by Sheri Boggs

A single letter can say a lot. Just ask Hester Prynne, who spent the greater part of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter being

shunned because of the ornate embroidered "A" on her chest. Or ask any kid whose test has just come back with an unforgiving red "F" at the top. Letters, even out-of-context ones like a single "K" or a friendly little "E," convey a great deal all on their own.

As a graphic designer, Matt Tullis never paid much attention to the letters. "The type always seemed to be an afterthought for me, whether I was designing a poster or a brochure or whatever," he admits. "It took a lot of conscious effort for me to recognize the fonts and the text as an essential element of visual communication."

But now, the letters are the images in a new show of Tullis' work at North Idaho College. "Typography," opening this week at the Boswell Hall Corner Gallery, is a collection of the Western Kentucky University professor's photographs of letters, assembled found objects that look like letters, and ornamental letter fonts of his own invention.

Tullis describes his show in terms that reveal a growing fascination. "The main part of the show is what I call the 'Blue Highways' series, which is photographs of old letter forms from vintage signs," he says. "The letter shapes you see in those old signs are amazing, but even more than that I was interested in something a little more impressionistic. I tried to capture the surfaces themselves, this aging wood and painted metal and rust you see on a lot of the signage in small towns and rural areas."

To get the hundreds of photographs that comprise the "Blue Highways" series, Tullis embarked on a 9,000-mile journey around the back roads and remote highways of the continental United States.

"It was me, my wife, my kids and the dog driving around in this pickup," he laughs. "We found that the small-sized towns had the best deteriorating signage, so we got to where we'd just open up the atlas and look for the thin blue lines. Those were often the best roads for what I was after - they weren't dirt roads and they weren't major highways, they were just these little two-lane highways with the best small towns along the way."

There is indeed a real sense of disappearing rural America to the images in the "Blue Highways" photographs. Old, Studebaker-era neon tubes whisper of bygone small-town pride, when sidewalks were filled with men in hats and ladies who carried pocketbooks as they walked their kids to school. Chipped, worn paint, often in successive layers, flakes away from dinged metal signage or brick walls. Tullis observes textures with his camera, capturing the way shadows rest in the hollows of corrugated metal and how spots of scratched paint reveal some human attempt at renovation.

His interest in old things translates to another way of looking at letters, namely seeing them in ordinary household shapes.

"I would find these objects, that to other people might just look like rusty metal things. But when you put them together with all these other pieces, they look like letter forms. It's really gratifying when it all comes together," he says. "It's very Gestalt -- it illustrates that old principle, 'The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.'"

That said, a section of corroded old plumbing can be a serviceable "R" and a rusty hinge makes a pretty good "E." Old tools look a lot like "V" "T" and "L" while bike chain can freeze into "J," "C" or even "S." Also, Tullis doesn't just spell words with his alphabetic finds but lays them out with a precision left over from his days as a graphic designer. The resulting "type" is edgy and interesting, employing a kind of ReadyMade sensibility.

Not surprisingly, Tullis's explorations in typography have led him to creating his own ornamental font.

"When we were driving around the U.S. several summers ago, it seemed like every small town we went to had a Dairy Queen or a Frosty Freeze and I was fascinated with all these cold letter forms they used. So I designed an opposite font of these hot, flaming letter forms."

It might seem impractical for Tullis, who lives in Kentucky, to come all the way to North Idaho for his upcoming show, but he sees it as an opportunity to share his work.

"My purpose in taking this kind of cross-country approach is to share my area of interest - this interest in typography - with the widest audience possible. At the same time I want to share my sense of nostalgia for these old typestyles before they all start disappearing."

Publication date: 11/04/04

It Happened Here: Expo '74 Fifty Years Later @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Jan. 26
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