To the Letter

Martin Settle’s latest venture explores the look of letters.

If you’ve ever visited the Starbucks at the corner of Woodlawn and Park roads between the hours of 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., you’ve probably crossed paths with a delightful man named Martin Settle, or “Mr. Marty,” as the kids call him. He’s a retired UNC Charlotte professor, but these days he’s a beloved fixture at this neighborhood post. To anyone who visits him on their morning coffee run, he assumes a number of roles including philosopher, problem solver, joke-teller, and baby-whisperer.

But in addition to his unofficial duties at the coffee shop, Settle is having his second act as a poet and assemblage artist. After 32 years of teaching technical writing, composition, and creative writing, Settle retired in 2010 to pursue his passion projects full-time. He’s published two books of poetry and won a number of awards including the Poetry of Courage Award from the North Carolina Poetry Society. In 2016 he released “The Backbone Alphabet,” a book that combines each of his loves—language, typography, and poetry. “It is a visual play with the letters of the alphabet, while at the same time a game that can take you into academic areas like philosophy and religion,” he says. “If you linger, there’s a lot of connections to be made. You can go as deep as you want to go.”

For Settle, this was a project more than 30 years in the making. “When I first moved to Charlotte, I had a few odd jobs,” he says. “For awhile I was delivering phone books to all of the schools in town, so I had to use maps to learn the city,” he says. “To pass the time, I would write a poem for every letter in the alphabet. Then later when I got into technical writing, I matched up each letter with an optical illusion and added typography. So everything in this book was something I learned along the way.”

The result is a clever and whimsical book that examines the visual aspects of literal communication. “The metaphor that began this book was the recognition that the human backbone has 26 vertebrae, just as the alphabet has 26 letters,” he says. “Each page examines a letter of the alphabet and focuses on a feature of that letter, whether it is shape, sound, position, or an association.” At the end of the book is an artist’s code, something that Settle defines as “the rules of the game that I played to help the reader more fully participate.” While this work could be interpreted as a visual puzzle or simply a fun artist’s book, Settle sums it up as “the philosophical backbone of my life.”

This month, “The Backbone Alphabet” will be on full display at C3 Lab where visitors can see Settle’s assemblage sculptures that correspond with the book. “I’m deconstructing the pages,” he says. “I hope people get to revisit these iconic shapes that are so easily overlooked…how you can take a random shape that represents a meaningless sound, and together they make meaning. It’s multi-faceted with a lot that can appeal to all sorts of interests. I think it’s a combination of fun and profound.”

While “The Backbone Alphabet” is no doubt a culmination of years of hard work, Settle has no immediate plans to slow down. In fact, he says he has five or six other books in the wings. “It takes a lot of endurance,” he says. “For many years I had work and family, so I had to carve out the time. I used to be fine sending things out and getting rejected. But there is a certain urgency that exists in my life at this age.”

As for the secret to his evolving career as an artist, Settle credits perseverance, patience—and, of course, his daily caffeine fix. So if you happen to bump into him the next time he’s holding court at Starbucks, Settle will probably extend a friendly “hello” or a listening ear. But if you catch him while he’s tinkering away on the laptop that accompanies him each morning, you can be sure he’s assembling another one of his masterpieces—one letter at a time.

See the sculptures that correspond with Martin Settle’s “The Backbone Alphabet” this month at C3 Lab. For more information, visit www.c3-lab.com.

Photos by Justin Driscoll