What’s in a word?

In the hands of Peter Jickling and his friends, each word has its own voice. You can listen to those voices at the Word Project: A Treatise on Resonant Philosophy at the Old Fire Hall May 14-20.

“Only” is spelled with small letters, and faint swishy marks around it. It gave me a wistful kind of feeling.

One capital A boasts a small human figure sheltering under its shape, arms raised exultantly.

Jickling was particularly pleased with that one, as the carver was a construction worker from Edmonton. Jickling just asked him to carve an A, and he added his images spontaneously.

And the word word has a bat for a “w”.

Jickling has created block prints of individual words on 12×16″ sheets of handmade paper. He printed each word using ink he blended himself from linseed oil and lamp black pigment.

Each block, carved from linoleum, plywood or speedy stamp, prints one word, carved by one of his friends or family members.

Each word is printed in the middle of the page, with the page in portrait rather than landscape orientation.

I wonder if this choice adds to the sense of personality in each word. Certainly, the luxury of white space, made of Jickling’s lovingly crafted paper, ending in a deckled and sometimes imperfect edge, provides room for each word to resonate.

“I wanted to bestow as much meaning as I could into each word, which is why I made the paper and why I made the ink.”

Every year Jickling’s Dad would make a block print Christmas card.

“I didn’t have too much to do with it,” but it was part of his family culture. “So when I had to decide how to present these words it seemed like the natural thing to do.”

He made the paper with the help of Britt Quinn at the Ottawa School of Art and Design.

Born in Whitehorse, Jickling studied philosophy in Lethbridge, Alberta, and went on to pursue his master’s degree at Concordia University in Montreal. He chose not to complete that program, as he found his professors weren’t interested in the same things he was.

Jickling is fascinated by the relationship between form and context, how the way something is presented contributes to the meaning of that thing.

He traces some of his ideas back to Marshall McLuhan, who famously said “the medium is the message.”

Canadian poet, musician and philosopher Jan Zwicky also shaped his notion that form is integral to meaning.

Jickling showed me his book Metaphor & Wisdom, in which short writings or aphorisms by Zwicky occupy each left-hand page, with lots of white space around them. On the right she places excerpts from other philosophers.

The reader is invited to infer the connections between them, the way their meanings echo and resound. Zwicky is committed to pairing both logic and lyricism in her philosophy.

Jickling found the philosophy he was learning at school to be too strictly rational. So he embarked on this art project to find some of the other ways words can live, and how they can draw out a more wholistic experience of the mind.

Jickling wrote an aphorism of his own, but he didn’t show it to anyone. He still hasn’t. Over the past four and a half years he got people from all over Canada to carve a block for each of the words in the aphorism.

Block cutting is laborious. You can see the effort in these words, an interesting contrast in these days of limitless automatic fonts from the web.

“We all ended up wearing Band-Aids before it was done.”

As Jickling travelled across Canada, he got people to carve words in Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Toronto and Montreal.

Each word will have a foam core backed gallery-style label identifying the person who carved the word, the place it was carved and the date.

Because they were carved randomly, one word carved in Whitehorse August 2011 will appear beside another carved in Toronto February 2008.

They will be installed in logical reading order and the aphorism can be read for the first time at the exhibition opening.

Jickling hopes people will enjoy each word as an individual art object, as well as reading the aphorism itself.

In the context of current Yukon art, it’s interesting to see this show so soon after Lauren Tuck and Jerome Stueart’s Brave Wall of Words at the Yukon Community gallery, where they posted aphorisms of their own cut into individual words that people could rearrange.

Obviously, Jickling has been working on his Word Project for a long time.

These projects are to my knowledge completely independent. But there’s a similarity in approach to language here, cutting apart and rearranging words to find new degrees of meaning, that makes me think there’s something in the air.

Jicking would like the show to generate “good discussions. In a way, this is my master’s thesis.”

He will be sitting the show himself, so you can talk with him at the opening, May 14 from 5 to 8 p.m., or May 15-19 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and May 20 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.