James Joyce

The Haunted Inkbottle

James Joyce and the Art of Robert Amos 

“No, so holp me Petault, it is not a miseffectual whyacinthinous riot of blots and blurs and bars and balls and hoops and wriggles and juxtaposed jottings linked by spurts of speed: it only looks as like it as damn it; and, sure, we ought really to rest thankful that at this deleteful hour of dungflies dawning we have even a written on with dried ink scrap of paper at all to show for ourselves, tare it or leaf it” FW118

The James Joyce Quarterly has kindly allowed me space to introduce my “written on with dried ink scrap of paper”. I am an artist and author who lives in Victoria, British Columbia, a little city on a rather large island off the West Coast of Canada. I discovered James Joyce in 1970, but it was many years before I began to make sense of Ulysses. Later, discovering that silent reading of Finnegans Wake brought only confusion and frustration, I spent six years making an audio recording of the book. Four hours of my complete version have been posted at Derek Pyle’s waywordsandmeansigns.com . To better understand the text I was reading, as I proceeded I wrote out the Wake in its entirety – in my “short lines” format – with a fountain pen.

While this was going on, I began to incorporate selections of Joyce’s words into my art practice. Some of the results can be seen on the following pages. More of my art works in many media can be found at robertamos.com

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For many years I have drawn inspiration from Chinese and Japanese art. I learned that words written using a brush and ink are a form of expression which at once reveals the power of the text and the character of the person who wrote it. This form of calligraphy proved to be a wonderful way for me to get close to Joyce. As he said, “who in hallhagal wrote the durn thing anyhow?”. FW107

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As part of my painting practice, I am always on the lookout for subject matter and my literary studies offer a rich vein of material. I was inspired to try to breathe life into the photos of Joyce and his family by making portraits of them using acrylic paint on mahogany plywood panels. 

It seemed to me, as I considered every aspect of Joyce’s appearance, that he was speaking to me. So I included some of his words in my pictures. In this painting the last words of Finnegans Wake merge with the first words, and flow through Joyce’s brain – in one ear and out the other.

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“How bootifull and how truetowife of her” FW11


Joyce’s wife Nora didn’t have much to say about literature, but she certainly had a place in everything her husband wrote. Her penetrating look gave me a lot to think about. This painting, which is twelve by sixteen inches, has been described by a thoughful observer as showing “a pensive, world-weary Nora”.

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I have always felt that my ink paintings and the inscriptions which I have written on Chinese paper should not be framed behind glass but mounted as hanging scrolls. Fortunately friends in China and Taiwan came to my assistance and a hundred of these paintings were mounted there in the traditional manner using silk with rosewood rollers. The scrolls are easy to store in their rolled-up form and, in many cases, this format has lent itself to the longer inscriptions from Finnegans Wake which I’m fond of copying.

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The folded book is another Chinese format I have used, and it is appropriate for longer quotations. The book has a cinematic sense which leads the reader onward from one page to the next. Above is one such book, showing a few pages on which I wrote out a sentence from Ulysses, depicting Stephen’s walk on Sandymount Strand. Below is a poem from Pomes Penyeach, a series of thirteen poems, each about the right length to copy out on a single page. In addition to an album which includes all the poems, I’ve written them out one at a time on specially-prepared papers.

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“a genuine relique of ancient of Irish pleasant pottery” FW111

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I couldn’t possibly make pottery. The work of preparing the clay, the skill required to mold or turn the objects on the wheel, and the technical knowledge required to fire the clay are all beyond my skills. But I have always admired ceramics in museums and art galleries. 


It was my good fortune to meet Harumi Ota, a superb Japanese potter now living in Victoria. At my request Harumi made all sorts of porcelain shapes for me to decorate. He provided bisque-fired wares which were matte and fragile, and I set to work with my brush and cobalt blue underglaze pigment. When I was done, Harumi took the delicate wares back to his studio where he glazed and fired them. Over the years we have made more than 400 pieces, a treasure to look at and a delight to use every day at the table.

Decorating plates and bowls from his potter’s wheel necessitated working in a circular format which seemed perfect for the inherent circularity of Finnegans Wake. I also adapted the endless knotwork patterns from the Book of Kells, one of Joyce’s inspirations for his magum opus

The bowl above is about fourteen inches across. The rectangular plate on the facing page is nine by twelve inches.

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Eventually, my potter friend took off to climb mountains in South America. Just at that time my fellow Joycean, David Peacock, announced that he was opening a restaurant in his world-class pool hall, Peacock Billiards. David’s plan was to create a Joyce-themed dining experience to be called The James Joyce Bistro. He asked if I would  paint some murals.

It seemed to me that a restaurant with the walls covered with murals would be too busy, a distraction from a visual point of view. I proposed something different and suggested that I would cover a number of four-by-six foot wooden panels with passages chosen from his favourite book, Ulysses. Casual diners could ignore the words, while hard-core Joyceans could read while they ate. David agreed with my plan, and I set to work writing the words with my brush and diluted acrylic paint on the open grain of unfinished Baltic birch plywood. When the panels were complete he set me to work on a number of four-foot diameter table tops. As they were circular, I thought a Finnegans Wake theme would be appropriate. Eight smaller rectangular tables feature texts from Ulysses.

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All the wall panels and tables can be viewed at peacockbilliards.com where they are found under the heading Joyce and Art.

The top of the bar, which is seventeen feet long, gave me room to inscribe more than three pages of the Bronze By Gold chapter from Ulysses. At the right is my photo of David reading words from the chapter through his beer glass.

Through these many means I have made a good start at coming to terms with Finnegans Wake. The words of James Joyce are endlessly enriching to my art practice.


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