Looking at the jumbled letters and images of Amy Modahl’s prints, one thinks of those sliding puzzles often found amongst the small plastic models and other trinkets inside a Christmas cracker.
Not dissimilar to a Rubik’s Cube, the sliding tiles are moved into place to form a cohesive picture or message. However, in Modahl’s case, the puzzle is fixed in place. There are no tiles to slide, just a jumble that has one thinking on how art correlates with written language.
Does it need to make sense?
A student and teacher of linguistics, fine art, and writing, Modahl, who is based in Salmon Arm, has taken her interests to create the works for her latest exhibition, dis/Order, which is about to be shown at the Vernon Public Art Gallery.
“I’ve been playing back and forth with tensions of antonyms, clarity and lack of clarity and order and disorder… I want to open complex things for a broader audience,” said Modahl, when talking about the basis for her artwork in the exhibition.
It was while completing her master’s in fine art at UBC Okanagan that Modahl wrote her thesis on the aesthetic exploration of language.
She started thinking about structural properties of language such as patterns that form words and syntax, and how those form patterns when speaking language.
Those ideas first stuck with Modahl when she started studying and teaching art history and applied linguistics in her native U.S. (Modahl is from Wisconsin originally.)
“I initially got a job in interactive media and finance… There’s a tendency for women to go for security, but then I taught applied linguistics and art history,” she said.
In 2000, she arrived in Vancouver and started teaching English and linguistics for design at Emily Carr University. She also met and married fellow artist John Wood, a painter and musician who goes by the name of Herald Nix. The two moved to Wood’s native home of Salmon Arm three years ago, where they now live on Wood’s family orchard.
It was around that time she started teaching linguistic anthropology at UBC Okanagan, where students were instructed to create their own language. (Modahl’s colleague, professor Christine Schreyer, developed the Kryptonian language for the recent Superman movie, Man of Steel.)
“It was so interesting to bring together these different minds,” she said.
In 2012, Modahl changed roles from that of teacher to student and applied and was accepted into the master’s of fine art graduate studies at UBCO.
“I had been teaching quite a bit and had been disconnected with art, so I decided to carve out time for school and decided to devote a lot of time to it,” she said. “I wanted to bring together the things that I did before and studied screenprinting and painting… Having my undergrad in art was great as I was able to intermingle that with interdisciplinary studies. I also wanted to get back to working with my hands rather than just writing.”
At school, Modahl became interested in how to express language through the visual medium; how the basic mechanics of the formation of words can be revealed through colour, shape and line, establishing patterns or breaking into fragments.
While completing her master’s, she started to play with instructions from the classroom. She constructed large wooden-like puzzles with words written in black across the surface that could be rearranged, not unlike those magnetic word poetry kits.
For her grad project, she created similar word puzzles, one with blocks on Velcro, one with a picture and another with a sentence. She also showed similar work in an exhibition entitled The Object of the Verb at the Alternator Centre for Contemporary Art in Kelowna.
“Some asked why I didn’t put directions with my work and that started me thinking about what is perceived and understood about language,” she said. “This time I decided that people wouldn’t be able to move the pieces around. I wanted it to be a sensory activity.
“Some have been upset that they couldn’t make sense of it, however, I wanted to play with animation and got instructions from old books. I also wanted to make it more funny.”
For those curious to read “between the lines,” dis/Order is about to open at the Vernon Public Art Gallery. (The opening date has been pushed to Jan. 16 due to the recent flood from a water main break outside the gallery’s doors before Christmas.)
Modahl will give an artist talk on her work, Feb. 1 at 1 p.m. Included in her catalogue as part of the show is a creative piece written specifically for her by Okanagan College English/writing professors Jake Kennedy and Kevin McPherson Eckhoff.
The gallery will also feature Paula Scott’s Stories and Dreams, Christine Kashuba’s Thrown, and the Live Model Drawing Group’s Embodiment. An opening reception is tentatively scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 16 from 6 to 8 p.m. The exhibitions will be up until March 13. For more information, contact the VPAG at 250-545-3173 or visit www.vernonpublicartgallery.com.