Artist Statement

In 2015, I stumbled upon the research of Genevieve von Petzinger, a Canadian paleoanthropologist studying Ice Age cave art between 10,000 – 40,000 years old. Sifting through myriad images found in cave sites, von Petzinger discovered thirty-two recurring symbols found in these Paleolithic sites on all continents save for Antarctica. These symbols occur with such frequency, they represent a universal written proto-language. I was thunderstruck by this common lexicon shared by early artists and how many symbols we still use today in written language and visual communication. The heart, hashtag, cross, squiggles, spirals, dots, and lines. At the time of my discovery, I was living in Arizona and spent time visiting rock art sites in the Four Corners region, recording all the different images and symbols left by early groups on boulders and cliff walls over the last millennia. I saw many of the symbols from von Petzinger’s catalogue in the sites I explored. As an artist interested in signs, language, and pattern, I felt a connection to the early artists of my region. However, von Petzinger’s research throttled me back many thousands of years, making me feel connected to the most ancient artists, as we shared the same fascination and obsession with certain figures and symbols. Given that we inherited a set of symbols utilized for tens of thousands of years, could it be that our brains are basically the same?

Von Petzinger named these symbols phosphenes, which comes from Greek phos, light, and phanein, to show; and means “light seen in the dark.” In physiology, phosphenes are subjective phenomena generated by certain conditions, mainly experienced in the darkness of night, in a dark space, or with closed eyes. They also occur from stress, suffering from migraines, taking hallucinogens, or rubbing your eyes. In one of these conditions, if you pay attention, you can make out certain images like simple signs, patterns, and colors.

The paper in this suite of work is recycled from old documents and cardboard boxes covered in letters and numbers – language. The red pulp is paper mixed with red iron oxide, ancient artists’ pigment of choice. The printed materials and the pigmented symbols on paper bridge the chasm in time that links their time to ours.

Is the basis of written language and visual communication a derivative of early humans drawing what they saw when they closed their eyes or sat awake in a cave at night?  Why did people take these symbols with them like talismans and pass them to the next generation? While some phosphenes have mutated or been cast aside, the most potent have endured, perhaps due to their clarity, inherent power, or ability to evoke deep meaning.  

-Tino Ward, Dallas, TX 2023

March 3 – May 12, 2023
Hawn Gallery, Hamon Arts Library

Artist Statement