Five Oceans in a Teaspoon

Scholarship: Creative Work Award Winner

Warren Lehrer, Designer, Professor, SUNY, Purchase  (visualizations)

Dennis J Bernstein, Poet, Executive Producer, Flashpoints Pacifica Radio (poems)

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon is a book and multimedia project written by journalist/poet Dennis J Bernstein, visualized and structured by designer/author Warren Lehrer. A large collection of short visual poems, Five Oceans consists of a 300 page book (Paper Crown Press), animations, a traveling exhibition (premiering at City Lore Gallery, NYC), and reading/performances. Steven Heller wrote the introduction to the book.

In 1979, Dennis J Bernstein and I began working on a book of poems, originally titled Stretch Marks. Instead of completing that book, we leapt into writing our first play together, and over the intervening years we collaborated on three books, including French Fries (1984), which has since been written about in scores of textbooks on visual literature, typography, graphic design and artists’ books. A few years ago, we began collaborating again on visual poetry, bringing together Bernstein’s words and my typographic visualizations. Forty years after our original effort we completed the project, now titled Five Oceans in a Teaspoon. Like with many of my previous works, this book sits at the center of a multibranched project.

Bernstein’s poetry, like his investigative journalism, reflects the struggle of everyday people trying to survive in the face of adversity. Structured like a work of music, the book (and exhibit) is divided into eight movements spanning a lifetime: growing up confused by dyslexia and a parental gambling addiction; graced by pogo sticks, boxing lessons and a mother’s compassion; becoming a frontline witness to war and its aftermaths, to prison, street life, love and loss, open heart surgery, caring for aging parents and visitations from them after they’re gone.

My methodology for this project: I selected the poems—out of thousands of Bernstein’s short poems written over 45 years—and arranged them into the book which can also be seen/read as a memoir in short visual poems. Each poem lead me to a composition. The ideas within the poem, its themes, metaphors, allusions, double meanings, ambiguities, subtexts, conflicts, voices, structure, rhythmic cadences, pauses and silences, underlying intent—were all grist for the mill. Many of the compositions give form to the interior, emotional underpinnings of the poem. Many compositions engage the reader to become an active participant in the discovery, navigation, puzzle, and interpretation of the poem. Some compositions allude to figuration or landscape, while others work more abstractly. At their best, the typographic compositions help create experience—within and across the pages of the book and in the animations. In a poem about Alzheimer’s, letters struggle to become words, search for memory; thoughts halt, rotate and stretch in a confusion of pleasure, frustration, habit and empathy. In a poem seen through the eyes of a child, letters and words form a colony of ants inspecting and devouring a discarded piece of candy. Other poems function diagrammatically, tracing patterns of relationships, war and peace, and struggles for human and civil rights.

Most of my previous projects embrace complexity, polyphony, and are longform works such as the 4 volume 1000+ page “Portrait Series” documenting American eccentrics, or my illuminated novel A LIFE IN BOOKS: The Rise and Fall of Bleu Mobley, containing 101 books within it embedded within a fictionalized memoir. For Five Oceans, I made dozens and dozens of iterations of each poem until a visual setting felt right—like it couldn’t be any other way. In his introduction, design historian/critic Steven Heller writes, “some of the compositions seem so simple and transparent resulting in self-evident grace and revelation.” This was the challenge of this project, to distill (like the writing does and the title suggests) a wide swath of experiences and emotions into a small space with minimal means: a seven inch square book, black and white, just using one type family throughout for the central voice of each poem, engaging the emptiness/fullness of the off-white page or screen.

Animations allow for a different kind of typographic realization/performance of select poems via time, kinetic typography, and soundtracks scored by composer/performer Andrew Griffin. Animations are featured in the live performance/readings, in the exhibition, public screenings and projections, and online. The exhibit also features prints of select poems from each movement.

Regarding impact and contribution to the field: As I write this, Five Oceans hasn’t even been published yet, officially. Yet there are indications that it will be impactful and receive critical attention. After reading an advance copy, Johanna Drucker, perhaps the foremost scholar of Visual Literature, writes: “In the long history of graphic word works, few, if any, have this range and repleteness.” In her forthcoming review in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Drucker calls Five Oceans an “engaging masterwork that has only a handful of precedents in literary and design history.” Bob Holman, leading chronicler of contemporary poetry writes, “Five Oceans re-envisions a poetry memoir via a textual kaleidoscope… Bernstein and Lehrer are the Rodgers and Hart of Visual Poetry.” Pulitzer Prize winning author Alice Walker calls Five Oceans “Brilliant and Beautiful.” Gail Anderson and Steven Heller’s recent book “Type Tells Tales” includes three sections on my work, one devoted to Five Oceans as a work-in-progress. Tim Samara’s new edition of Making and Breaking the Grid analyzes select poems from Five Oceans as exemplars of “verbal deconstruction/ narrative allusion/ pictorialization.” An article on Five Oceans just came out in Creative Review; others are due out in AIGA’s Eye on Design, Afterimage, Electric Book Review, JAB and other media outlets. Debbie Millman is interviewing me in October about Five Oceans and my work for her Design Matters podcast, and Dennis and I will be presenting this work at Letterform Archive in San Francisco, at the NY Art Book Fair, City Lore, and other locations around the US. 

Warren Lehrer is a writer, designer and book artist known as a “pioneer of visual literature and design authorship.” His books and multimedia projects attempt to capture the shape of thought and reunite oral and pictorial traditions of storytelling in books, animations, performance and installations. Awards include: The Brendan Gill Prize, IPPY Outstanding Book of the Year Award, Innovative Use of Archives Award, International Book Award for Best New Fiction, three AIGA Book Awards, Media That Matters Award, grants and fellowships from NEA, NYSCA, NYFA, Rockefeller, Ford, Greenwall Foundations. He is a 2016 Honoree of the Center for Book Arts. His work is in many collections including MoMA, Getty Museum, Georges Pompidou Centre, Tate Gallery. A frequent lecturer and performer, Lehrer is the Leff Distinguished Professor at SUNY Purchase, a founding faculty member of SVA’s Designer As Author MFA program, co-founder of EarSay, a non-profit arts organization in Queens, NY.

Dennis J Bernstein is a poet, investigative journalist and award-winning host/producer of Flashpoints, syndicated by the Pacifica radio network. Recipient of many awards and honors, including Pulse Media’s Top Global Media Figure, Pillar Award in Broadcast Journalism, Artists Embassy International Literary Cultural Award. He founded the Muriel Rukeyser Reading Series in Brooklyn, NY. Books include Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom, Particles of Light, and three books with Warren Lehrer including French Fries, considered a seminal works in the genre. His poetry has appeared in New York Quarterly, The Chimaera, The Progressive, Texas Observer, ZYZZYVA, and numerous other journals.

Recipient of recognition in the Design Incubation Communication Design Awards 2019.

White Plains Storefront Project: Art In Vacant Spaces

Teaching Award Runner-up

Warren Lehrer
School of Art+Design, Purchase College, SUNY
Founding Faculty Member, SVA (School of Visual Arts) Designer as Author Graduate Program”

For two years in a row, the White Plains BID (Business Improvement District) asked me and my Community Design class at Purchase College, SUNY to “improve the visual appearance of vacant storefronts in downtown White Plains and thereby enhance the ambiance and pedestrian experience in the downtown business district.”

Community Design is a senior level graphic design class that serves the campus and non-profit communities while providing students with “real” projects that interrogate ideas of community, civic engagement, and an expanded role of the designer. The class functions as a design studio that works on multiple projects of different kinds, scales and media with a variety of clients/collaborators. In the fall of 2015, the Storefront project was one of 11 projects. In 2016, it was one of 6.

In year one of the Storefront project, the students and I reframed “the brief” to go beyond “aesthetic enhancement” of the vacant storefronts, by creating works of visual poetry that reflect the conditions of downtown White Plains and the people who inhabit it. As the class had ten other projects on its plate that semester, and the course is not a writing course (I also teach a elective writing course for designers), we brought in Judith Sloan to write poetry for the project. (Judith is my partner in EarSay, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to uncovering and portraying stories of the uncelebrated.) After researching White Plains and interviewing residents, commuters, historians and city officials, Judith wrote five poems that left room for visual interpretation by students.

Each student in the Storefront team did their own primary and secondary research on nearby White Plains and selected a poem or poems they were interested in. From the 20% commercial vacancy stock, students picked storefronts they thought most suitable for their selected poem(s) and began visualizing them within the frame of the storefront using typography as well as shape, color, texture, image, sequence, metaphor. The student’s interpretive “performance” of a text into a space was influenced by the store’s configuration, number of windows, and proximity to other landmarks (train station, bookstore, other vacant spaces, etc). Invariably, the design student’s re-composition of the poem necessitated consultation with the poet, sometimes culminating in collaborative re-writes. This fluid collaboration/negotiation between designer and writer, the whole creative team and the BID/property owners, and with materials and vendors—helped catapult the project beyond a normal class assignment or traditional designer/client relationship. The resulting transformation of a blighted area into an activated public space fusing poetry and art was an enlarging and successful experience for everyone involved. The windows stimulated conversation, enchantment and change in the community. Half the stores utilized in year one have since rented, the commercial vacancy rate is down to 17%, and the White Plains BID approached me to do the project again—with an expanded budget—for a second and now third year. In year two of the project, we expanded the media beyond printed vinyls and lenticulars, to include laser cutting, digital monitors and projections.

LehrerWhite Plains Storefront Project

Warren Lehrer is a designer, writer, and educator known as a pioneer of visual literature and design authorship. Awards include: Center for Book Arts Honoree, the Brendan Gill Prize, the Innovative Use of Archives Award, three AIGA Book Awards, a Media That Matters Award. Grants/fellowships include: NEA, NYSCA, NYFA, Rockefeller, Ford, Greenwall Foundations. Collections include: MoMA, the Getty Museum, Georges Pompidou Centre, Tate Gallery. With Judith Sloan, Lehrer co-founded EarSay, an arts organization dedicated to portraying lives of the uncelebrated. Lehrer is also a playwright, performer, and frequent lecturer and keynote speaker. He is a full professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and a founding faculty member of the Designer as Author grad program at SVA. His recent illuminated novel, A LIFE IN BOOKS, has received nine awards, including the International Book Award for Best New Fiction, the IPPY Outstanding Book of the Year Award, and a Print Magazine Design Award.

Recipient of recognition in the Design Incubation Communication Design Awards 2017.