A Dictionary Story and Unbound
By happy coincidence, my tutor recommended I research into Sam Winston after I’d already spotted some of his work on Pinterest. I took a look at his website https://www.samwinston.com/ (accessed 12/04/21) and ordered myself a copy of ‘A Dictionary Story’. His work is focused around visual language and typography; in his artists’ books, he creates beautiful pages that show off narrative and poetry skills, as well as being visually interesting. The whole form and layout of the book contributes to its meaning.
First, this order came with a book called ‘Arc: Unbound’ which shows off some of the work from the show ‘Unbound’ held at the Klingspor Museum in Offenbach, Germany in 2011. The show was created by Stefan Soltek and showcased artists who explored visual language and how form relates to content. This included Sam’s work, but also many others, including Victoria Bean (another artist my tutor had mentioned in my feedback), Karen Bleitz and Rick Myers. The work is split into syntax, existence and subtext; three fascinating themes that I’ve enjoyed reading about.
I particularly enjoyed Karen Bleitz’s ‘Mechanical Word’ – a playful look at the order of words and how this impacts a sentence’s meaning. It reminded me a lot of my teaching of grammar in primary schools – how we break down sentences into their word types and look at how we can construct a sentence again, almost like machines. It also explores the very power that comes with the order of words in a sentence, and how this can have an impact on the listener/reader. I loved the colours used too – primary colours (red, yellow and blue) or black and white in many cases – to reinforce this message of component parts coming together to create something else, something particularly unpredictable.
Victoria Bean’s ‘This is the life’ captured my attention. I liked its simplicity – it reminded me of another concrete poem I’d explored, which followed a similar pattern of using one sentence or one word, then removed different letters to change the meaning. In this case, there are just three lines: This is the life. This is the lie. This is life. The book comments that these three phrases are three different commentaries or perspectives on existence, which made me think about how we can contradict ourselves endlessly (Delpha Hudson explored this too). One day – or even for e split second – we might be feeling really positive and have no complaints (‘this is the life’) while another moment we can feel hurt and upset and betrayed (‘this is the lie’) and then perhaps we come around to accepting how unpredictable everything is and that we just have to ride the wave (‘this is life’). I loved how much this communicated in three lines. Also, the choice of gold on white seemed interesting to me – quite luxurious and rich, perhaps indicating the value of each perspective in its own right. The text is shiny and slightly reflective – possibly symbolic of the way we reflect on our choices and these moments.
Sam Winston’s ‘A Dictionary Story’ features in this section, but first I’ll talk about Victoria Bean’s ‘Heartburn’. Again, I was completely taken by Victoria Bean’s clever use of words, making the reader think carefully about each unit of meaning. She arranges the words on the folds of the concertina books, which means they are split apart into smaller units of meaning. I like this physical aspect to the words, as if the reader is actually separating them and deconstructing the meaning of the poems. It’s also powerful language, simple but effective. The words are sometimes opposites, adding to this idea of subtext – by taking sentences apart, we can discover oxymorons and hidden messages.
‘A Dictionary Story’ was a pure delight to read. It consists of three folded documents, concertina folded, with the three parts of the story (I felt like it was a separation between the classic narrative structure ‘beginning’, ‘middle’ and ‘end’). The story is on the folds of the book, with the narrative along one side, and the dictionary definition of each word along the other. I was immediately captivated by this concept and thought the whole thing was clever and playful.
The story is about the dictionary letting the words tell stories and everything becoming rather nonsensical, then being told to reorder the words and go back to being her normal self, for fear of confusing readers. In this, the definitions change, take on different shapes (for instance, the jungle vines are particularly fun) and, when the letters reorder, there is a crowd of letters going from A to Z. I particularly enjoyed the ending, where the final word is ‘end’ and the definition side says ‘see dictionary’. I thought it was a really smart way of pulling the whole concept and narrative together neatly.
The thing I enjoyed most about this book was the way form helped convey the narrative. Not only does Sam play with the individual words and letters on the page to reinforce his story, he also considers the folds of the paper, the physical structure of the story in the reader’s hands, and the separation of the three parts of the story. The black text on white paper speaks to the classic nature of the subject matter and focuses the reader’s attention purely on the shapes, the words and the story. The font choice is old style, with little contrast between strokes, again, reinforcing the traditional subject matter and drawing the reader into the playful, colourful language.
The pages are sturdy and slightly rough in texture; I think this also relates to the old, traditional story theme (a novel has uncoated pages, but usually thinner – Sam probably chose thicker paper to support the folding document idea). I tried standing the folding booklets up, and this makes for an interesting viewing experience; coming at the pages from different angles reveals different words – probably a deliberate choice to mimic the quality of a dictionary, as so many different words appear at one glance.
I will definitely be taking inspiration from these projects for my own work going forward. It is clear that every aspect of ‘A Dictionary Story’ was well-considered and the way the final book is presented is genius. I really enjoyed reading it. I think it shows that an idea can be elevated so much by the choices made in paper, type, layout, and all the other aspects explored in this module.
This wonderful package of goodies from Sam Winston also came with these beautiful postcards showcasing some more of his work. I was intrigued to read about a project he’d done in darkness (I’ve often written in my diaries in the dark and been entertained by the results when looking the next morning). I was very struck by the circle of colourful lines overlapping again and again. It really sucks you into the white circle – there’s so much depth. It reminds me of an eye. I feel like there should be words in this empty space, but I think that’s the point. It forces you to look straight into emptiness, surrounded by this tangle of colour.