Whilst a student at RISD I had several jobs as a custodian at various schools in the area, a skill set I still find valuable today. One day, while emptying a few barrels of middle school waste product, I noticed a large movie screen that was being thrown away. As it turned out, it was being disposed of because it no longer zipped back up like a venetian blind when it was tugged on. “Hey,” I said to myself, “That’s a great big white painting surface!”

As it turns out, surfaces that are manufactured for projection of images are as bright and reflective as possible. This particular surface, still known today as Da-Lite, was a pearlescent textured surface composed of magnesium carbonate, titanium dioxide, or barium sulfate, the brightest and most reflective elements available. Titanium dioxide is used in every white pigment available, and has been shown to cause cancer in mice. It is still used in food products, sunscreen, facial creams, makeup and of course, paint.

I imagined an alphabet marching across this movie screen, repeating endlessly and creating unique shapes through the overlapping of each character. I created the painting known as Alphabet by cutting stencils for each of the letterforms and blocking out sections on the screen to spray atomized acrylic paint, which I applied with the good old-fashioned, non-aerosol device known as the Richeson Atomizer. The painting turned out beautifully and its current location is unknown.

Through the years I have thought about that painting, and it seemed a shame that the content was just a bunch of letters repeating themselves. When I started a new series of paintings based on letterforms, I decided to return to the technique I used in Alphabet and add some hidden messages. This led to an interest in cryptography, specifically the Caesar Cipher and its later development the Keyed Caeser which was used to encode the messages.

The cypher is quite simple, and the full solution key is the title of each painting, so a title of PLAY2 refers to the encoded message AKK XOSJ ANC NO QKAP MAJDT IABJ A CVKK YOP which uses the code sequence PLAYBCDEFGHIJKMNOQRSTUVWXZ paired with an alphabet shifted 2 spaces as YZABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWX so that P=Y, L=Z, A=A, Y=B and so forth. The solution is the phrase ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the encryption is finding the message to be solved in the first place, and again, this is a simple process. Start with a sheet of paper and pencil, and write down the letters that are paired together by color. Eventually you will find pairs that repeat themselves and this will lead to the full encrypted message. It’s all there, in several layers. Apply the keyed title and alphabet shift and you’re done. So in a sense, the paintings combine a form of word search with encryption.

While working on the new series of paintings, I noticed a call for entries in a juried exhibition called Painted Words and submitted a few, with one being selected for the exhibit. The opening reception is Friday, June 16, 6:00-7:30pm at Sebastopol Center for the Arts, 282 S. High Street in Sebastopol, California and will be running until July 23. I will be there for the reception and hope you will attempt to decode the selected entry, EVERYTHING2.

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Chris Bird is a designer for print and web specializing in the development of marketing materials for a varied spectrum of clients. He currently resides in Santa Rosa, California. His music website is at and his painting and fine arts website is located at