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A Is for Art: An Abstract Alphabet

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  • Posted February 9, 2009

    The aesthetic child's "eye-spy"

    Steven Johnson's "A is For Art" accomplishes what children's books hope for most: engagement and education. In his collection of contemporary abstract art Johnson teaches kids that art need be "realistic," that artists play with suggestion. In his language he is experimental and silly. My son mostly enjoys ferreting out the hidden letter in each piece (or, by now, remembering its location). He has even started to memorize some of Johnson's most alliterative artistic captions. "A is For Art" is memorable, fun, and instructive for kids and their artistically inclined parents.

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  • Posted November 26, 2008

    Another Great Alphabet Book from Stephen T. Johnson

    Six years in the making, A is for Art is a monumental achievement. To help illustrate the point, I will admit a false assumption my lazy brain made when I first saw the book: "Oh, how cool! He's exhaustingly searched through thousands of pieces of contemporary art to discover connections with the alphabet."<BR/><BR/>Not quite. It's even more amazing than that. Imagine if a letter had the power to dictate an artist's creation. "X" instructs the artist to use "x-rays and xerographs of xylophones," and, of course, the x-rayed and xerographed xylophone images must themselves form the letter "x."<BR/><BR/>What is so fresh about Stephen's set of alliterated constraints is that they are not restricted to subjects (nouns) alone. Descriptors (adjectives) and action words (verbs) also inform the creation of his pieces. For example, in "Ice Cream Floats," the "imitation" ice cream cones are "individually illuminated, isolated, immobilized, immersed, inverted, identical, and insoluble."<BR/><BR/>In his own words, Stephen had been, "exploring the English dictionary, selectively choosing and organizing particular words from each letter of the alphabet and, based solely on the meanings of the words, developing a visual work of art."<BR/><BR/>Back to my lazy brain. Where I had originally thought that Stephen searched for these alphabet connections in pre-existing art, he, instead, created all of the art pieces after having worked within a set of self-imposed, alphabet-based constraints.<BR/><BR/>The results reveal startling symmetries, that to a casual observer remain hidden. I use "symmetries" in the broadest sense of the word. Stephen's compositions display a harmony and order that invoke an almost mathematical beauty.<BR/><BR/>"Golden Sections" is a painting based on the letter "G" that depicts a visual representation of the "golden ratio" (think nautilus shell chambers). The letter "G" can be clearly discerned as we follow the fractal through several recursions. <BR/><BR/>In its color palette and use of media, "gradations of green, gray, and gold...rendered with gouache, graphite, glitter, granulated gunpowder, and glue," "Golden Sections" creates such a harmonic effect that one better understands Soviet scientist's V. Vernadsky's assertion that "a new element in science is not the revelation of the principle of symmetry, but the revelation of its universal nature." <BR/><BR/>Finally, I must comment upon Stephen's observation that "the self-imposed limitations and restrictive nature of using only words from each letter of the alphabet to generate an original creation have turned out to be truly liberating."<BR/><BR/>As someone who works with constraints myself (I'm currently working on a 32-page picture book that tells a story using only words that begin with the letters "qu"), I am in complete agreement with Stephen on the power of constraints to unleash creativity. It's a paradox, but that is probably why it works.<BR/><BR/>Stephen's work is concept art at its most meaningful and accessible, ready to tickle the brains and eyes of children of all ages. His work truly exemplifies the notion of "ideart," in which the concept (idea) and its artistic expression are one and the same.<BR/><BR/>I applaud Stephen on his genius creation.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 7, 2009

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