Emma August Welter, “Words and Their Use”

Although the theme of Words and Their Use touches on the ways in which words erode intimacy between people, the play on “Aye” and “I” I’ve created here proves that words, when spoken to oneself, can have a strengthening effect instead. I’d rather this haiku be read predominantly as a statement of self-affirmation — kind of a written fist pump — but it’s connected to much more than that for me. My mother, undoubtedly the most influential person in my life (and an accomplished book artist in her own right), spent two years as the mayor of a small town highly divided and rife with contention and factions. With no previous political experience, guided solely by her boundless friendliness and a desire to quell her community’s tensions, her term was illuminating, to say the least. When I remember the many strange and sometimes dangerous circumstances she found herself in, during which simply voting “Aye” to certain motions at a city council meeting could lead to further political turmoil, I feel an overwhelming sense of pride for everything she achieved—and for the person she is.


I’ve known several people who’ve suddenly gone seemingly underground, unreachable due to depression. To me, the double-edged nature of that isolation—experienced by those suffering from its effects as well as by their loved ones as they attempt to find a way to help—is what this haiku conveys, with the “bear” analogous to depression and mental illness itself. Two-thirds of it was taken from a chapter about a classroom’s marionette play set in the German forest; months after I completed it, I realized that The bear follows him.) is also reminiscent of the well-known stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear” in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, adding an unintentional and rather ominous dimension.


When I showed this haiku to a friend, he immediately commented that it had erotic, if not romantic, overtones. This wasn’t at all what I had in mind, however, as I was creating it; many of the lines in the piece are from a chapter entitled “Using ‘Lay’ and ‘Lie’ Correctly,” and it’s based on my long-distance relationship with a “young man” in Sweden and the difficulty of maintaining any sort of effective communication via Skype. Skype’s an undeniable boon to countless relationships, but paradoxically, its unpredictable connectivity often thwarts conversations and mangles words. “The bed” here is meant quite literally, as that’s been where my side of our conversations has frequently been held, whereas “the grass” to me is a reminder of both days we’ve spent together — in the same place, on the same grass, at the same time — and that the far-away space he currently inhabits seems more alive and vivid to me than my own, simply by dint of him being there.


In an early conversation between the aforementioned Swedish “young man” and I, he mentioned that he wanted to live as fluidly as possible: to be always moving and constantly able to adapt himself to new situations. I was struck by this sentiment, and it remained with me; over a year later, this haiku more or less spontaneously created itself. Although another friend of mine remarked that it had sexual overtones, that wasn’t my intention. Some people just get in your bloodstream and stay there.


Regardless of how many more haiku I create, I’m fairly certain that this will remain my all-time favorite. I have an extremely detailed and far-reaching memory, and I try to view all that I currently am as an enormous, entangled collection of everything I’ve experienced so far; this piece illustrates that concept in a far more tranquil, perhaps even reverent manner — no matter what their contents, museums are not to be ridiculed or defiled but, rather, open for exploration and reflection. Reflecting on my studies for my master’s degree in material and visual culture, I could run with the meaning of pretend that you are in countless directions, especially when linked to ideas of curation and perspective.


Artist: Emma August Welter (Minneapolis, MN)

Title: Words and Their Use (2012-13)

Medium/technique(s): Collage: textbook, glue, watercolor paper

Number of pages:  47 cards

Dimensions: Each card is 3″ x 4″


Artist Statement:

Near the end of last summer, at an estate sale in rural Wisconsin, I bought a stained, fraying language schoolbook for a quarter because I liked the illustrations. After clipping a few of them to use in letters to friends I’d met during my five years living in the UK, I decided to incorporate snippets of the book’s endearingly outdated text to send as well. Cutting out five- and seven-syllable phrases from Words and Their Use soon became my favorite pastime; I arranged the strips of text in two columns on a table, pieced them together to create haiku, and mounted them on pieces of a spare sheet of my mother’s watercolor paper.

However corny and clichéd as it may sound, my haiku quickly took on a life of their own. Much to my surprise, some were decidedly and overwhelmingly erotic, while others contained a depth or humor that was often piercingly apparent to me only after I’d completed them. As I continued, I began to create pieces with distinct memories, situations, or people in mind. I realized I couldn’t send these to my friends; not only were they extremely personal, but I also wanted all of the haiku to remain together. Despite the variety of their subject matter, I was struck by the themes connecting the pieces.

Above all, due largely in part to the original book’s emphasis on proper speaking techniques and commonly confused terms, it seemed that one concept seemed to emerge frequently: the beguiling, maddening, contradictory nature of words to kindle, reinforce and, subsequently, to erode human relationships. In conjunction with, but in opposition to, this motif, reoccurring references to the outdoors, plants, and bodies of water — often replacing words as the primary and safest ways for people to interact, conveying ideas or sentiments that can’t be explained aloud — offer glimpses of growth. Although Words and their Use, in its original form, was intended as a guide for young children, its reordered (and disordered) iteration is very much a series of brief chapters for adults. It wouldn’t be amiss for me to note here that after returning from five years abroad, many of my own relationships were in the process of renegotiation.

My familiarity with traditional forms of haiku is embarrassingly slight, yet when I find three pieces of text that fit together, it feels unmistakably right. I’m fascinated by the way the middle seven-syllable sections function as a sort of hinge mechanism between the first and third lines, connecting two narrative fragments that are often quite disparate. Furthermore, having shown my Words and their Use project to some of my friends, I’m astounded by the ways in which each piece can be generally relatable while retaining, for me, an almost visceral sense of immediacy.

Perhaps this stems from my educational background; with degrees in English literature and material and visual culture as well as a deeply vested academic interest in, and firsthand experience of, synesthesia, it’s probably inevitable I’d begin a project at once so open-ended and concrete, both universal and personal. Words and Their Use is by no means finished; there are still many more pages to peruse. However, I’m already planning my second textbook-haiku project, based on a schoolbook called Distant Doorways, which will hopefully explore ideas of travel and foreignness.