Noted German Scientist Cracks Hieroglyphic Cipher of Artist Bill Girard


Master of Mud (aka artist) and former Center for Creative Studies (CCS), Detroit,  professor of art, Bill (William J.) Girard Jr., passed away in 2011. The website created to honor him is found at


Meet the wizard (of science):

Professor Dr. Robert Fuchs, Director Emeritus of the Cologne University of Applied Sciences and former head Head of the Department of Restoration and Conservation of Written material, Graphics, Photography and Illuminated Manuscripts.  

 Nice smile, right?

Now, meet the mysterious hieroglyphic code. Well, at least a lovely sample of it. It accompanies an equally lovely sketch. 

Ballpoint pen on torn paper. 8.5" x 11" 
Artist: Bill (William J) Girard, Jr., Royal Oak, MI 1940-2011

For reasons unknown, the artist, former Prof. of Art Bill Girard, decided to borrow Egyptian hieroglyphics and put them to work for his own purposes. Everyone needs a private language all their own, right? 

Girard co-opted what he found (in pre-digital age sources), mixed it up a bit (or drew from  unreliable sources), then gradually evolved additional characters as needed. As you can see in the sketch above, he used them fluently. 

That is, aside from two notable mis-starts, he wrote swiftly and apparently, without doubt. 

Yes, Girard left a key, shown just below. But it seems that his needs outgrew it, so to speak. Well, so to write. 

By the time he created the image and text shared above, he had evolved well beyond the original guide he left behind.

Girard's Hand-drawn Hieroglyphic Translation Key.

Apparently, even this brilliant 20th century draftsman didn't fancy taking the time required to draw modestly complex glyphs in order to write notes for his own use. So he created some shortcuts (shorthand) for himself.

Take the original version of the letter R as seen in the key, above.

Imagine how long it would take to write/draw the word "error." Clearly that pharaonic head proved to be a big mistake. So Girard migrated to a filled circle. And after that to a simple circular shape, akin to the O listed above. Which meant that that letter had to change... as it did.

One of the singular contributions of Professor Dr. Fuchs to the text translation was his recognition that Girard's use of characters is inconsistently consistent.

The characters that represent th in the phrase (see thot) on the bottom left corner of Girard's key, shown above, are not the characters used in the sketch to write The.

The same applies to the character that represents the ch in each, or the sh in shadows. Which is really damned confusing, in my opinion. Professor Dr. Fuchs insights in this regard strike me as breathtaking feats of intellectual imagination. I guess it helps explain how he came to be the noted scientist he is.  

About the accompanying sketch. At first glance, I thought its represented an ocean. Then it sorta looked like sand dunes. 

Today, I believe it depicts a vast tent. Those little things sticking up through it are tent poles. In the foreground, one has seemingly toppled.

Let's look at the translation. These four sets of characters appear on the upper-left margin below the sketch.


Caveat. Dr. Fuchs is not a mind reader. And Girard, well, if you glance at his prose, you'll note that spelling was not a significant concern. Besides, it's poetry. At least this bit seems to be. So excuse Girard if the logic of prose doesn't seem to have been applied.

This is the deciphered poem without the glyphs.

The desert of canvas

The day a singing, blue day
__ wisps of cotton
ball clowds casting
there long gray shadows
on the great canvas
sea, flinging there
grey softness over
each new ridge like a
fisherman’s fly cast
over the lapping waves. 

What it means?

It means that Girard could see in his mind's eye - as many of us might not - that the shapes associated with desert sand dunes and the shapes that we associate with ocean waves are closely related. Further, in his mind's eye, he could see them replicated in the shape of an endless tent. 

It means that Girard was possessed of a uniquely poetic vision. And the capacity to realize it in a quick sketch. And the ability to translate that sketch into words. 

It suggests that canvas - a material on which he produced many, many paintings - was on his mind. Perhaps it implies that the world of art itself is virtually endless. Or perhaps he associated canvas that hadn't been painted with the aridity of a desert void.

(In Girard's day, tents were commonly made of canvas. It isn't so difficult to imagine that he or someone he knew might have cut up an old tent canvas to use for a painting.)   

It means that other hieroglyphics may have new insights to offer. 

It means that the playful quality that pervades Girard's art extended to the written word (well, hieroglyphic), at least on occasion.

It means that for Girard, writing and drawing were closely related.

It means that I'm shocked that this held your attention this long. 

By the way, I fully intend to share other Girard sketches with translated hieroglyphic notations. If not for your edification, then for my own. 


Glenn Michaels
August 27, 2020.



  1. Comment actually by one S. Cascone. He said I could post it for him. It dates from 9/27/2020. Guess I've been busy.

    It goes to show how the pandemic has driven me to desperation.
    Rather than go to the beach and ogle pretty girls in large masks and tiny swimsuits, I am driven to review a blog about Bill G.s canvas landscape.
    But am so glad I was. What a fascinating image and poem and, of course, your tireless sleuthing to undercover the rascal’s secret code!

    (Much better than the Felix the Cat decoder ring I got as a boy, whose secret message was: Drink Bosco. I threw the damn ring away for the conniving gewgaw it was!)

    You figured out the first two layers of the sketch’s meaning on your own: a possible desert, a possible sea.
    But the poem gave you the final clue? If so, what a tribute to Bill’s skill. And with this information, the picture resolves nicely, and leads to connotative levels of meaning.

    You posit that the canvas could be the artist’s painting medium. And so it is. But of course it is more: the tent’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the thin(king).

    Bill states explicitly in his poem that this third layer is “the great canvas sea,” which is exactly what he shows: a vast, manmade handiwork which from above can be a covering that appears like the desert and the sea, but when lofted on those poles creates a vast interior space, which is a fitting site for acts of imagination, which to me suggests a circus. (Might clowds also infer clowns?) A circus: a creation of man, an act of will and imagination, distinct from the natural desert and sea. Also a space for all kinds of imaginative and creative activity (as well as a simple shelter from the elements: desert sun and ocean rain). The three interchangeable images are one, seduce our eye and draw us in to admire vast phenomena receding and endlessly fascinating. The image teases us by tricking us to consider what naturally comes to mind (sea and possibly desert) but hides the true image in plain sight, and we ignore the tent poles unless we are unusually observant or imaginative. Or, like you, decode the cipher.

    Regarding the poem, while sunny on the surface and suggestive of the joy of visual imagining, it also offers the possibility of a less happy possibility: “casting long gray shadows” on the great canvas sea, so that perhaps “blue day” could suggest melancholy as well as sunniness. If that seems like a stretch, I would point back to the sketch, which has demonstrated that things are not as they first appear. And finally, there is the simile of a “fisherman’s fly cast” which seems to be clearly the artist himself, Bill, using art and artifice to achieve his goal, like the fisherman who ties some gray/grey fluff to a hook to trick the fish into biting.

    An alternative title for this sketch could be: "The desert of canvas (Ode to Imagination)."

    Thanks for sending this along.
    A wonderful image to see and puzzle to consider about art.


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