Ian Boyden > Essays > Of Scripts and Stars


The Cipheric Aesthetics of Timothy C. Ely's Cribriform Script


This essay first appeared in The Tables of Jupiter: Graphic Work by Timothy C. Ely.  Walla Walla, Washington: Donald H. Sheehan Gallery (Whitman College), 2004. Published here with permission from the author and the artist.



It is possible to interpret this confrontation of script and stars.  Just as now and then a star emerges from the host—as a moving planet, as a comet—so also does a cipher, whose ideogram becomes intelligible to us, rise up now and then from the heap of incomprehensibility.  One could draw the conclusion that the limits of vision correspond to the limits of understanding.

            —Werner Spies[i]


Everything we hear is an echo.  Anyone can see that echoes move forward and backward in time, in rings.  But not everyone realizes that as a result silence becomes harder and harder for us to grasp—though in itself it is unchanged—because of the echoes pouring through us out of the past. . . .

            —W. S. Merwin[ii]




Timothy C. Ely is left-handed.  In 1970, Ely was given an Osmiroid fountain pen.[iii]  To his dismay, when he wrote with the pen, his hand dragged through the wet ink and smeared everything.  Such is the tyranny of a dextrally oriented writing system.  Searching for a solution, he decided to write backwards like Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452–1519).  To his amusement, his writing looked Chinese.  Sadly, Ely was not literate in this new language, so, while his backward writing was beautiful, it was utterly useless for recording and retrieving his ideas.  Or so he thought at the time.  Those first journal entries with the fountain pen were actually the beginning of his exploration of the cryptoaesthetics of written forms—a study of the beauty of written forms one cannot understand, such as hieroglyphics, ciphers, cryptographs, codes, and secret writings.  Ely's exploration has endured now for more than three decades, and has developed into a system of writing, which he calls Cribriform.[iv]  


Ely's current Cribriform is the product of his remarkable journey through the worlds of writing and geometry—or as Ely calls it “my scripticular trajectory.”  Idiosyncratic writing systems and the production of written forms that simply invoke the sensation of writing are certainly not new.  However, because such practice is generally private and esoteric, to uninvolved observers its history remains obscure.  Ely's studies of this subject are vast: from the calligraphic histories of a variety of writing traditions and concepts central to abstract expressionism, surrealism, and the Northwest School; to esoteric scripts and codes such as those generated by visionaries and alchemists of the Medieval Period, kabalistic and mystical scholars of the Renaissance, and writers of UFO codes in 1950s science fiction novels; to those fellow generators of wholly synthetic written languages such as those produced by Adolf Wölfli (Swiss, 1864–1930), Mark Tobey (American, 1890–1976), Max Ernst (German, 1891–1976), and the unknown producer of the Voynich Manuscript.  Ely's studies allow him an incredible capacity for channeling elements from extremely diverse fields of study.  His Cribriform is a map of his mind, a chamber filled as much with echoes from the past and future, as of the spice of alien life.


Before turning specifically to his script, it is important to understand the inextricable links between his books, maps, script, and sacred geometry.  For years following the sinister episode with the fountain pen, Ely's backward writing remained a private affair, appearing solely as marginalia in his sketchbooks.  Then, in the last year of graduate school, he discovered the map collection in the basement of the Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington (Seattle, WA).  This collection is one of the premier cartographic collections in the Northwest, and there Ely saw maps that profoundly changed his cosmic-view.  He kept going back to look at maps, finding maps of the world produced in other countries with dramatically skewed orientations of the continents, maps of the ocean floor, maps of air currents, roads, topologies, population densities, maps of the stars and of the solar system.  One afternoon he happened upon a flat map of Mars.  Ely says that while looking at that map, he was struck by two ideas that remain pivotal in his work to this day.  First, maps and ciphers are ways of locating ideas in space.  And second, he really likes the look of things he cannot understand.


Not long after Ely's reverie over the map of Mars, he was introduced to sacred geometry. This time, Ely was in a grocery store, where he picked up a copy of John Michell's The New View Over Atlantis.  This small paperback is one of the seminal books on megalithic geometry, especially its use of ley lines—the mysterious straight lines that link sacred spaces in prehistoric Britain.[v]  It was through this book that Ely got his first glimpse of the historical stacking of one esoteric system over another.  Ely states:

The book completely re-informed my understanding of maps—we are, as a species, engaged in the geometric inscription and re-inscription of the earth.  I began to feel that philosophical or sacred geometry was the platform on which everything is built, not just major earthworks, but our religious systems, the sciences, and writing systems as well.  Everything just clicked.  The exploration of sacred geometry became the nexus for my books, my maps, my script.  You could argue that all of my work since has revolved around this nexus. 


Pursuing this idea, Ely proceeded to make books of his own—books containing maps of non-existent lands, of oneiric realms, and phantasmagoric spaces.  The first book he made following his introduction to sacred geometry was called Megalith (see checklist no. 1).  It was Ely's first interpretive atlas—a primary object that contained all of the elements that Ely would include in his books over the next decades.  Not only did Megalith include maps of sacred geometry, but it was also the first book where he employed his proto-Cribriform as a major component of the image.  Part of cartographic experience includes sidebars that provide a variety of keys and interpretive information for each given map.  It was in these sidebar spaces where Ely began to employ his unusual scripts and ciphers.  Fantastic spaces require fantastic interpretation, and Ely used his scripts as means for invoking the sensation, or qualia, of such interpretation.


A writing system is generally defined (for those enthralled by verbal practicality) as a system composed of a discrete set of signs that represent spoken language and, that importantly, can be used to retrieve information by anyone who knows the system.  Here, interpretation on a basic level means the retrieval of spoken language, which, in turn, points toward some facet of knowledge.  Alas!  Our first stumbling block: we cannot read Cribriform (at least not yet).  In the absence of being able to read it, and thus completing that linguistic loop, we must look for other forms of interpretation.  We must look for ways that Cribriform functions as an intermediary to other types of meaning.[vi]


One such way to approach another type of meaning opens up when we examine Ely's reason for naming his script Cribriform.  Ely states, “One day, I was reading the dictionary and I found the word, ‘cribriform,' near a word I was looking for, and when I read the definition, it resonated.  Cribriform refers to something resembling a sieve or pierced with holes, which is what text is for me—a high velocity information filter, and not just a filter of sound.”  Typical taxonomies of written languages are based on the ways text carries and filters sound (alphabets, syllabaries, logographs, etc.).  This concept of text functioning as a filter of information other than sound is big. 


Abandoning sound as text's raison d'etre, we dive into the non-sonic world of scribes, engravers, and calligraphers.  It is a realm where text is understood and expected to filter light, geometry, the heartbeat in the fingers of a scribe.  In fact, in this world a host of potential taxonomies abound from the mechanical to the wildly esoteric.  For instance, writing systems can be arranged by the scribe's tools, materials, and surfaces, the implied directionality of the writer's marks, and the relative discreteness of individual graphs.  Writing systems can also be classified by their ability to appropriate a whole host of macrocosmic cultural values, such as geometric proclivities, gravitational inclinations, attitudes toward secrecy and magic, the congruency of alternate symbolic or religious logic, the capacity for the script to be carried by birds or angels, the vicinity of the unconscious, even the proximity to the stars. 


The formal, mechanical aspects of Ely's mark making are as follows.  Ely tends to write with one or more tools, which include, a technical pen, a ruling pen, a copper-nibbed dip pen, brushes, and various dropper bottles.  He rarely uses dry materials like graphite or charcoal.  Rather, he tends to write with aqueous mediums composed of carbon, gums. shellac, and distilled water.  He writes on paper and vellum.  He also writes from right to left, with the lines generally beginning at the top right and ending in the bottom left corners of each graph.  And finally, his script tends to manifest either inside the cells of square and rectangular grids or in horizontal lines. 


These formal qualities of making marks lead to certain comparisons.  For instance, in some of Ely's writing, one can find haunting similarities with the Chinese calligraphy of the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1100–256 B.C.E.), especially a script known as dazhuan, or large seal script.  This writing is found engraved on stone and on the surfaces of bronze objects.  Although it is impossible to say with certainty, it would appear that a primary aesthetic question for the early Chinese calligraphers of this script was how to activate a square space—a central question for Ely as well.  Another set of similarities can be found in Devanāgarī, the script used to write Sanskrit.  This time, similarities spring from the use of the nibbed pen and the established top line from which the remainder of the letterform is suspended.  Ely describes a potential symbolic reading: “These letters start on a line, fold and descend from heaven.” 


According to Ely, these comparisons are fortunate coincidences.  In fact, Ely claims to have not practiced any form of traditional calligraphy: “When I was young, I was very interested [in studying calligraphy].  But everyone said, ‘Hey, you're left-handed, you can't do that,' which left me to figure it out on my own.”  His first serious investigations of calligraphic marks began in college when he started to study abstract expressionists and works by members of the Northwest School.  Ely was initially drawn to the calligraphic works by Mark Tobey, Robert Motherwell (American, 1915–1991), and Franz Kline (American, 1910–1962).  Ely says: “Chinese calligraphy and brushwork were very attractive and sexy.  Ultimately, these guys were stepping stones of sorts.  Soon I wanted to know who they studied.”  To his astonishment, Ely found magic and alchemy across both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.


Investigating Chinese calligraphy, Ely discovered the Daoist calligraphic tradition rich with magic talismans, alchemical diagrams, and sacred cosmograms.  These images embodied elements of the Daoist philosophical traditions such as concepts of eternal change, of yin and yang, and alchemical pursuits, especially of the transformation of the Five Elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water).  These graphic marks were believed to have extraordinary magical powers from warding off sickness and evil spirits to aligning ones energies with the cosmos.[vii]  Such is the stuff caught in Ely's Cribriform filter. 


Across the Atlantic, Ely discovered the surrealists.  It was among them that he found artists that remain some of his favorites to this day: Joan Miro (Spanish 1893–1983), Max Ernst (German, 1891–1976), and Adolf Wölfli (Swiss, 1864–1930).  The work and ideas of the surrealists profoundly shaped Ely's own working method.  He carefully studied the ways they accessed alchemy, magic, dreams, and the unconscious and how they incorporated these subjects into their work.  He states: “I suppose the fundamental idea that I got from them was that art can be primarily provocative or evocative.  Provocative art is like a jab in the ass.  I guess I am not interested in art that is provocative, for me it has to be evocative.”  For Ely, alchemical, magical, and psychoanalytic practices were essentially evocative systems that have the capacity to aid in self-discovery, as well as to transport the viewer into another realm.  The question then became how to make his script evocative of the self and the other.


Ely became interested in the psychoanalytical theories of Carl Jung (1875–1961), and was drawn especially to ideas of synchronicity, the collective unconscious, and the division of the conscious and unconscious mind.  Intrigued by the concept that an image could access the unconscious and the world of dreams, Ely felt there was a distinct possibility that a single mark could reflect the world of the unconscious and perhaps serve as a form of map of the mind.  The surrealists recognized that random words, sounds, and images could function as triggers to unknown trajectories.  To this day, Ely continues to practice a technique known as automatic mark making, or what ethnopharmacologist Terrence McKenna (American, 1946–2000) termed “glyptoglossia, the rare written equivalent of spoken glossolalia.”[viii] 


Ely's practice of automatic mark making is fascinating.  He pulls out several large sheets of paper, gets a variety of tools ready, and then turns the lights down so as to see what happens when the hand-eye coordination is disrupted by the lack of light.  He then proceeds to make marks until he starts to feel that he is becoming too conscious.  At that point he stops, turns the lights back up, and looks at the marks he has made.  Among the marks he will isolate those that trigger a response and use them to generate a page of Cribriform or perhaps the design of a page in one of his books.


Another technique Ely uses for accessing the evocative is one he gleaned from his studies of Max Ernst.  Ely comments: “Ernst was an alchemist.  He would allow his materials to teach him—the transformation of materials was a guiding principle for making art.”  Ely not only listens to his materials and lets them direct his mark making, but he has also delved into the rich history of alchemy.  Among alchemical texts, Ely became fascinated with the records of scripts, codes, and sacred diagrams recorded by late-Medieval and Renaissance alchemists, theologians, and polymaths.  A selection of examples that Ely found inspiring include the spirit codes produced by Johannes Trithemius (German, 1462–1516) in Steganographia,[ix] the angelic script described by John Dee (English, 1527–1608) known as Enochian,[x] and the celestial and kabbalistic alphabets and diagrams recorded by Cornelius Agrippa (Italian, 1486–1535)[xi] and Athanasius Kircher (German, 1602–1680).[xii]  Though Ely has never consciously appropriated their graphs into his Cribriform, he uses the sacred geometry and magic diagrams celebrated by these individuals to generate some of his own scripts. 


Among his favorites are magic squares, the Vedic Square, and the Sephirotic tree.  Recalling Arthur M. Young's (American, 1905–1995) observation that “all meaning is an angle,” Ely uses these images as systems to generate some of the angles in his Cribriform[xiii].  In so doing, he has created marks that look vaguely like maps of constellations and vaguely like contemporary crop circles.  Ely agrees that Cribriform carries an extraterrestrial quality commenting mischievously, “Oh yeah, I love alien graffiti.  There are marks all over that we can't resolve, like the crop circles or the Nazca lines.  They are the mystery of our times.” 


Part of what drives Ely is his love of a good mystery.  And to that end, Cribriform is now leading Ely into himself as he works to understand and complete it.  Ludwig Wittgenstein (Austrian, 1889–1951), in his book Philosophical Investigations, poses the question of whether it is possible to have a private language spoken and understood by only one person.[xiv]  It would appear that Ely plans to escape this philosophical dilemma, for he now envisions a book that holds the key to understanding Cribriform.  This book will mark the culmination of his emersion into the cryptoaesthetics of written forms.  All Ely is willing to reveal at this point about this project is that his lexicon is composed of 366 marks organized under 21 indices.  Ely's proposed delivery is most mischievous, using every alchemical trick he possesses to both reveal and conceal its meaning.  The pages of the book will be worked “in a manner conversant with occluded archive security, making visual access very difficult and reproduction a printing nightmare.”  Among the tools and tricks he plans to employ are ultraviolet-transcolor-reveal paints, sympathetic inks, holographic transfer foils, gilding, and blind impressions.  Such techniques will “challenge the would-be cipher clerk to link the Cribriform marks to the existing chain of figures already extant in the world.”  Once completed, the book will be clasped shut and sealed with wax—the seal only to be cracked opened by the ultimate owner of the book.


Ian Boyden

Director of the Donald H. Sheehan Gallery




[i] Schamoni, Peter.  Max Ernst: Maximiliana, the Illegal Practice of Astronomy.  Boston, MA: New York Graphic Society, c. 1974, pg. 75.


[ii] Merwin, W.S.  Houses and Travelers. New York, NY: Atheneum, 1977, pg. 75.


[iii] Osmiroid pens were, for most of the last century, one of the premier metal nibbed pens in the world.  They were recently discontinued.  The pen mentioned here was given to Ely by his friend R. A. Simonson.


[iv] All quotations and information about Timothy C. Ely was gleaned from conversations and written communications between Ely and Ian H. Boyden during the summer of 2004, unless noted otherwise.


[v] Michell, John.  The New View Over Atlantis.  Ballantine Books, 1972.


[vi] Grabar, Oleg.  The Mediation of Ornament.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.


[vii] Legeza, Laszlo.  Tao Magic: The Chinese Art of the Occult.  New York: Pantheon Books, 1975.


[viii] Ely, Timothy C.  The Flight into Egypt: Binding the Book.  San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1995.


[ix] Trithemius, Johannes.  Steganographia.  Nuremberg, 1721.


[x] Dee, John. Enoch his Book.  1586.


[xi] Aggripa Cornelius. Three Books of Occult Philosophy.  Llewellyn Publications, 1994.


[xii] Kircher, Athanasius.  Ploygraphia Nova et Universalis.  Rome, 1663.


[xiii] Young, Arthur M.  The Geometry of Meaning.  New York: Delacorte Press, c1976.


[xiv] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations.  Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. New York: Macmillan, 1953.