Semblant Geometries

Semblant Geometries is an unbound, leather-encased folio including a series of geometric etchings paired with folk tales from the 1897 book, North-West Slav Legends and Fairy Stories translated by W. W. Strickland. You can read a complete copy of this source text via a scanned facsimile here, courtesy the Cornell University Library and Archive.org.

The creation of Semblant Geometries was funded in part by an Individual Artist Project Grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council. The full Acknowledgements text is copied below.


The stories herein are excerpted from North-West Slav Folk Tales, published in 1897. It is W. W. Strickland’s translation of a text collected from oral tellings by Karel Jaromir Erbin. The Book came to me in 2011 by way of Powell’s Books on SE Hawthorne in Portland, Oregon. The clerk who stocked it, I believe, did not recognize it for the rare gem that it is. It isn’t in the best repair—the spine is degraded at the top, there are three angry punctures in the back board, and the red-and-white stripe cloth cover is dirty and smudged around the edges, as if singed. I never love an old book as much if it is not a little worse for wear, so I immediately wanted it and purchased it (with sincere thanks to whoever priced it so affordably). The strange and awkward satires it contains drew me in; I fell in love with this little book.

Around the same time that this book crossed my path, in a then-unrelated venture, I decided to study geometry and teach whatever I could to myself. Having completed an undergraduate education with only a rudimentary grasp of the subject, I felt my knowledge lacking. Enter Euclid and the alternately satisfying and frustrating practice of classic planar construction.

Math is not a natural language for me; I struggle to see the purpose of arcs and liens, to identify the pattern of logic upon which the geometric plane is knit. In the process of poring over textbooks (both serious and silly) and drawing again and again with my pencil, compass, and straightedge, I began to conflate the folk tales I was reading with the geometry I was constructing. The arc of the compass became the arc of a story; in essence, geometry became metaphor for narrative.

This commingling of subjects intrigued me, disparate as I believed them to be. Uniting these elements seemed, at first, radical and irrational (in the strictly non-mathematical sense). But the application of metaphor, a difficult subject in language, is succinctly expressed in mathematical terms as x = y. And the great geometric plane itself—as well as the rays and shapes that exist upon and interact with it—is a theoretical stand-in for an otherwise inexpressible idea. Is this not metaphor at its finest?

I have ever been a dilatory math student, and I acknowledge that my exploration of this particular rabbit- hole (summed up best, perhaps, as the question, Where do

math and metaphor meet?) has done little to improve any practical use or understanding of geometric theorems. It has, however, given me a greater appreciation for what geometry is: a method of trying to understand the world through abstraction. It is, in that broad sense, similar to the creative practices of many artists.

Nevertheless, in my pursuit of this project, I lost the practical in favor of the fanciful. At first, I believed this to be a serious shortcoming. Then I came across Louisa S. Cook’s Geometrical Psychology, or, the Science of Representation, an abstract on B. W. Betts’ system to mathematically model human consciousness. The resulting graphs resemble plants and flowers and are delicately colored to heighten this appearance. They are beautiful, and as little connected to empirical science as my geometric metaphors are to practical mathematics. So I persevered.

The title of Semblant Geometries is derived in part from Cook’s abstract, an homage made out of appreciation for its elegant nonsense, and largely from Jacques Lacan’s early concept of the semblant. For indeed, I find greater satisfaction in geometry as poetic metaphor than as illustrations of axioms and theorems; and I am, in the words of Russell Grigg, “happy to make believe (faire semblant as the French say) and pretend it is what it is not, even as [I] know it is not that thing.”

To Daniel WC Williams, Matt Pierce (and everyone at Wood & Faulk) and RACC, my gratitude is boundless. Without their resources and support, I could not have realized this project. Vanessa Johnson, Serenity Ibsen, Heather McLaughlin and Abra Ancliffe provided valuable feedback at key points in the process (whether I made good use of it is another matter). The members of Flight64, a cooperatively run non-profit printmaking studio, magnanimously accommodated my needs as I neared my looming deadline. Special thanks I also owe to Martha Morgan, Wid Chambers, Sarah Horowitz and Eric Busch; without their early encouragement, I never would have begun. Finally, no expression of gratitude could be complete without mentioning Tom Prochaska, who first taught me to appreciate an endless process of creative problem-solving: printmaking.