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Typewriter Art – Heritage of Paul Smith and Beyond

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October 29, 2015

Have you ever heard of a movement called typewriter art ? Actually, it is not really an art movement, since there are not so many typewriter artists that could form an autonomous and self-sustainable movement. However, there is a number of amazing artists who use typewriters for creating fascinating pieces of art – and those artists are usually named typewriter artists. The first piece of typewriter art was created in 1898, by Flora Stacey, a British secretary, in 1898 – it was an image of a butterfly composed of brackets, dashes, slashes, and an asterisk. Since 1898, there have been several major developments within this field , with Paul Smith being one of the most important figures in this type of art practice.

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PAMM, 2013, Perez Art Museum, Sackner Collection (courtesy of guardian.com)

How to Define Typewriter Art?

It’s not so difficult to define typewriter art since the expression says it all. But the visual perception of these artworks may sometimes lead to the wrong conclusion – people sometimes cannot make a distinction between ASCII art and typewriter art. ASCII art (sometimes wrongly mixed with computer art) is a graphic design technique that uses computers for presentation and consists of pictures pieced together from the 95 printable (from a total of 128) characters defined by the ASCII Standard from 1963 and ASCII compliant character sets with proprietary extended characters (beyond the 128 characters of standard 7-bit ASCII). On the other hand, logically, typewriter artists use only common office machine as a tool for image-making, manually twisting and turning the paper in the feed to strike characters in precisely chosen spots.

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Left: William Jay Smith – Hoolie Bird, 1953 / Right: Leonardo Katz – The Black Book, Mirror on the Moon, 1971 (courtesy of guardian.com)
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Paul Smith – My Friend’s Old Barn in Oregon, detail. Paul Smith used a typewriter as his medium to overcome the limitations of Cerebral Palsy

Paul Smith and His Legacy

Paul Smith is probably the best-known typewriter artists in history. Born in 1921 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he suffered from severe spastic cerebral palsy from an early age. The loss of fine motor control of his face and hands made it impossible for him to attend school—or even eat, clothe, or bathe himself — and also made it difficult for him to express himself. Early in life, he discovered the typewriter and used it as a medium to create pictures. He was able to use one hand to steady the other and thus press the desired key. He was creating artworks using this technique by the age of 15 and steadily refined his technique. With the shift key in lock, using a handful of symbols, for example @,%, ^, #, &, $, *, Smith went on to create around 400 typed artworks depicting animals, trains, still lifes, and war scenes, as well as portraits of Mother Teresa and the Pope.

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Left: Henri Chopin – Chronique released as Collection OU no5, 1974 / Right: Robert Zeud – Abormundi Typescape #41, 1980 (courtesy of guardian.com)

Typewriter Artists

The process of creating a piece of typewriter art is not simple at all. Firstly, it’s not something that is done mechanically. It’s impossible to create such beautiful artworks without a concept and big talent. For example, there are artists who use a shading technique, others don’t. So, among typewriter artists, there are a lot of differences when it comes to style and techniques. There are artists who prefer to use overlapping numbers, other prefer symbols, and so on. The number of typewriter artists has increased significantly in the last couple of decades. Hayden Kays, Maurizio Nannucci, Dirk Krecker – these are only a few out of hundreds of great typewriter artists (we wrote about Hayden Kays’ exhibition at No Walls Gallery in 2014).

Deutsche Welle Report on the Typewriter Art of Dirk Krecker

Nostalgia and Typewriter Art

One of the reasons why typewriter art is quite popular is the fact we live in the era of digital technology, and typewriters have made a nostalgia-fueled resurgence in the digital age. We have written a lot about computer art, digital art, the art of code – all sort of different artistic styles based on digital technology. But, this artistic expression refers also to the era when we were not living in a computer dominated world. Finally, some pieces of typewriter art are so beautiful, and sometimes it is really not possible to realize that the piece is actually created with something “as simple as” a typewriter machine.

Editors’ Tip: Typewriter Art: A Modern Anthology by Barrie Tullett

Explore further about Typewriter art movement. This book presents the best artworks done by artists all around the world. Apart from presenting historical work from the Bauhaus, H. N. Werkman, and the concrete poets, the book features contemporary practitioners, both typewriter artists who use the keyboard to create artworks, and artists/typographers using the form as a compositional device. Also, book features historical essays and several interviews with typewriter artists. This comprehensive anthology of typewriter art from the very beginning of the machine to the present day is essential to graphic designers, typographers, artists, and illustrators, and anyone fascinated by predigital technology. Barrie Tullett is Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design at the Lincoln School of Art and Design, and co-founder, with Philippa Wood, of The Caseroom Press, an independent publisher based in Lincoln and Edinburgh.

Featured Image: PAMM, Perez Art Museum (courtesy of guardian.com); Paul Smith (courtesy of Paul Smith Facebook Page); Paul Smith – Woman at the Beach, detail. All Images used for illustrative purposes only.