From Letters to Colours

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Tyree Callahan’s Chromatic Typewriter

Tyree Callahan is an artist who lives in the state of Washington (USA) and who became famous in 2012 when one of his artworks’ picture was spread globally thanks to its wrong interpretation.

We all know that Conceptual art is always hard to understand, and, in the case of The Chromatic Typewriter, the misunderstanding precisely highlighted this difficulty in reading.

This artwork consists of an Underwood typewriter from 1937 whose alphabetic keyboard was replaced with a chromatic one. The artist wanted indeed to show how writing and painting are actually similar processes because they both transpose on static media, like paper or canvas, a personal perception of the world.

Tyree Callahan’s Chromatic Typewriter

The idea was born when Tyree put in an Olivetti typewriter’s carriage one of his watercolours to add it some writings on.

He always specified that his typewriter couldn’t make a realistic painting because colour should have been manually reapplied each time it was used, and because between the spots were remaining the empty spaces usually necessary to read the letters.
Despite this, the misunderstanding about what this machine could actually make, beat artist’s statement.

Therefore, I asked him if, after all, his aim was really to lead viewers to this misleading interpretation.
He replied me: “I’m sorry to say that I was not attempting to suggest anything other than the interesting ‘look’ of the object itself. Any greater meaning, or trickery on my part, was completely accidental. I wish I were more prescient in how my fellow humans responded to the piece, though. I might have had a better statement prepared or included a much larger disclaimer that the piece is only conceptual. That said, I’m certainly not sorry for the illusion, at least as much any magician might be.”

Tyree Callahan’s Chromatic Typewriter

Tyree never felt the need of making his typewriter functioning because his main aim was to show creative expressions’ universality in each field, from the written one to the visual one.
So, his piece is a sort of materialization of synaesthesia1 since it connects types’ writing to colours’ layering.

I then asked him if he thought one of his paintings could be replaced by a detailed written description and vice versa, or if, from his point of view, existed a medium able to better catch all the senses.
Considering that I was interviewing a painter, the answer could be predictable but here are his words:“That’s an interesting question! A poet here in Bellingham, where I live, wrote a poem inspired by a painting of mine (Salish Atlas #104). Judy Kleinberg is a wonderful wordsmith, and her poem really captures the essence of the place probably more than the painting does. And that’s the neat thing about that project: the combined experience of nature produced those intertwined pieces. It is so beautiful when different media complement and inform each other. I love nature but, in my opinion, there is no perfect medium to express its wonder.”

Useful links: Tyree Callahan’s website
Instagram profile

Photo courtesy of the artist


1 The synaesthesia, from Greek “feel together”, is a rhetorical device or figure of speech where words referred to different senses are linked. It relates to the ability of understanding a precise perception through different elements.

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