Unworded Letters

Spring 2012


A project based in community and in symbols, in mystery and mutuality.

Street Exhibition of Unworded Letters: Veils and Stones Project

The aims of this project;

  • To enhance peoples self-understanding and expression by leading them away from the linear, language based narratives they are used to in order to explore symbolic and non-linear perspective and new modes of visual expression.
  • To encourage people to have a sense of curiosity and awe about one another, to oppose the culture of exposition by shining a light on peoples mysteries. Here lies the letters likeness to veils.
  • To inspire people to be creative in viewing not only their own, but other people’s stories too. By engaging with the project each person invests in it personally and having taken part, relates more fully, to the growing exhibition of letters.    


De-familiarisation and re-familiarisation. I choose not to use shock-culture to affect people as I believe that many people have developed a natural defence system to deal with that tactic; this takes the form of momentary numbness and then forgetfulness. The familiar, and the relatable, are where all things that really touch us begin. So, to create change in anything so basic and full of habit as peoples’ personal expression and attitudes to one another, there needs to be a gentle modulation along the line of the familiar and the unfamiliar, rocking over the line to where new views are possible and become attractive without falling into the category of novelty.

So I begin with the relatable – words, linear narrative, letters, and then progress gradually away from this towards symbols, narrative maps and simultaneity. By sharing this experience with various members of a community I make it a common experience. It becomes accessible; first as a curiosity, then an interest, a personal experience and finally a mutual experience.

Further notes on Theory and Process: The Notebook, The Invitation, The Painted Veils, The Stones

The Method

  • To invite individuals within a community to write a letter to whomever they would like to; to themselves in the past or future, to friends, far or close or someone they have never met but would like to. To present those individuals with backgrounds, abstract colliograph prints I had made in various colours and intensities, so that they could choose one that they felt was appropriate to their communication.
  • Having decided who they’d like to write to, I then began to edge participants out of their comfort zone by asking them to write without words – using symbols and marks for events, people, ideas and feelings.
  • After having written the letter they chose a smaller colliograph print background and I began The Map. I asked them to pick five important marks or symbols from their letter, these I inscribed on the paper in a compass formation, North, South, East, West and Centre.
  • I then asked the author of the letter to describe how these marks would be visually linked. Where there are strong connections, broken lines, straight or curved lines or none at all – these lines I also inscribed on the map.

The Exhibition

–          Display of all the letters sewed into a line, each letter with its map underneath, hanging in the street near where they were written. The repeated material and loose ink markings seeming at first like all one language, on closer observation, reveal in each letter a distinct style. Like a pile of stones or a stack of leaves their unity is at first striking, but their individual markings and subtly are undeniable. Like fifty pairs of hands, held palm up… a single gesture shows the individual expression that is irresistibly human.

–          Being an exhibition of individual narrative mystery, rather than exposure, the letters appear as a line of painted veils whose beauty is their implication and invitation to imagination. They are what cannot be seen in clothing or on facebook. The mysteries of feeling and expression, the depth of which we share in our common humanity.

–          Wanting the exhibition, like the process, to be tactile (for, despite the digital age, we are physical creatures and understand, and feel connected to the world around us accordingly) I created clay ‘stones’ and inscribed symbols from the letters onto them so that, though the letters were out of reach the symbols could be studied by both eyes and fingers. These stones were placed in the street. Embedded in life outside of galleries.

Standing with the stones at his feet looking up at the letters overhead.


–          When writing a letter people often addressed personal subject matter and, even initial sceptics became very involved during the process, feeling their way towards an unworded visual expression.

–          The fact that the letter was unreadable to others meant some people delved deeper into personal expression than they might in recognizable language. Some wished to talk about what arose for them in the letters, others said they had found realizations or relief in expression but did not wish to share their experience, to relinquish the freedom they found outside of words.

–          Like the symbol writing process people had to think very hard about the map-links. Many said this second process had revealed further aspects of their own thought and understanding about a subject. Others found difficult subjects clarified by the ‘birds-eye-view’ of the mapping process.

–          When the project is approached as a ‘letter’ people who initially baulk at the notion of being involved in ‘art’ because they feel they are unable to or that it is not for them can more easily engage in visual expression and find it an expanding and fulfilling experience.

–          Participants were more engaged in each other’s letters after writing their own and said they had an impulse to write, and send, more letters.

–          I found that the duration was important to how participants felt. The ritual-like process of the project, where symbols were not only invented and drawn, but selected, re-inscribed by a second hand and then linked together into a balanced picture, created a sense of ceremony and gave weight to each expression and individual language that emerged.

–              In the exhibition many people assumed the presence of language without prompting and tried to ‘read’ the letters before they even knew what they were. This is exactly the desired outcome as they were inspired to create stories from the visual promptings that arose from those around them. Some people felt particular connections with certain letters.

–              Physicality was another important factor. Being a part of the physical creation of the project made people more invested in it. Some people took their ‘symbol stone’ away with them from the exhibition both as a memento, an item for reflection, and as a physical manifestation of their own expression.

The duration of this project was about two months. Ideally this project would extend over a longer period of time in a community of any size, and be repeated year after year with the letters on durable material or fabric so that they can hang in a communal space to aid communal reflection and, as they fade, be replenished, leaving echoes of past expressions and a sense of connection over time between all those who share their expression and join their narratives into a communal picture.      The stones would be picked up, taken home, used as paper-weights, decorations and mementos or used for storytelling or playing games. They would inhabit daily life as physical reminders of our experiences and expressions that cannot, and need not, be put into words.




Since this project I have found the stones to be a wonderful aid in storytelling workshops. The beauty of symbols is their simplicity – they can be read in many ways.



Ideals of the Veils and Stones project:
To forge an accessible way to create personal and communal narratives, because people live by narrative, and the global culture is accelerating towards an alienating and fragmenting barrage of information. To find a way to involve people, not only ‘artists’, in the process of creation, and by this, also encouraging them to become active, not passive receivers of ‘art’, and to respect their own and others expression in small, intimate enactments of ‘art’. To create moments that are meaningful in their intimacy and individuality and to tie them into a wider context that doesn’t deny, but respects and celebrates their originality. This ‘wider’ context could be universal in its perceivable humanism, but more also, within a community, however small – as a reflection of its own depth and beauty. To encourage confidence within peoples expressive language, personally and communally, and awareness of the freedom of creative space within it.





Recent Posts

Hockney: Ode to Invisible Blue


Hockney’s Retrospective at the Tate Britain.

hockney self p

I used to draw when I visited galleries, but these days I tend to lean less on the pencil, and more on the pen, making word impressions where sketches will not suffice. With notebooks overflowing and piling up around me I’ve decided now to share these reflections, not posing as a critic, but sharing and exploring experiences of art as I have encountered them and felt compelled to pen them from time to time.  

Hockney’s exhibition at the Tate Britain was the first thing I went to see back in London when I got home. I had so many notes that I planned to write a walk-through of the exhibition, a fascinating journey through the work of an ever changing artist. But in the end I found I had enough to say about a single painting for one post. What was surprising was that it was a painting I had seen reproduced, and did not expect to find fascinating. This reminds me that a large part of the ‘work’ that makes an artwork work is that it takes time, attention, and presence. It is the work of the viewer, as well as of the artist that creates an experience. After a long while of looking I felt very attached to this painting, not it’s miniature reproduction on screen, but the vibrating body of the canvas itself. 

Portrait of an artist 1972 – Pool With Two FiguresDavidHockney-PortraitofanArtistPoolwithTwoFigures. - light


First of all I need to note that although I have put the image here for reference, it is inevitably limited in in capturing the impression of the real piece which I would estimate to be around three meters wide and two high. The colours also are different in real life, some are brighter, some deeper, some subtler. I’m including a black and white image because I think it leaves room for the imagination to project the impressions described.

DavidHockney-PortraitofanArtistPoolwithTwoFigures. - bw


Summer Skirt Mountain

The use of colour in this picture edges on an impressionist realism, using the standard optical tricks to create spatial illusion, purple mountains, receding objects becoming opaque, tending towards blue and contrasting with the bold, bright, warm colours of the pool and the figures, pitching them to the front of the canvas. The stones around the pool are subtly coloured, and there are remarkable white lines with flashes of yellow in the water that truly seem to dance. These things are not just symbols – they evoke the scene through an artful illusion. And yet the whole effect side-steps realism. Two things stand out to me, the intensely saturated blocks of colour in the water, skin tone and salmon jacket, and the stylized patternation of the middle distance mountain, in floral pastel hues that put me in mind of an old fashioned tablecloth, or a faded summer skirt. These things flatten the spacial illusion. I found this over and over again in Hockney’s work, the play between depth and flatness that makes his pictures self aware, breaking their fourth (or only) wall sometimes harshly, sometimes, as here, with a gentle whisper.

Draft Line, “I drew this…”

Although the foliage of the mountains to the fore is more detailed, varied and realistic, the initial sketch lines of their gradients show through the trees that have been painted on top. In an image so consummately painted, controlled and detailed, leaving evidence of the drafting process can only be intentional. And so with this, and the domestic patterned mountain the painting becomes self aware, self conscious of its draftsmanship and decorative potential. The painting says “See this scene.” it also says, “I drew this scene, and then I painted it.”

We, The Watchers

The draft line of the ridge on the right passes behind the head of the standing man, tracking his gaze and drawing our eyes down to follow his view of the swimmer. It is a line of tension. We watch the swimmer with the man in the pink jacket at the pool edge. The sense of watching, and waiting, is static in a way that might be broken at any moment, like the surface of the pool. We are drawn into the scene as participants, sharing a view, “Look”, says the picture, “Let’s watch and see…”

Invisible Blue

I am most impressed by the heavy, soft blue of the body of water that hangs in shadow above the swimmer. It functions so well that it took me a long time of observing the painting to really notice it, despite being a potentially dominating colour and hue, and so boldly placed right across the middle of the canvas. It is a quarter of the painting’s height and two thirds of its length. And it’s almost empty, courageously so. There is some colour shift but no detail, nothing happening. It is painted quite roughly in comparison to other parts of the picture, and it is that emptiness and vagueness lets the eye pass over it without catching. Like meeting the pole of an opposing magnet, your eye rolls over the thick blue mass and lands instead on the bright colours and stark shapes that surround it. The deep hue, the soft and solid nature of this block of water in shadow throws the ephemeral swimmer and streaks of living light out towards the viewer. This blue is the drummer in the band, the broad base line off which the colourful melody plays. Or perhaps it is the silence, the space between notes that allows them to strike out with such clarity. Although as a portion of paint in itself, gloriously and deeply blue, it does not display the finest of Hockney’s talents, it is used in exquisite harmony with its surroundings and demonstrates his deftness with both colour and composition. So I make this short stock of observations an ode, to the invisible blue.

By happy chance today I came across a history of blue pigments

I cannot find a digital reproduction of this image that satisfies my memory of this blue. In the picture at the top of this blog it is far too light. Screen reproductions, besides being flat and small, also play with colour and tend towards brightening everything. The more I learn about colour theory the more I realize that the mixing of colour through light (screen) and pigment (paint) are fundamentally different. The picture below has a better sense of the blue, though all else is much too dark, you get a better impression of the light and shadow in the water.

DavidHockney-PortraitofanArtistPoolwithTwoFigures. - DARK bluejpg

If you have a chance to go and see the actual painting, (and get your own impressions!) and the whole exhibition then please do go. It’s on at the Tate Britain until May 29th. And besides this picture there is a wealth of artwork from Mr. Hockney’s varied and fascinating works.

I would very much like to write about Hockney’s in terms of his relationship with photography but…. He has written and spoken so eloquently about this that first and foremost I suggest anyone who is interested see his documentary on the historical use of camera obscura and camera lucida by many of the revered artists of the past, “Secret Knowledge”. I honestly couldn’t recommend this more if you have an interest in the history of western art and the ways we have learned to see, understand, and construct the world around us as a culture.


Thanks for reading my first ArtNotes post.

More soon from BlancheEllisArtNotes  


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