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Writer stumbles upon art, language project he considers his ‘life’s work’

October 28th, 2013 5:24 am by Staff Report

Writer stumbles upon art, language project he considers his ‘life’s work’

'Endangered Alphabets' creator Tim Brookes will offer an opening lecture today at 5 p.m. in East Tennessee State University’s Ball Hall Auditorium, preceded by a reception at 5 p.m. in Slocumb Galleries. Photo courtesy ETSU.

Tim Brookes, a professor at Champlain College in Burlington, Vt., decided to carve signs into curly maple planks as gifts for Christmas 2009. Once that was done, he started searching for his next carving endeavor. He “stumbled upon” the issue of alphabets worldwide that are in danger of extinction, and the subject has consumed him since. 

Since then, he has carved an exhibition’s worth of planks and furniture and is taking his “essay in wood” and their stories around the country, sharing the cautionary tale and his insights into the one-third of the world’s alphabets that are no longer taught in schools or used for commerce.

Sponsored by East Tennessee State University’s Mary B. Martin School of the Arts and the Department of Literature & Languages, Brookes’ “Endangered Alphabets Project” will be on exhibit at ETSU’s Slocumb Galleries Oct. 28 to Nov. 1, and its creator will offer an opening lecture Monday, Oct. 28 at 6 p.m. in Ball Hall Auditorium, preceded by a reception at 5 p.m. in the galleries, also in Ball Hall on Sherrod Drive.

While in Johnson City, Brookes will be meeting with ETSU classes and holding a presentation for the community at 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 30 at the Johnson City Public Library.

“Yet another collaborative effort this fall, the ‘Endangered Alphabets Project’ was an idea brought to us by a faculty member,” says Mary B. Martin School Director Anita DeAngelis. “We liked it and the opportunities to engage so many disciplines with one event, and we were able to incorporate it into our season.”

The project has interested experts and the public not only visually, but also through connections with language, history, anthropology and communication. The New York Times says, “His skill with a gouge and a small paintbrush has drawn attention in artistic circles as well as intellectual ones.”

Ironically, Brookes is not a professor of art or languages. He teaches writing in Champlain’s Division of Communication and Creative Media, and is the author of 13 books ranging from hospices to guitar history.

“I thought, ‘Well, this is very interesting,’” Brookes says. “This is something I know nothing about whatsoever, and, as a writer, my favorite subjects are ones where I don’t know anything about them, because it’s all discovery.

“I’m not a linguist. I am not an anthropologist. All that area is new to me. The two subjects in high school I came close to failing were art and woodwork, so it’s all been discovery.” 

In the past several years, Brookes has discovered that the world has 6,000-7,000 languages, but as many as half of them will be extinct by the end of this century. Through his carvings and an “Endangered Alphabets” book he has written, the educator is sharing his discoveries in and outside the U.S. at schools such as Yale, Harvard, Cambridge in England and Rutgers, libraries and galleries. In June, the exhibition was featured at the Smithsonian.

There’s so much depth to plumb and so many topics to touch, he says.

“I have learned a great deal about writing as a form of technology, as a form of art, as a spiritual exercise or spiritual practice,” says Brookes, who makes his home in Burlington, Vt. “I’ve learned a great deal about, obviously, other countries and other cultures because I am researching what it is I am carving as I do it. I am learning how ideas pass from country to country and culture to culture. 

“I’m learning a lot about what is happening right now in the history of communications and what is taking place with the globalization of economy and the rapid spread of computing and the Internet. It really heads off in so many different directions.”

And with the scope of the Internet, the researcher and artist does not have to go to Bali or Inner Mongolia to research their fading languages and alphabets.

“Right now, for example, I am in contact with someone in Inner Mongolia and they’re sending me stuff to carve in Mongolian,” he says. “That’s extraordinary to me … I don’t even know what Inner Mongolia looks like.”

Because of the common use of the computers for learning and viewing, Brookes says an important part of his presentation as he shares his discoveries is tactile. His lecture audience will get to touch, smell and handle his works of art and communication.

“This in itself is a very interesting thing,” he says. “Right now, we are living in the most creative period in the history of humankind but most of this creativity takes place on a screen. So when I pass out these slabs of wood and people can actually touch and hold them, there is this very interesting power — retro power — that something is actually solid. It is fascinating to watch people hold these things and tracing the letters with their fingers.”

Brookes feels that power, too, and is compelled to share it.

“I have probably published close to a million words in my lifetime and now I spend all evening carving one ...” he says. “Going from sort of scattering words at high speed to working really slowly on just one word or one sentence has taught me a great deal about the relationship between how I spend my time and what I’m doing and what I’m making — and a certain amount also about beauty.”

The writer envisions many more experiences to come. The “Endangered Alphabets” exhibition is not a destination. It’s a journey. “I think this is my life’s work,” Brookes says. “It is already expanding in different directions. I am creating more educational materials. I am creating a line of furniture. It’s so interesting in so many directions, and it’s very self-refreshing — and I get bored easily.”

For more information about Brookes or his “Endangered Alphabets Project,” visit or To find out more about the Johnson City Public Library presentation with Brookes, call Lisa Krekelberg at (423) 434-4352.

Slocumb Galleries hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, with extended hours for receptions.

For information about the ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, call (423) 439-8587 or visit “Like” ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts on Facebook and follow it on Twitter at TheArtsAtETSU.

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