The writing is on the wall — not metaphorically but literally.
This latest work of art is a collaboration with my friend and neighbour John Hay. He and I previously collaborated on a mosaic map of Glen Villa and a giant turtle that sits in the Upper Field.
More significantly, though, the project is a departure for me. As my granddaughter pointed out, it is the first piece I’ve conceived that doesn’t relate to nature or natural materials in one way or another. Using neon makes it different — jazzier and more urban in tone.
Neon signs are rare now, replaced by plastic signs lit from behind. To make the sign for Glen Villa, John called on the skills of a local sign maker, one of a very few who is still able to do the work, who bent glass tubes into the appropriate shapes, inserted a powder into the tubes and then added a gas that fixed the powder to the glass. An electrician made the necessary connections and voila! a neon sign.
When the idea for this project came to me, I knew immediately that I wanted the words to be up in lights, either in LED strip lights or neon. I chose neon because it coloured the world I grew up in. It lit up the streets at night, advertising diners like Bill’s Barbecue and White Tower and department stores like Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers. It flashed out the words which sold every product that a 1950s world desired, including — oddly enough — Sauers Vanilla. That sign fascinated me as a child because it was animated — the word vanilla appeared letter by letter while a chef in a tall white hat added vanilla to his batter, drop by drop.
I chose neon as well because it lightened up the message. The words are clichéd now but they have a long history whose meaning has always been negative. If the writing is on the wall, something bad is going to happen, and that something is inevitable. As told in the Book of Daniel, the phrase dates back to 5-3 BCE, when a disembodied hand appeared during a feast given by the ruler Belshazzar, writing mene, mene, tekel, parsin on the wall. Daniel interpreted the words as a warning to the king, and that very night Belshazzar was killed and his kingdom divided between the Medes and the Persians. Or so the story goes.
I didn’t put the writing on the wall to warn anyone. Far from it. The idea simply appealed to my sense of humour. It made me laugh. But I also knew that the installation was more than a joke.
Like a graffiti tag, the words make an impersonal space personal. They acknowledge the writers in my family, and there are lots of them — my husband, several of my children and several of their spouses. (Let me brag here: Bone and Bread, a novel written by my daughter-in-law Saleema Nawaz, is short-listed for this year’s CBC’s Canada Reads.)
The sign is personal for me as well since it continues my use words in the landscape.
I used words for the first time at Glen Villa in an installation called In Transit/En Route.
I used them on a sign affixed to a tree I painted yellow, at a spot where a trail through the woods divides.
They appear in French and English on a bridge that separates our property from a relative’s, first on one side…
…and then on the other.
The inspiration for this most recent art project came from Broadwoodside, a garden in Scotland that I visited last year. Photographing our host pouring coffee, the words popped out at me, sending as clear a message as I’ve ever received. I knew immediately that this was an idea I would use.
The Writing is on the Wall appears on the wall of our house, at one end of the Log Terrace. (We call it this because of the circular slices of wood that make up the floor.) The barnboard wall was, for me, the obvious place to put the sign, for practical as well as aesthetic reasons. Electricity was readily available, the stretch of wall felt empty and the area was dark.
My sign isn’t a copy of the sign at Broadwoodside. It isn’t sending a Biblical warning. It’s a work derived from these and other sources, transformed by the material and style into something new.
Using words in the landscape intrigues me, and in the weeks to come I’ll be thinking about the topic in preparation for writing about it.
In the meantime, I’d like to know if you use words outdoors. If you do, how do you use them, and why? Do you know other people who do? Send along your thoughts. and your photographs if you are willing for me to use them. (I’ll credit you, of course.)
I appreciate your help.