• Alex

Calligrams - Creating Pictures with Words

When I was a baby, I used to scream... a lot! My Mum, being the ingenious lady she is, realised I was screaming because I was bored and put Christmas cards around my pram to give me something interesting to look at (I was born at the beginning of December). It worked; I stopped screaming. Well, until I got bored again, so she changed the pictures, and on it went. Mum also drew huge murals of cartoon characters on pieces of lining paper and stuck them on the wall so I had something fun and colourful to look at, so you could say the 'blame' for my love of Art and Design lies mostly with her.

Fast forward 9 or 10 months and Mum had devised a game which involved jumping on words written on pieces of card, you know the ones you get inside a pack of tights... no expense spared. The game involved Mum saying a word, and I jumped on it... easy right? BUT I didn't know my alphabet and I couldn't spell the words, so how, at 10/11 months old, was I doing it? Simple... I could see the words as pictures, as whole beings, not in their separate parts but as a complete image. I think this early 'training' in seeing words as whole images has allowed me to create pictures from them and see how to fit words into shapes to create uniquely beautiful artworks. The way words can paint pictures and spark certain imagery in our heads has always fascinated me. For example: think of a pink elephant riding a tiny bicycle... you saw it, in your head, didn't you. Language, to me, creates imagery.

What has this got to do with Calligrams? According to the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) "A calligram is a poem in which the calligraphy, the formation of the letters or the font selected, represents an aspect of the poem’s subject, as in: thin (written in a very thin font), ancient (looking crumbling and old) or growth (with each letter written in a progressively larger font size). A poem about fear might be written in shaky letters to represent trembling. This font choice supports the reading of the poem by emphasising the meaning of particular words."

Photograph of Guillaume Apollinaire soldier in spring 1916 after his shrapnel wound to the temple. Credit: Photo (C) Ministère de la Culture - Médiathèque du Patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / René-Jacques, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But Guillaume Apollinaire (1880 - 1918) saw them as something different and more. He was known for the extravagant use of his imagination, especially seen in his work Calligrams in which he shaped his poetry into objects. Guillaume "became friends with and an avid supporter of avant-garde artists, including Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Rousseau, and Marcel Duchamp. Never affiliated solely with one group or school but, seemingly, a partisan of all

Guillaume Apollinaire, Calligram, via Wikimedia Commons
Calligrams of Guillaume Apollinaire, via Wikimedia Commons

modern artists, Apollinaire was intrigued by, and tended to associate with, those who appeared challenging or antagonistic toward bourgeois society;" (Poetry Foundation*). Guillaume rejected "the realistic and naturalistic approaches to writing"*, as he believed they limited the writer's creative vision. "Unlike the Symbolists, however, whose work intentionally ignored everyday reality, Apollinaire's writing demonstrates a serious attempt to confront and transform worldly experience in its diversity, from the crises and joys of personal emotional life to the advancements of technology and the tragedies of war."*

Calligram of Van Gogh's 'Starry Night', containing all the lyrics from Don McClean's song 'Vincent' by A.E.Outlaw Art
The idea that words written within images can have such an emotional charge is utterly amazing to me.
Vincent van Gogh's Starry Night, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The most 'powerful' Calligram I have created to date was the image of Van Gough's Starry Night for my Dad's 80th Birthday. His favourite song is Don McClean's 'Vincent', whose lyrics begin with "Starry, starry night"... my brain took it from there.

As my Dad opened the gift, I played the song for him, so he knew what the words were within the image. Dad sees words differently because he is Dyslexic, and putting them into an image allowed him to engage with the lyrics of the song on an even deeper level; knowing they are there, but seeing them as something so much more. Dad also has Parkinson's Disease, so it is difficult for him to outwardly express his emotions, but he sat and looked at the image in silence for the entire song and afterwards, in the most perfect moment, he just quietly and gently thanked me for such a special gift. I knew then that all the hours of hard work, planning and making this piece had been more than worth it. It now stands, pride of place, in their front room and everyone who enters the house has it thrust in front of their nose to see how 'clever' and 'thoughtful' it is.

I applaud Guillaume's attempts to, and success in, changing the world's thinking by 'challenging the norm', being antagonistic, thinking outside the box and pushing against the status quo. I do not claim to have any such grand ideas, but more that by creating art that inspires, astonishes and brings joy to people, I may change the world of a few people in some small way.

As Paul Shane Spear said:

“As one person I cannot change the world, but I can change the world of one person.”

If you would like to work with me to create something uniquely beautiful for either yourself, or someone special, please get in touch via my contact form: click here.



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