapes that had assimilated the authority of language while moving ahead toward file development of freshly stated visual and aesthetic problems.

With phonetic and verbal associations removed from the twenty-six letters, I was able to open the centers of the forms for other visual possibilities, using the edges as a frame to carry visual information through its contours.

Materials and process

Originally I had planned to sculpt the forms in wax and cast them in bronze as free-standing three-dimensional forms. However, since the edges of the letter forms were filled with information, I chose a flat material to accent that characteristic. Plywood has special advantages such as availability, comparatively low cost, and an extraordinary strength in single-plane constructions. Some of the drawbacks include splintering and rough surfaces.

The size of each letter form conforms to a 27" x 27" proportion such as the letter M. Each of the twenty-six forms were machine cut, using band and saber saw, drum sanded, and the edges were hand rasped and filed. During a time-consuming, labor intensive phase, I replaced the fir plywood with maple veneered plywood and found that the layered edges held together more consistently during the cutting on the band saw and that the gessoing of the top surfaces was much smoother.

Color determinations

For the drawings, I used color felt-tipped pens extensively, achieving a deep layered color effect. Colored pencils were used to overlay light on dark effects and to achieve a particular color sensation not available in the pen sets.

After much experimentation, I laid down a base coat of gesso, a base coat of solid acrylic, and spray can auto acrylic paints for color transitions. Special characteristics of the letter forms were particularized with gold and silver leaf. The total color effect was celebrative in effect, my way of honoring and illuminating the service given to all cultures by verbal forms and visual systems.

References and resources

Cattich, E.M. The Trajan Inscription In Rome. St. Ambrose College, Iowa: Catfish Press.

Durer, Albrecht. Of The Just Shaping of Letters. New York: Dover, 1965.

Grey, Nicolete. Lettering As Drawing. New York: Pentalic, 1982.

Tory, Geofrey. Champ Fleury. New York: Dover, 1967.

Critical Inquiry (Special Issue on Metaphor), Vol. 5, No. 1, Autumn, 1978. University of Chicago.

"Ornament: Purpose & Clay in Medieval Manuscripts," Fine Print, Vol. 8, No. 2, April, 1982. San Francisco.

Activities for students

* Select a letter from the Trajan capitals and review its historical development. Make drawings of that letter and begin to extend and combine appealing characteristics identified from any time period into one comprehensive first image.

* Remove the phonetic value from the chosen letter form and begin to modify the contour in such ways that the shape reflects a visual characteristic of a time period. It may be necessary at this point of the design process to use parts of different letters that are useful in restructuring non-traditional letter forms.

* Resist using pictorial illustration when shaping the letter environments (although the traditional approach uses astrological and zoomorphic illustrations in profusion) and emphasize instead the use of such abstract properties as contour, shape and color that is significant to the expressive intention. Felt-tipped pens are excellent for mixing and overlaying colors so as to achieve a layered depth and richness of color. Colored pencils are useful in re-establishing lighter values and accents.

* Discuss the meaning and use of metaphors in poetry and works of art. Try to invent a metaphor and use it to shape the idea of the first letter form. Draw a graphic metaphor that expresses the idea of the letter as an environment. Increase the scale of the drawing so as to free the image from the restrictions of book page size. A drawing about 18" x 24" (46 cm x 61 cm) confronts the student with a generous spatial field that requires an ordering and structuring of abstract design properties. Refer to the works of painters who have used letter forms for initiating artworks, such as Jasper Johns, Motherwell, DeKooning, Indiana, Demuth, Davis, etc., and sculptors who have used the metaphor as source motivation, such as Noguchi's Black Sun, Giacometti's The Palace at 4 am, Louise Nevelson's Gold, White and Black Environment, et al.

* Review the works of sixteenth century writing masters as well as twentieth century calligraphers so as to emphasize the tradition of invention with letter formation, while noting the role played by calligraphers in shaping the writing systems and cursive aesthetic apparent in world cultures.

Dr. John W. Cataldo, author of four books on lettering, calligraphy and visual communication, is a Professor of Art at the Massachusets College of Art and a former editor of SchoolArts magazine. Color photographs by Lisa Bingham.
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Title Annotation:includes activities for students
Author:Cataldo, John W.
Publication:School Arts
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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