Mixed media artist Jason Asbell's show Not Quite Plagiarism is now on display at the Nelson Public Library.

Children’s dictionary becomes repurposed art project

Jason Asbell's mixed media showcase Not Quite Plagiarism is now on display at the Nelson Public Library.

Kootenay artist Jason Asbell’s latest project began when he found a series of illustrated children’s dictionaries, originally published in the 1950s, in a cardboard box on the side of the road. Initially drawn to the retro artwork, he found himself fascinated by how the books captured the cultural ideology of their time.

“Society’s accepted truth is encapsulated in these documents. I like the idea that when you have a piece that’s been created, it already has this stamp of the ideology and doctrine of the time. A dictionary is considered locked down fact. But standing from our current perspective, you can see how the truth has been reversed, or even just changed slightly,” said Asbell, who has worked with found objects in a variety of mediums.

“I wanted this dictionary to go beyond clean and decisive definitions and into the fantastic,” he said.

This exploration led Asbell to create Not Quite Plagiarism, a mixed media art project now on display at the Nelson Public Library. The show consists of 16 images taken from the children’s dictionaries, each of them consisting of two word definitions that have been doctored into surreal juxtapositions.

“At first glance you might not even think it’s doctored. Some people thought I had just found an interesting book and reframed it, page by page. I wanted the relationship to be one where you approach it as found object, but then you discover something unsettling.”

For instance, one of the panels depicts an Indian bazaar held in a man’s bathtub. (The combined words being “bathroom” and “bazaar”.) Another one joins the words “concrete” and “conference”, and the illustration shows a stream of concrete transforming into a businessman at the head of a conference table.

One of Asbell’s favourites uses the word pair “feast” and “finch”, a comic combination that resulted in a happy young boy feasting at a table full of human-sized birds, one of them perched on the punch bowl and another seated at the head of the table.

“It’s about that allowance to just create and have fun,” said Asbell, who works on his art with his wife Laurryn and his nine-year-old daughter Gabby.

“Being a parent has definitely influenced my art process because I see things as wondrous again.”

Asbell said this has been a perfect opportunity to teach his daughter about media literacy, and about questioning the truths we’re presented with day to day. He wants to give her permission to create her own truth.

“We can rework what we’re delivered. We can’t just take what they’re putting out as truth without questioning it. My approach to art is always a construction or a deconstruction,” he said.

Asbell said the final product is similar to a haiku. He hopes to develop the pieces into a series of postcards that he’ll offer for sale, and then eventually a full book. But before that can happen, he needs to make it through the rest of the alphabet.

“Choosing one from each letter is tough. There’s a lot for `B’, but then finding one for ‘X’ or ‘Y’ is almost impossible.”

The show will be on display until the end of December.