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Elizabeth Dove has been cutting up dictionaries for years, searching for meaning. Now, the Missoula artist is showing off the product of her process.

The Missoula Art Museum will have an exhibition of Dove’s work starting on Tuesday and running through the end of January next year. The exhibition will feature a portion of her series called “Corpus of the Unknowable.”

Her work dismantling dictionaries was originally spurred by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“I started cutting up the dictionary out of frustration, out of lack of understanding,” she said.

She chose the dictionary because she viewed it as the “quintessential icon of meaning.” To make the pieces, Dove chose a word out of the dictionary, then cut out the definition.

Using a pair of haircutting scissors, she cut each individual letter separate from each other, with the resulting “text dust” sealed underneath a sheet of wax paper over a background that contains the word the letters had defined, able to freely slide and settle in their small square frames.

“In the sciences, we divide up the world. There’s biology, geology, astronomy. To understand something we cut it up. But is that really how you understand something?” she said.

Dove had previously donated the series, about 100 items in total, to the museum’s collection, though this is the first time they have been shown to the public.

While there was no specific criteria for which words she chose, Dove said she mostly picked words that had complex histories, and ones that she felt it might be difficult for language to fully define. The frame for “life,” understandably, is one of the most full of letters. But “luck” and “mourn” are sparse to the point of looking almost empty.

“It was surprising how few letters are required to define something I would consider fairly complicated. It’s hard to believe it could be defined so quickly, this complicated phenomenon of emotions. What does it mean, these 200 or 300 letters? The suggestion is that meaning isn’t fixed,” she said.

Dove has previously had a showing at the MAM. In 2004, she had an exhibition, “Beyond Words,” also themed around the dictionary, but in that case it was with the drawings and illustrations she had saved while cutting out the words. She is also a professor of art at the University of Montana, where she teaches classes in printmaking and photography.

She said part of the challenge of focusing her artwork around the dictionary for more than a decade is that in that time, she’s seen culture has moved on from seeing the tome as the definitive source of knowledge.

“We used to share the location of knowledge, with libraries, the dictionary. That’s where knowledge existed,” Dove said.

Recently, Dove finished up work on another dictionary-focused art series. It is a collection of 26 larger black on white screenprinted works, one for each letter of the alphabet. In each print, all of the illustrations from the dictionary were printed on top of each other. Look close enough, and a viewer can pick out specific objects, while others stack so close on top of each other the center is a mass of dark chaos. Examples of Dove’s artwork can be found on her website,

Last year, the New York Public Library bought one set of this new project, “It Started With Aardvark.”

“That was the place I wanted it to go most of all when I was working on it the past three years,” Dove said.

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Law and Justice Reporter

Crime reporter for the Missoulian.