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Alphabet Soup

Bingo Barnes brings his prints to Kandor

If you are familiar with the Kandor Home store downtown and also familiar with Bingo Barnes' artwork, then you might wonder, as I did, how this conventional store and unconventional artist agreed to work together for a First Thursday show. For example, maybe you noticed Barnes' cover art from Boise Weekly one month ago, titled Unrealized Potential. There is a small red body within a larger black body and the eyes are enormous X's. To put it frankly, this type of art and Le Cordon Bleu Cookware just don't jive. So, why did Kandor agree to exhibit Barnes' prints? It turns out that Kandor enjoys featuring artists who strive to create "different" art and that Barnes is toning down his inner madman ... for the moment.

In his latest work, Barnes is exploring the history of the alphabet and common, everyday symbols, such as the dollar sign. His prints will display a combination of letters of the alphabet, which he feels will be a great addition to any nursery. A second example of his prints is X's and O's meant to reveal hugs and kisses. As previous managing editor and co-owner of BW, Barnes' relationship with language has always been intimate. Now he is combining his wordsmith and printmaking skills, taking his two arts to an entirely different level.

This project initiated from his curiosity about why we use the symbols we do to communicate.

"Consider the dollar sign," said Barnes while showing me around his incredibly cramped and disheveled garage-turned-studio. "Where do the two lines and two curves come from?"

The story he shared was detailed and complex, but basically, the dollar sign dates back to the 1400s, when the Pope split the world between Spain and Portugal. Primarily, anyone who wanted to enter or exit the Mediterranean had to pass through the Straits of Gibraltar. The Straits of Gibraltar's borders are also known as the Pillars of Hercules, which in the past were represented on the Spanish dollar (called "Pieces of Eight") by the two lines. The dollar was often abbreviated as p8 and eventually the p began to look like a single stroke while one side of the numeral 8 began to get straight. Then, over time it looked more like the dollar symbol we know today, at which point we adopted it. The two curves are also said to represent the northern and southern hemispheres. Yes, it's complicated and one theory of many, but knowing the history behind Barnes' prints makes his work all the more intriguing. He's not merely printing letters; he's collecting stories.

Because Barnes' art is inspired by the origination of the symbols he uses, it seems fitting that he works in an aged medium as well. Crammed in his small studio, he uses a Kelsey press, a Craftsmen press, and another big press to achieve all of the different sized prints he creates. He started doing linocuts approximately 15 years ago. Later, he was at an auction in Caldwell and overheard someone saying they were going to give a cabinet full of old type to a friend to be melted down. He rescued the cabinet and type from destruction and then spent nine years doing typography as an art director and designer before buying the Weekly. Only within the last year has he started doing letter prints.

The old type Barnes began working with was merely the beginning of his vast collection of letters and symbols. He has drawers of punctuation, zodiac sets, holiday symbols, decorative scrolls and whatever else could possibly be hiding amid the chaos. Although only a narrow pathway connects the different presses, making for a busy workspace, he can locate and differentiate a hyphen from an em dash or en dash much more easily than one would expect of a man wearing a pink fuzzy hat. It must be the orderly pandemonium that keeps the creative juices flowing.

While Barnes is excited about his recent project and enjoys making letter prints for the "spawn," as he calls his children, he knows that kitchen stores and kiddies won't likely be his mainstream customers for forever. The history of language intrigues him wholeheartedly, but so does the idea of starting a poster printmaking service in Boise. He has created posters for the Big Easy and other businesses in the past, and hopes to continue offering more of his original prints in the future.

--Gina Sinisi

Bingo Barnes' First Thursday reception is at 5-9 p.m., with artists Bonnie Griffin and Rachel Lehman. The store will be celebrating a "Let the Holidays Begin" theme by displaying holiday products and providing Dutch oven vegetarian stew. Also available will be winter seasonal brew, sponsored by the Boise Co-op. Kandor, 213 N. 9th St. For more information on Kandor, call 336-1336 or visit Visit Barnes Web site at