Mnemonics in art

27. Medieval bestiary – names of people

The incredible medieval illuminated manuscripts, and much of the art work, were designed to be memorised, not just read. All sorts of devices were used to create memory spaces, including alphabets, page layouts and books about animals – the bestiaries. Copying the techniques from the Middle Ages, I am making a bestiary designed to help me remember names of people I meet – something I am notoriously bad at doing. An interesting experiment, but also one which is enabling me to try and be artistic. I’m loving it but this one I will take very slowly. I have joined the Calligraphy Society of Victoria and am taking art classes. Pictures will appear here when I finally produce something I am pleased with. No breath holding, please.

This isn’t mine. It is the real thing:

28. Medieval-style manuscript – musical instruments

In a wildly optimistic imaginative moment, I decided that I would create a medieval-looking manuscript and then adorn it with the glosses and drolleries, illuminations and fancy capitals in the form of those used in the Middle Ages to make the text memorable. The manuscript will tell of the musical instruments in a Western orchestra but also have my character visit other cultures and discover their instruments from around the world and throughout time. This will give a basis on which to build a much greater understanding of music theory. How’s that for ambitious?  In my more rational moments, I wonder what on earth was I thinking. Calligraphy and imitating medieval art – how hard could it be? Oh dear.

I will be using ideas from medieval writers such as Thomas Bradwardine who talked about grids and other layouts used for mnemonic purposes.

But mostly I want to add drolleries, the little humorous sketches medieval scholars added to the text to make it more memorable.

I am not going to attempt to replicate the exquisite art but create my own interpretation of the style. This may be my greatest disaster, but I’ll have fun!

29. A visual alphabet
Again from medieval books, I have created my own visual alphabet to use as a memory device to store sequences of data.  I use the Visual Alphabet and Bestiary every day.

I have the visual alphabet in memory now, and am creating a variety of art formats for my Alphabet. One format features in Memory Craft, but others are part of my many planned art projects. However, even knowing the visual alphabet from my rough designs has enabled me to use it for temporary memorising. Mostly that is the bird list when husband, Damian, and I go out birding. It works well with the permanent memory device of my bird guide encoded to my lukasa.

I use the Visual Alphabet for any check lists and for any talks I give. I don’t use a permanent memory palace for speeches because I like to adapt to each audience.

See the post: Playing with a visual alphabet

31. Chinese narrative art – History of Timekeeping – CHANGE TOPIC

I spent hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at the ancient Chinese scrolls in which the story is told in a continuous image. Protagonists can appear throughout the scroll as their narrative is told. Many tell of histories. I want to construct a scroll in this format to write a history of timekeeping.

Here’s a small sample of one of the scrolls. The character in the red, seen twice here, moves through the narrative of the scroll.

22. Wearable memory devices – Shakespeare’s plays – CHANGE TO NARRATIVE SCROLLS

I have been inspired by the Wampum Belts, the traditional shell bead memory devices used by the Eastern Woodlands American Indian tribes. Strings woven with the shell beads were used as a memory device for stories including, but not exclusively, history. They were also used as gifts and for recording treaties.

There are other examples of beaded strings being used as memory devices and I am keen to try creating them for specific purposes using a variety of beads. I can make belts and bracelets and necklaces and … my brain is reeling.

I am encoding the plays of Shakespeare. I have a bead per play in chronological order. The comedies, tragedies and historical plays form three groups, three different style of beads. The order in which Shakespeare is thought to have written them forms the order of the beads on the necklace. Bracelets give the story of each play. I have just started on this one and am loving it. If only I had studied Shakespeare in the decades since school, I would be moving a lot faster. So many familiar phrases and references keep popping up despite me not knowing their origin before now. I am loving it!

The memory side should work as easily as the lukasa memory boards with beads on them. I could even wear my jewellery into an exam. Would that be cheating? I think that I can use the knotted cord devices (the khipu) in the same way. Fun times ahead!

34. Art – Multiplication – Rapscali tables

I am constant asked about memorising multiplication tables and other mathematical basics. I have developed a system using my rabbit-like rapscallion, Rapscali and her companion, the bear Sebastian. ‘Rapscallion’ is the name coined by Paul Allen when we worked with students. The role of characters in telling stories for memorisation cannot be overestimated, but we couldn’t use any term which would misappropriate the content from indigenous cultures – so we made up our own. Using characters and stories, the mathematical tables come to life. Rhyme and narrative makes them memorable as individual tables, not sing-song rote learning. Using understanding, the number to be memorised can be significantly reduced from the usual 144.

I am creating an entire book of the art work for this. It will be available through this website by mid 2019.

With the tables under control, students can concentrate on understanding and application and all the higher levels of learning which are not memory tasks.

34? Geological time scale – artist’s journal

35. The Mnemonic Arts

I then want to spend the rest of my life developing a career as a practitioner of the mnemonic arts. I figure that has a lovely gothic sound to it. I want to produce art works which acts as memory aids using the art skills I am slowly acquiring in art class under the wonderful guidance of Richard Baxter. His teaching has just made my dreams grow more and more ambitious.

One inspiration is to create single art works such as The Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas, a fresco by Andrea da Firenze, c. 1365, in the Spanish Chapel of the Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence (pictured below – click for full version). So much fun to be had!

40. Bird calls as mnemonic images

As a result of a different discussion on the Art of Memory Forum (from Experiment 37), I am working out ways to create mnemonic images for bird calls. I want to try and represent the bird calls using calligraphy – the sound written phonetically with wider portions for louder and narrower for softer parts of the call, and the words rising and falling with the pitch. I’d use the watercolour decoration to indicate habitat.

I wonder if that image in memory would help me in the field. There is only one way to find out.

39. Mnemonic Maps – abstract and representational

Many indigenous cultures use artistic maps as a mnemonic. The variety is massive – from Australian Aboriginal art to Pacific Island stick charts. Add that I find all maps fascinating, and some are stunning art works. 

I want to explore the way Indigenous cultures use maps of place to represent their knowledge systems. I am convinced this would be an valuable way for students to represent knowledge. I am exploring this with memory maps of locations within my Chinese language memory palace. They are becoming abstract art works of knowledge. I hope to expand to other themes.

Then there are the maps of fantasy worlds, some of which are absolutely gorgeous. Can I create art works of maps through a fantasy world which can act like a memory palace? I have plenty of ideas. Now to find more time.

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