While online recently, I discovered a gallery in New York which specializes in contemporary African art. A lot of it really spoke to me, in particular the work of a transplanted Ethiopian named Wosene Worke Kosrof. I saw in his work some of the visions I’ve had in my own head but never quite had a way to get out and onto canvas. Looking at his work has given me a lot of new ideas for expressing things I was previously unable to.
One of the major things that struck me about his work is its calligraphic nature. Yet it’s much more than just letter forms on canvas; it’s calligraphy that has a life of its own. If you google his name and check out his work I think you’ll see what I mean. Anyway, that aspect of his work gave me a key, a way into my own visions I hadn’t had before.
I did a lot of sketching and experimenting before beginning a painting using the new ideas I’d gotten from this African artist. I knew the painting itself would also still be very much an experiment, but then every really interesting painting is. I started by laying down a burnt-sienna-and-burnt-umber wash over the entire canvas. Then, with no real plan in mind, I began painting in some dark blocky shapes.
I had in mind, more or less, the colors I wanted to use, and had already mixed them up, so I wasn’t operating totally by the seat of my pants. Still, as I added shapes I was operating pretty much on gut instinct. Of course every time I add a new element, it defines the painting more and narrows the options for what follows.
At this point, I began to add some calligraphy of my own design. I guess you could say I began inventing an alphabet. But it’s not really an alphabet, because the characters don’t correspond to any language or sound, they’re just shapes I like. Rather than putting characters together to signify some specific meaning, I’m putting characters next to each other without regard to meaning but with the intention of creating a visual pattern that’s interesting and provocative. It’s a design which happens to look like writing. And of course, that’s what I like about it!
At the same time as I was creating this pseudo-calligraphy, I was also adding interesting shapes. The most interesting was a horizontal bar filled with multicolored diamond shapes. It reminded me a bit of Australian aboriginal art, as well as African so-called ‘primitive’ art. It immediately became the most interesting thing about the painting so far, and so began to define the look and flavor of the work.
As the painting progressed, I got more comfortable with the calligraphy, while at the same time still being willing to experiment quite a lot with both the calligraphy and the shapes. The horizontal lines made up of short bars which emerge from the right side of the central diamond bar remind me of ritual scarring (not planned, just something I tried, then realized it reminded me of something I hadn’t expected), and I liked that. I also created a rectangle shape (below and to the right of the diamond bar) with some sort of chevron shapes in it, in orange and red outlined by white, and that kind of reminded me a bit of the new South African flag. So lots of tribal, African associations were coming up as I continued letting the painting create itself.
I continued adding shapes and calligraphy because I was having so much fun! This was the closest I have come in a long, long time—maybe ever—to putting on canvas the things I’ve seen in my imagination. So rather than forcing the painting to have a central focus, I decided to let it continue to grow organically. In my mind it was becoming something like an illuminated manuscript, where the purpose is not to create a single compelling image, but rather to offer a beautifully decorated written story meant to be read and savored.
And in the final analysis, that’s kind of what this painting is: a manuscript, or cave painting, where there’s a story being told. I don’t pretend to know what the story is, but when I look at it, I feel it. I couldn’t tell you in words what the manuscript is saying, but I definitely get the meaning deep inside. I call the painting Entry because for me it’s a passageway, my first entry into a whole new language of self-expression.