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Giving Webster's work a whole new meaning

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Eric Lesage is transforming text into textile.

In 2005, the self-taught Winnipeg artist set himself a task: to slice up a 1,300-page illustrated dictionary into narrow paper strips and painstakingly hand-weave the entire book into mat-like panels.

Words don't seem adequate to describe his installation of the work so far, titled Re: Definition, and that's part of its impact.

The installation, which opened Friday at RAW Gallery of Architecture and Design, is on view until Feb. 19.

From Jan. 19 to 29, it's being used as the stage set for Village Wooing, a production by Zone41 Theatre that's part of ShawFest. After performances of the play, audience members can view Lesage's installation up close.

As you come down the stairs into the gallery, a bare century-old basement in the Exchange District, the panels suspended from the ceiling in a radiating circle look like straw mats from Asia.

The rest of the room is quite dark. As you enter the tranquil, top-lit installation, you realize that each "mat" is an intricate reworking of the yellowed dictionary's pages. Thousands of text fragments, such as "smelling by means of a quick inhalation" or "oddly dressed person," appear in the textured "fabric." You're reminded, perhaps, of homeless people sleeping on newspapers, or of animals making nests from shredded paper.

The earliest panels Lesage completed are around the edge. As you move toward the centre, where the light is brighter, they become increasingly complex in technique and composition.

He starts to use the blank edges of the dictionary's pages to create a neutral canvas, and to combine fragments of the book's black-and-white illustrations into contrasting dark areas. He tries a herringbone pattern, leaves vertical holes -- like stripes of air -- in his fabric, makes three-dimensional panels by weaving in waves and boxes, and pulls strips out for a whimsical shag-carpet effect.

"You walk through my process over the years," says Lesage, 35. "This is how I'm learning art."

The Point Douglas resident compares the installation to the kind of labyrinth that's used for walking meditation. "It's very much about space. There's something contemplative about it."

The Franco-Manitoban Lesage, raised in St. Boniface, is the youngest of 20 children. In his household, every cast-off was recycled into something useful. His father sold second-hand appliances. His mother was constantly knitting and darning. When Lesage was 18, she taught him to weave his own poncho on a loom.

Lesage became a jack of all trades. He makes his living by running a used furniture store with his brother and by taking physical jobs in the arts, such as sculptor's assistant and stagehand.

The university dropout was on a literary path until his late 20s, he says. He wrote bad poetry. Then a romance with a trained artist exposed him to the visual art world.

Back in 2005 he was weaving his first panel, which he thought of as a craft project, in a shared studio. Curators Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan dropped by to view the work of his studio-mates. As soon as they saw his weaving, they asked him to be part of Supernovas, a 2006 show of 29 up-and-coming artists at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

Suddenly cast into the role of legitimate artist, he completed six panels for the WAG show. Re: Definition has been exhibited in different forms at two other galleries, but Lesage says he's most satisfied with it in the current, larger space.

He has finished 15 panels to date. Each takes about 80 hours to hand-weave on a framework of cotton thread, which he picked up second-hand on industrial spools. But he's only able to devote about 12 hours a week to it.

It could take 60 to 80 panels to use up the dictionary, he estimates. It may take him another nine years.

Dictionaries are about authoritative meaning. Lesage, who is interested in the work of media theorist Marshall McLuhan, is assembling new meanings and non-meanings out of a book that's become an obsolete artifact in terms of content (it's the 1956 Webster's Encyclopedic Dictionary, which he bought at an auction) and form (we look up definitions on the Internet now).

If a viewer finds narrative or poetry in the juxtaposition of phrases, it's accidental, Lesage says. Reading is not really the point.

"If you did it with the Bible or James Joyce, it becomes very much about the reading of it," he says. "I was more interested in text as visual information. I picked the dictionary because it's kind of pure text."

The dyed-in-the-wool recycler doesn't toss out any scraps of the reference book. He's determined to weave in every comma.

"I have a jar full of tiny pieces I can still use," he says. "There's no waste. Conceivably, if somebody's crazier than I am, they could take (the artwork) apart and put the dictionary back together."

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 14, 2012 G5

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