The Word is more than a heap of letters. It builds order from chaos, starts and ends wars and love affairs. It leads us half-blind down the synaptic highways of our minds, thoughtfully and thoughtlessly wandering. Words absorb worlds and twenty-six dripping letters are nothing but shapes until they become the instrument of the author, the artist, wrung out, reformed, carved and polished, painted, sculpted.
Ventura's Ken McAlpine took to the solitude of our local islands to deconstruct contemporary American life in his most recent book, Islands Apart. Carpinteria-based painter Julie Montgomery utilizes words to add texture and ethereal mystery to her work. And Robert Peake, from Ojai, is a poet.
An author, a painter, and a poet met at the E.P. Foster Library in Ventura to discuss the quiet art of words, and to consider how those words shape our understanding of the world.
VENTANA: How does an author react to the modern generation's predilection for quick-byte writing?
KEN MCALPINE: The word is that people's attention spans are shorter and that there are fewer readers, but then when I talk to people, they say, "I love to read; I have twelve books stacked by my bed." I believe there are still people who love the arts ... they're just getting drowned out by Britney Spears.
ROBERT PEAKE: In general, technology speeds up our relationship to everything, and words are no exception. ... All of us share, as artists, a sense that words can slow down our relationship to ourselves and our world, to noticing things, or taking in a piece of art, which is a very different experience than taking in an email. The natural tendency of technology is to make us want to scan and skim. I think that the more we do that, the more we become hungry for this balance of taking a moment to really appreciate something. ... There is a preciousness right now about what we're doing, in a world of increasing chatter and instant gratification.
VENTANA: How do people react when you tell them you're a poet?
ROBERT PEAKE: It's a great way to stop a conversation at a cocktail party. ... My day job is in technology, which a lot of people think is incongruous, but there's actually an interesting interplay between art and technology going on these days. I think people in the arts either see technology as a friend or a foe. If you look at it in the right way, we're living in some of the most interesting times for words and art.
VENTANA: Do you consider the visual impact of the actual words, the way a poem looks?
ROBERT PEAKE: There's a whole school of visual poetry, where people are very much looking at the page and how you lay things out on the page. Poetry, to me, is using words to get beyond words. You know, we don't really have good words for complex emotional states. I mean, even good ones like, "I'm feeling kind of wistful today..." That still doesn't encompass the way that the light's coming in through the window that morning, and what's gone before, and what you're thinking about.
VENTANA: Julie, this ties in to your field, visual arts. But you also incorporate words. How did that come about?
JULIE MONTGOMERY: I have been journaling for years. I started writing in my drawings, and then in my paintings. The words are not necessarily meant to be read. For me, it's sort of a reminder of the importance of a stream of consciousness. In my paintings, the words are often just that, or a poem, or a conversation I'm having with the painting, an internal dialogue.
VENTANA: In the painting you brought today, Island Passage, how do the words match up to the rest of the piece?
JULIE MONTGOMERY: On this particular piece, it's a poem. It's meant to be seen in glimpses so that the viewer can kind of fill in and have curiosity—and think for a moment. It's more meant to be impressions: somebody whispering, or a veil of text, as in words that you can see, but also a texture. I'm doing layers of colors and textures in my pieces, so for me the final layer is a textural text, as it were.
VENTANA: So in a sense, you're using words to communicate, much as a poet or author would, but the meaning of the words isn't all that important?
JULIE MONTGOMERY: Right, although for English-reading audiences, they'll be able to get little pieces of it. I think sometimes not revealing everything is a nice way of engaging, allowing for a little bit of mystery. It's sort of like the carpets they would weave where, in the pattern there's one flaw and it lets the spirit out of the carpet. I guess it's sort of the opposite of instant gratification.
KEN MCALPINE (to Julie): Do you highlight particular words? Like, "dream" leaps right out of there.
JULIE MONTGOMERY: Sometimes there are certain words that are really important to me at that particular time in my life.
ROBERT PEAKE: It immediately struck me that [this work] is a lot like poetry—that word you can't quite make out, that music in a distant room, that experience that isn't ever going to be fully manifest through the medium, and yet the only way it comes through is the medium of words. That's what you've got: words. They're imperfect and they can't convey it completely, but they can point out a trajectory. ... One word can have twenty or thirty nuanced meanings depending on where it's placed, depending on its context. And that's the art. That's the wonderfulness of words as an artistic medium, this incredible variety of expression.
KEN MCALPINE: Words are art, but there's also a very workmanlike aspect behind it. People ask me, "What do you do when the muse isn't firing?" I'm getting paid for this. I come in and bang my head against the wall until the words come. And if they don't come, I keep banging. ... But it is a joy. Writing provides a chance to be observant. I believe this is my one life—I'm not coming back as a kumquat—and I don't want to miss anything. Part of the premise behind my book, and we've touched on this, is that things are just so rushed these days. Sometimes it is fun in our vocation to step back and observe. You know, today was a day well lived. I saw these things; I didn't miss them.
VENTANA: Ken, describe the creative process behind your most recent book, Islands Apart.
KEN MCALPINE: I take copious notes. So I was wandering around those islands, with five days growth and no shower, holding a notebook. The few people I ran into gave me a wide berth because I'm on a promontory scratching down what looks like my last will and testament before I jump over the edge. But yeah, I take a lot of notes and then I come back and highlight what I think is best. After that, it's actually kind of magical. You sit down with those things and they sort of whir around in your brain. The first two days or so, I'm sorting stuff out and things just don't go well, and then all of a sudden things gel. That part is magic.
JULIE MONTGOMERY: I have a very similar experience. Often I'll work on a painting until I just really don't like it, and then I'll make myself leave, otherwise I'll overwork it. And each time I walk away and come back I see it completely different. Then suddenly things start to fit, like a puzzle, and there's this sense of elation from that. ... You really don't know when a piece of art is finished. In writing, you can edit it and change this and rephrase that. There's just a sense of things fitting together in a right way. It's definitely internal.
VENTANA: Julie, at what point did you start using words in your paintings?
JULIE MONTGOMERY: I always have. There was a point when I was in art school where I wasn't necessarily encouraged to; you're learning how to do still lifes and that kind of thing. But even at that time, the words started to come in slowly. I started, in school, using words as a bit of texture, creating blocks of texture on the drawings. Then as I evolved, the writing became more of a standard thing in there. For me, those words are a part of the completion process.
VENTANA: When you begin a painting, do you already know which words you'll use?
JULIE MONTGOMERY: Sometimes. There are certain pieces that I feel really connect to certain things I am writing about. But often it's more of an internal dialogue, a stream of consciousness. I often don't know what I am going to write until I'm actually writing.
VENTANA: You paint in layers. So, when do the words get added?
JULIE MONTGOMERY: They are always the final layer, but I will go in and obscure them so they're not, like, floating on the surface. I'll obscure them so they recede back into the depth of the painting itself.
KEN MCALPINE: That's a beautiful touch, Julie, because if you just gave this painting (Island Passage) a cursory glance you wouldn't even see the words.
JULIE MONTGOMERY: And that's actually very intentional. I want you to see the image from a distance, but then as you get closer to the painting, you start to see this other life, this other layer in there.
ROBERT PEAKE: What's interesting to me is the interplay between these abstract forms and these words that, as you say, have been obscured. Words, to me, are some of the least abstract elements you could put on a page, because people automatically assume words mean something. ... When I saw these words I thought, that's kind of what poetry is: that sense of the submerged.
JULIE MONTGOMERY: Sometimes the words allude to that which is not being said.
ROBERT PEAKE: It's the "space between the words," and you literally have, between the lines, these forms that enrich the experience.
VENTANA: We're in a room, surrounded by dusty old hardback books, and in our pockets, iPhones and Blackberries. Where is the Word going?
JULIE MONTGOMERY: It's like what the printing press was to the evolution of society. We're in that kind of transition.
ROBERT PEAKE: And people were terrified of the printing press. People were strapped to them and burned alive! It was really a dangerous thing to those in power.
KEN MCALPINE: That all harkens back to the power of art—they were terrified of the Word.
ROBERT PEAKE: There's always an opportunity for art, any time a human being wants to express something. And no matter what the medium, there's always a limitation, whether it's a hundred and forty characters for a Twitter message, or...
JULIE MONTGOMERY: Or within a thirty-six by thirty-six-inch canvas.