Read between the words

Have you ever been invited to a "word carving" party? Don't worry, they're not some new fad you've been left out of. But they were the means to Peter Jickling's newest creation.

Have you ever been invited to a “word carving” party? Don’t worry, they’re not some new fad you’ve been left out of. But they were the means to Peter Jickling’s newest creation.

Don’t worry, they’re not some new fad you’ve been left out of. But they were the means to Peter Jickling’s newest creation.

Few may know it, but the local writer and playwright is also a bit of a philosopher.

And, with great surprise to himself, he has also turned out to be quite the printmaker.

Jickling’s Word Project is on display at the Old Firehall in Whitehorse until Sunday, May 20.

The exhibit is exactly four sentences.

It’s a little bit of art, a little bit of prose, and a lot of philosophy.

The project was largely constructed at “word carving” parties held all across Canada over 56 months.

But the idea had been percolating in Jickling’s brain for years. And in 2006, the final argument – the four sentences – came through.

Jickling was in Montreal where he was studying for a master’s degree in philosophy.

“I wasn’t having a particularly good time,” he said, laughing sheepishly. “But I had lots of time to sort of stew about things. And at a certain point, it all just kind of fell into place.”

It was during yet another dreary walk around Quebec’s cultural epicentre, when the words hit him. Jickling rushed home and wrote them down.

You’ll have to see the exhibit to find out what they are. Giving them away would be like disclosing the end to a movie in a review.

The four sentences have been scrawled across white boards in the Firehall. They were carved, word by word, into print blocks and printed in homemade ink onto homemade paper – an endeavour that had Jickling looking like “the orphaned hero of a Dickens novel” at times.

“I just think that’s kind of neat that people who’ve never met each other in some cases are connected because they have a word beside each other in a sentence – even though the words were created in a different time and place,” said Jickling.

“It sounds corny but, it’s like we’re all in it together.”

Each word, a piece of work in itself, bares elements of the sculptor, he added, and together they present Jickling’s theory.

The way words look affect what they mean and how they affect us. They are entities in themselves. And when writers are attentive to this, the impacts of their words can be stronger.

This theory fits into both philosophy of language and metaphilosophy, said Jickling. In other words, it’s about what words mean and also what philosophy itself is meant to mean.

Maybe it was because Jickling is a “word guy,” like many writers tend to be, but when he started studying philosophy the playwright couldn’t help but focus more on the words than the theories.

He found the traditional use of language to convey philosophical arguments much too inflexible. He compares it to a bowling lane, with gutters keeping the words, and therefore the theories, in strict lines.

“There’s been a tendency in philosophy to treat words almost as if they’re like mathematical entities,” said Jickling. “As if they’ve got rigid, static definitions. You’re using words to create equations. But words have these sort of fluid meanings and the way they come into being in the world does affect the way they’re interpreted.”

A perfect, and well-known example is the word “gay.”

Rarely is the word used today to express its original definition of gleeful, carefree and happy, Jickling noted.

Jickling doesn’t necessarily intend to overturn established philosophical theories. But he wants people to know that philosophy can be done differently.

“If words cannot be treated like mathematical entities, like a lot of people want to treat them as, then the idea of these rigid arguments doesn’t necessarily hold up,” he said. “So we need another way of doing philosophy. There’s some pretty impressive people that have done some impressive stuff within that method, but maybe it’s too rigid.”

By making each word its own piece of art, Jickling illustrates his point. A bat, an eraser, curves and flames – among other things – are all part of the exhibit.

Jickling isn’t sure how it will be received. “I’m sure they’ll say nice things to me,” he said laughing.

But the writer is confident in his project.

“Originally, I was going to call it an experiment,” he said. “I guess I decided to go with something a bit more declarative.”

The Word Project is at the Old Firehall in Whitehorse until May 20. Admission is by donation.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at