Woody Leslie

I make work about words, language, and the physicality of letters in the form of artist's books, broadsides, and multimedia works. The source material for my typographic and linguistic explorations is short autobiographical stories which I use to build large homes for tiny ideas.

Words are inherently synesthetic entities. They exist at the intersection of sound and sight, and are further complicated by multiple layers of meaning. The convoluted mess of the English language provides an ample playground for me to create work. The usual function of words is to convey meaning, while their structure—both sonically and visually—remains invisible. When we read a page of text, we rarely see the shape of letters. When we listen to someone talk, we rarely hear the sound of words. Rather, we see and hear signifiers that convey meaning, ignoring their physicality. In my work, I seek to subvert this usual paradigm, and force the consideration of words.

Ulises Carrión writes, “A writer, contrary to the popular opinion, does not write books. A writer writes texts.” The book is a convenient receptacle in which their text is inserted. Most writers have very little involvement in the design process of their books, let alone its production. Conversely, as a writer who designs, prints, and binds his own work, I write with a consciousness towards the conceptual and material considerations of the book. My writing process is a constant shifting between composing, and working backwards from the end, considering the effects and demands of material, structure, and means of production every step of the way. I don’t just write texts; I write books.

As I push the concept of letters as physical entities, more recent work has left the book form in favor of larger format works with potential for variable size and installation. In an ongoing series of broadsides, I take written autobiographical anecdotes and use design software to manipulate the words into visually dense images. The typesetting follows strict left-to-right, top-to-bottom standards of written English, and the letters themselves remain easily recognizable, even if the words they comprise are obscured. These conventions of typesetting paired with smatterings of readable words and phrases encourages attempts to read the work. Ultimately, however, the viewer is led to consider the shape of letters and the composition of words. As my design sensibilities within the format have progressed, I find myself less interested in legibility, and more interested in them as semantically rooted images.

In a parallel body of work, I use typographic characters as precomposed shapes for drawing. Written language becomes the visual vocabulary—it references text while remaining unreadable, and straddles a line between image and asemic writing. Since typographic shapes are vector images, the output for this work expands well beyond the printed page, including laser-cut and 3D-printed objects. Words exist in a duality of spoken and written forms, and much of my work explores this intersection. But these material renderings of language provides a third way to experience words—as tangible entities that can be held. The hand becomes an equal partner with the eyes, ears, and mouth in their ability to experience language.