Interview with artist Sam Winston

By | March 22nd, 2011 | No Comments
Sam Winston's Orphan Thats

All the thats in Sam Winston's latest work, 'Orphan'

Sam Winston is a man of many words. With the obsessiveness of a lexicographer and the perfectionism of a master craftsman, the London-based artist creates many of his sculptures, drawings, and books out of language itself, splicing up words, endowing once lifeless definitions with human vitality (and, in one case, a thirst for blood), turning the heavy volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary into airy origami, and arranging the emotions of Romeo and Juliet into blocks of text that somehow both muffle and amplify the force of Shakespeare’s tale of love, lust, and blood.

With work in the MoMA (New York), the Tate Galleries (London), and the Getty Research Institute (L.A.), Winston is heading to Miami in April for a three-week Fountainhead Residency, during which he will be interacting in unannounced but presumably cool ways with local poets. He also is scheduled to give a talk at the University of Miami on April 13 as part of the O, Miami poetry festival.

Last week, I video chatted with Winston about growing up dyslexic, Mayan butterflies, several of his works, and his favorite word. In the spirit of mixed-media, you will find photos, audio, and text below. Enjoy.

On the origin of his fascination with language

I grew up dyslexic, so my basic interest came from having a difficulty watching people use the writing system in a way I couldn’t use it. I didn’t really understand going from nouns — real-world objects — outward into articles and pronouns and adjectives. The further it went from the real world, and the more abstract the code got, the more I had difficulty with piecing all of these parts together. One of the things I found really helpful was using visual language, using images.

When we learn about language, first we learn the alphabet with a song [hums the ABCs]. So actually what’s happening is that your remembering a tune, you’re using a different faculty of your memory, audio. I think that’s what led me into what you would call an intersection between art and language — the gap between those two places. I started leaning on how people visualize words as a starting block for understanding what was being written. And that’s always been my departure point actually.

On discovering language’s shoreline at OED headquarters

“Language’s has got a shoreline”

Winston elaborated on the concept with the following example.

In the Mayan language, they had five types of blue that referred to five different species of butterfly. When the Spanish translated the Mayan, they only bothered to translate three types of blue. That means two butterflies stopped existing in one translation. I think that’s a good example of how your understanding of things is held by the language you can use to express it.

On poetry as the space between words and images

Pictures speak to you in a way that words don’t, and that’s the whole reason we use pictures. We move from one medium to another and that changes the meaning. I think that’s what poetry does in exactly the same way. Poetry is like a space between the written word and what a picture does. The poet holds language a lot looser than, say, a journalist or an author would. It’s the space between the words in poetry, the gaps between each line, that the reader fills in and gives it its originality and nuance and subtly and profundity.

On “Made Up True Story”

“Made Up True Story”

Made Up True Story by Sam WinstonMade Up True Story by S. Winston

On “Orphan”

One of Winston’s most recent works, “Orphan” documents the writing process of the title story by arranging ten years’ worth of drafts into “text clouds” (see the thats at the top of this page).

I was writing over a ten-year period, and I wasn’t binning the drafts. I was saving them. When I finally got to a final draft, I went through all the previous drafts and cut out all the words to make the final draft. I describe it as I made a typeface of the previous drafts. So what you’re looking at is both the story and its history. If you see a nice a bit of copy or a nice paragraph, [people] tend to be like, “You’ve polished that so much.” I wanted to put all of the dirt in the process. So you got to see how many times I had to physically write these words before I got to a final copy.

It was a naked writing experience. You’re showing all your references. You’re showing your influences. It takes some of the “How did you come to say that?” out of it.

I asked Winston which writers’ work he would like to see laid out à la “Orphan”.

If it was a writer, I’d like to see Italo Calvino. If any poet, it would be Don Patterson. He translated a series of poems by Rilke. So [by extension] Rilke. Rilke’s “Orpheus” is really interesting.

On “Romeo & Juliet”

“Romeo & Juliet”

Sam Winston's Passion Collage

This is a collage of letter fragments that make up the many words uttered in passion in Romeo and Juliet.

On “Space Between Words”

Winston shines a light on the space between words, leaving viewers alone with their thoughts.

After working with so much text and dealing with so many words, you get really tired of words. And from that as a starting point, I was interested in what happens when you shut up. As when you finish a book, what space are you in when you stop listening to the author’s voice and your voice comes in? Or the space in poetry — why is the leading in poetry so large? It’s so you have the space to interpret what the poet is saying.

So visually, [typographers] create space for you to understand the words on the page. A good typographer will understand that certain texts can become quite dense and hard, and other texts can become more spacious and loosely set. Taking that to the extreme is to remove all the text from the page, which leaves you with just your thought about what was there. I think “Space Between Words” is as close to poetry as I can get without using words.

On his favorite word.

Window. Because you’re in one place, and it’s an object that lets see you see somewhere else.

You can view more of Winston’s work at

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