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'Chromatic Typewriter' turns keystrokes to brushstrokes

Creating art with that splendidly elaborate gadget known as the typewriter is nothing new. Just ask Hemingway or Orwell. But this beautifully hacked 1937 Underwood Standard takes things to an entirely different realm.

Hemingway meets Turner. Tyree Callahan/

Creating art with that splendidly elaborate gadget known as the typewriter is, of course, nothing new.

We're all familiar with the more, shall we say, prosaic variety--as famously produced by Ernest Hemingway, Ray Bradbury, and all the rest of those pre-personal-computer literati types (or typers).

There's even plenty of non-word-based typewriter art. Leopoldo Maler's flaming sculpture "Hommage" is a favorite of this particular keyboard jockey. And my wannabe graphic-designer/art-historian side loves H.N. Werkman's '20s-era "Tiksels" (think ASCII art meets modernist abstraction).

The "Chromatic Typewriter," however, seems to have found its way into new territory.

The artistically DIY'ed 1937 Underwood Standard lets its inventor, photographer-turned-painter-turned-typewriter hacker Tyree Callahan, turn keystrokes into brushstrokes.

As you can see from the photos, Callahan has mounted what look like bits of sponge on the ends of the typebars. They're little paint-holding pads that let the artist peck out works that might not look like much here, but that take on new meaning when one reads of Callahan's interest in England's Impressionist-precursor J.M.W. Turner (and indeed, when one views Callahan's more conventionally produced paintings).

Guaranteed to baffle even the most sinister examples of keystroke-logging software. Tyree Callahan/

As the Bellingham, Wash.-based Callahan says in his artist's statement, "I'm constantly amazed at the play of light through our moist air and over the varied landscape of the Pacific Northwest. I especially enjoy early morning light--that short interval of time just before the last of the fog burns off--and evening light, especially on humid evenings, when the atmosphere itself is aglow with evening's hues. We live in an environment that can produce both vivid and somber landscapes, often both within an hour's time."

Morning light, evening light, the somber, and the bright--Callahan's Chromatic Typewriter may well be up to the task. And there's the possibility, too, that a touch-typist could up the conceptual ante. On Callahan's machine, what colors might the word aglow produce? What atmospheric "landscape" might come into being with the pecking out of melancholy or vision? (Viewed as an artwork in its own right, and not as a tool, the Chromatic Typewriter already makes an interesting statement about language, thought, literature, art, and much else besides.)

Tyree Callahan, long-forgotten genius behind the forerunner of the iPad-painting app. Ahem. Tyree Callahan/

It's also fun to imagine the machine as an old-fashioned, mechanical forerunner of touch-screen-painting apps like the iPad-friendly Brushes (a favorite of artist David Hockney). In this fanciful and time-traveling scenario, the Chromatic Typewriter becomes the art world's equivalent of the Babbage Difference Engine.

If you're simply dying to get your fingertips on this machine and see what colors appear when you type the words "original rainbow-hued Apple Computer logo," it seems the device can be yours for a mere $3,000 to $5,000. If that feels a bit spendy, you can content yourself with voting--via iPhone app--for Callahan and his machine to win a $25,000 West Collects public prize. (The contest is associated with The West Collection, a hoarding of contemporary art housed at the Oaks, Pa.-based headquarters of financial services company SEI Investments.)

Ah, the typewriter: Its glory days may have fallen victim to the rise of the PC, but Callahan and others suggest that the deliriously clattering gadget may still have a lot of life (and art) left in it. In fact, during the Internet wanderings I conducted for this blog item, I happened on a wonderful little video on LA Observed that asserts just that. It's a pitch film for a proposed documentary called "The Typewriter (in the 21st Century)." I'll append it here to add a touch more color to this meditation on the Chromatic Typewriter. Enjoy.

(Via Make)

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