Type it in Color: Tyree Callahan's Chromatic Typewriter

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One new idea for every day in 2011. We're talking big, small, local, international, in action, and on the drawing board. Here's today's -- what's yours?

 1937 Underwood Standard typewriter. 

The painter, who was born in Bisbee, Arizona and now lives in Washington, says his creation came about through an experiment. He wanted to add type to a watercolor, but when he fed his painted paper through his typewriter, he wondered what the keys could type if they were fitted with colors instead of letters.

And so, his Chromatic Typewriter was born. The model is currently up for popular vote in the 2012 West Prize competition

Callahan answers a few of our questions about his idea after the jump ... 

Tell us a little bit about the machine ... 

The idea for the Chromatic Typewriter came about one day in the studio as I was struggling along with a watercolor. I have an old Olivetti typewriter laying around and I thought to add some text to the watercolor. I rolled the watercolor into the carriage and started typing and that's when the inspiration struck. I knew I wanted to use one of the classic old typewriters for the project, but took a few months to find one. 

My friend and fellow artist Steven Cousens found this one at an antique store a block from the studio. I built the typewriter over the month of November. It took about three and a half weeks to put it all together. I had the toughest time cleaning it up: it must've had four decades of nicotine tar on it! Once that stuff was cleaned off and the machine was shined up a bit I did a mock up with some cut out colors and stuck another painting in the carriage and knew the end result was going to be pretty special. 

How does it work? 
The piece was intended to be purely conceptual, but I do have a confession: as I was applying paint to the keys I could not resist trying it out. This led to a discovery, but one impeded and limited by the machine itself: Were there a more practical way to re-apply paint to the keys, it would make some very interesting and fantastic art. 

The way typewriters are designed, of course, leaves a bit of white space between the characters, to keep the alphabet of one's thoughts from stacking up. In this case, however, the typing of colors left a bit of white space between each color, which was really cool.

The additional challenge was the layout of colors. Tracing the history of typewriters during the course of this project, I've learned that the letters on (what has become) the standard QWERTY keyboard were placed so that the commonly used letters do not get jammed up. If you've ever played with a typewriter (I'm 39 and it's surprising to me how many younger folks people have not) you know the phenomena. 

For colors...well, that particular language has never necessitated a logical, machine-oriented distribution like the qwerty system, so it was to me a baffling mystery how in the hell one might produce a painting with the Chromatic Typewriter! 

There is no Mavis Beacon for this typewriter! It's new territory! 

How'd you choose a typewriter and your selection of colors? 

I knew that an older typewriter would be ideal. Largely because of the design-sense the old manufacturers had. They were built to last. This thing must weigh thirty pounds! I have an entirely new appreciation for these incredible machines. You can Google a handful of online typewriter museums to get a sense of their beauty. In fact, looking at the typewriter museums made me realize that the satiny/eggshell finish on my machine wasn't really supposed to be there. A lot of the museum pieces have a beautiful gloss. That's when I found about nicotine tar. 

The colors were chosen from an HTML color palate chart available online. I tried to incorporate things that would offer a significant suspension of disbelief to the piece. The ribbon, for one. At the moment, it is a slice of a stellar spectrum analysis of our sun. Sort of an homage to the one thing that really makes art what it is in the universe. The keyboard's spacebar also incorporates the idea of 'negative space.' I also replaced the ruler on the carriage with a white-to-black tonal gradation. There are a couple of other modifications that I'm keeping secret, too.

Do you use the typewriter in your current work?

As mentioned, it is a conceptual piece. I cannot imagine how one would create art with this in a practical way. If paint could be automatically applied some way, it could be feasible. As it stands, they have to be manually repainted. I have but one short paragraph typed with the machine.

Do you have any other hybrid art-making machines in the works?

My primary medium is painting, and I've got a handful of new and large pieces going on right now. They are the largest paintings I've attempted--averaging roughly 5' by 6 or 7'. The typewriter and other objet trouve pieces come along every now and then as the inspiration happens. I'm sure there will be some more stuff like it coming out of the studio in the future.

I've received some really inspiring feedback from the piece. 

People have wondered aloud what a love letter, favorite poem, or favorite author would produce with the Chromatic. These are things I didn't have time to contemplate during it's construction. I was more concerned with cleaning off the nicotine tar! 

Indeed, the piece draws some interesting parallels between the practice of writing as art, and the translation of art into words. It's been inspiring to get all the great feedback. Now I just hope it can somehow translate into votes for the piece!

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