Finding Words in Unusual Places

For years, I’ve admired the work of Maya Lin, the woman who designed the Vietnam Memorial. So much so that I bought a book called Boundaries filled with examples of her work, including “Reading A Garden:”


In her proposal for “Reading a Garden” for the Cleveland Public Library, Lin collaborates with her brother, Tan Lin, an abstract language poet:

“In my work, I have often combined text with sculptural forms, but I have always wanted the integration between sculpture and text to be less a surface applied event than one in which the words and their meaning correspond to the space and one’s movement through it…The sculpture will focus on the idea of reading. As you walk through the garden, words will be placed that will allow for a “reading” of the space.

Words will follow your path through the garden, on the walkways, benches, and walls. Yet unlike a book, the way in which you read the poem is multidirectional.”

Later in her proposal, she explains her purpose. She wants to answer the question: “What happens when sculpture and words can help to shape each other’s meaning–so that words become descriptive of the spaces they inhabit and the spaces are somewhat shaped by the choice of words?”

I think the answer is—magic happens. Watch the falling water as “a child falls asleep…” 

Poetry and Water


But it is the “word map” of the garden that I find particularly intriguing, the language structure provided by her brother.

Maya Lin Reading a Garden

Reading a Garden

You must find your own copy of the book to appreciate this poem that became a physical thing. Or wander through the library’s garden the next time you’re in Cleveland. LAND Studio’s Website shows current projects installed at the garden.

And closer to home, I’ve been finding language sculptures in unexpected places:

The entrance to the Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium in San Francisco is a testament to materials and how they’re used, a great place to take kids for a little tactile play.

Word Art

Artwork by Nicole Catrett

Knot Crumple Pin Build

Knot Crumple Pin Build

July 022

Just down the street from Dogpatch, near the entrance to the UCSF Orthopaedic Institute in San Francisco, sits a word person, clasping knees to chest. I’m thinking it’s a commentary on all the “text” that now “overflows” our lives. Soon we will become nothing but piles of letters, scattered thoughts. OR, it could be a commentary on how words define humanity. You be the interpreter.

Overflow X by Jaume Plensa

Overflow X by Jaume Plensa

My question: Have you run into language in unexpected places in your local landscape?

Oh, and if you’re interested in seeing more of Maya Lin’s exquisite work, take a look at her tonal Website.

Here’s a link to a temporary installation called “Winged Wisdom” from 2010 located in the Presidio, another corner of San Francisco.

18 thoughts on “Finding Words in Unusual Places

  1. 4amWriter says:

    I love artists who can pull things like this together — true talent. I would love to see these sculptures in person, but I will have to settle for images closer to home. I do live in an “artsy” area, but I haven’t run into anything so provocative as what you talk about here.

  2. FictionFan says:

    Some interesting stuff on her website. I particularly like the landscape art – the Storm King Wavefield would be one I’d like to visit. I love the word person, and I’m going to go with your second interpretation – language has always seemed more important to me than opposable thumbs in evolutionary terms. 🙂

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Storm King is on our list of “to sees.” My in-laws live a stone’s throw away from there in upstate New York, but we never visit them at their home. We always see them in other places. One of these days…

      Yes, opposable thumbs help us text faster, but I think linguists would agree with you about the second interpretation.

  3. Carrie Rubin says:

    Love that idea. Thanks for posting about this. I’m only a 30-minute drive from Cleveland, and this would be lovely to check out. Now, if I can just convince my husband and kids to go with me…

  4. Letizia says:

    Cleveland is now on my list of places to visit because of you. This park and book look so beautiful. I love the idea of words and sculpture defining space. Not so much for my own garden but in a public space, to make one stop, take the time to take in one’s surroundings. There was a temporary word sculpture outside our local library that read “listen”. I noticed that people would always slow down when walking by it (or was that my imagination?).

    I will be buying this book – thank you for bringing it to my attention, Jilanne.

  5. Sheila says:

    I love the Overflow one and your interpretation of it is perfect. I’m familiar with those very scattered thoughts. Hopefully somehow all those scattered thoughts will make up a coherent person. I haven’t noticed art like that around here but now I’ll be on the lookout for it!

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