William Kentridge, watercolour pigment on found pages
William Kentridge, watercolour pigment on found pages

“For me, it is the WORD that produces all images.  It is the key sign for all processes…”
–Joseph Beuys cited in Tisdall, 1979

By J.S. Porter

Sometimes the language one uses or hears or sees can be fittingly characterized as blah, blah, blah.  The language is dull or repetitive or unimaginative, awaiting a child or an artist to rejuvenate it.  Mel Bochner’s “blah paintings,” of which there are dozens of renderings, seem to describe the state of everyday robotic language, and yet the painting lifts the banality of the word “blah” into colour and vibrancy, seeming to contradict the word’s meaning or give it new potential.

Mel Bochner, Blah Blah Blah, 2016

According to conceptual artist Mel Bochner, “the viewer should enter the idea through a visual or phenomenological experience rather than simply reading it.” The word, in this case, the word blah, presents both sound and image at the same time.

Another master of word painting, sometimes called letter painting or text painting, is Ed Ruscha. Famously he has said that he paints words rather than flowers. Often he paints a single word, as in this sample:

Ed Ruscha, Ripe, 1967 oil on canvas
Ed Ruscha, Ripe, 1967 oil on canvas

The painting is a kind of performative in which the picture enacts the message.  “Ripe” looks ripe, looks like a pomegranate about to burst its seeds, like a tomato about to have its juices ooze out and run.

John Lennon Memorial in Central Park New York City
John Lennon Memorial in Central Park New York City

The IMAGINE memorial is not a painting exactly, more sculptural than painterly, but it displays a word with enormous power, a word that has been painted many times.  The word has both visual and aural power. It signals the legacy of one of the great songwriters of the twentieth century.  John Lennon lived the word and made it into one of the world’s most recognizable songs.

Likewise with Yogo Ono’s stone slab, a telegram to the universe, words emit a powerful repetitive message: HELP US.

Yoko Ono, Stone Slab, Words to the Universe

When the word is taken from its habitual context and recontextualized, when the word is lifted from the junk heap of clichéd and commonplace usage, when the word is isolated from the blah-blah-blah noise-box of language, it gathers power.

Years ago, I invented a word – spiritbookword—and ended up writing a book entitled Spirit Book Word: An Inquiry into Literature and Spirituality.  A friend painted in red the keywords of each chapter, from love to mercy, on a black background.

A friend painted in red the keywords of each chapter, from love to mercy, on a black background.

Twenty-plus years after the book’s publication, the words I feel most attached to now are love, small, strange, and mercy.  Each word seems to gain greater resonance than it would otherwise have had by its being painted.

If you had a painted word to address the universe, what would it be?  Would it be PEACE, the word Ukraine so desperately needs for its survival?  Or, FREEDOM, the word that it incarnates every day of its resistance?

Would it be IMAGINE, as in John Lennon, or HELP US, as in Yogo Ono?  Or, do you have a passion for spirit, books, and words where SPIRITBOOKWORD feels right for you, too? I’ve just come to realize that while my conscious life hasn’t addressed the issue, my subconscious has in a DREAM.  The dream, which I made into a poem, takes its inspiration from the medieval text “The Cloud of Unknowing:” “It is not your will or desire that moves you, but something you are completely ignorant of, stirring you to will and desire you know not what. Please do not worry if you never know more than this…”

Dreaming of high winds and fast water

and The Cloud of Unknowing,

white dogs digging

for protection and shade,

birds on the cusps of cups

falling into electric beaters,

and the anonymous author

telling me to pray

with one-syllable words

like help and please.

Then on a mountain road

a young girl asks

where I’m going,

and I mumble something,

not really knowing.

I want to say,

“I’m lost, girl. Help me, please.”

I want to pray

with a one-syllable word,

but I don’t know which one.

So I close my mouth

and shut my eyes,

and a child

in the centre of my heart


I see now that my telegram to the universe bears striking resemblance to Yoko Ono’s.  She was saying, HELP US.  And I was saying HELP ME.  We both said HELP.