Driftwords is an ongoing art project. It combines my interest in art with my love of language, particularly all those whiskery words that can be found lurking in dark corners of the dictionary.

mimp: Is it: a) a disapproving purse of the lips; b) the stoneloach, or c) a burst blister? (This work is available for purchase.)

Several of the sculptures shown of this page were exhibited at the prestigious Zillah Bell Gallery in Thirsk, North Yorkshire. The critique reproduced lower down by the respected art critic Roland Milk accompanied their display. I reproduce it in full with his kind permission, interspersing his words with my own photographs of the pieces.

turdiform: Does it mean: a) shaped like a snail; b) shaped like a blackbird; or c) shaped like a poo? (Sold)

Each of the pieces bears on its surface a hand-painted, obscure, often otiose word from the full version of the Oxford English Dictionary. Part of the art of Driftwords is the intrigue inspired by speculation as to the meaning of each word. With a nod to Call My Bluff (Robinson-era, of course), I give you three options for each piece. Only one of which is correct.

mallemaroking: Is it: a) stewing thistles for beer-making; b) making a horse look younger, or c) the drunken carousing of seaman onboard an icebound whaling vessel? ( This work is available for purchase.)

DRIFTWORDS: The Art of Language
By Roland Milk, Art critic, 'The Pragmatist'

Mike Barfield is a writer who draws; a poet who paints; a collector of words with a weakness for waifs and strays; a man with a magpie mind, and - perhaps - a touch of the cuckoo about him too. When you consider all these things, Barfield's Driftword sculptures seem almost inevitable. Though they wouldn't have happened if he hadn't moved to North Yorkshire in December 2009.

clunt: Does it mean a) a fissure in limestone; b) to tread heavily, or c) to default on a payment? (This work is available for purchase.)

For a quarter of a century Barfield had been in South East England writing for TV, radio, books and the press. For fifteen years now he has also worked as a cartoonist with regular spots in Private Eye, Time Out, and on the Internet. In addition, he performs and conducts what he calls creative writing wordshops in schools. And he's even written his own highly personal dictionary (This Septic Isle, Ebury Press, 2008).

Mike Barfield's Driftword sculptures are a culmination of all these experiences. Plus one fresh ingredient: geography.

noop: Is it: a) the sharp point of the elbow; b) a forward porthole, or c) a young trout? (This work is available for purchase.)

In the dark days just before Christmas 2009, Mike and his family moved from Hertfordshire to Helperby, a small village in constant fear of falling into the River Swale. In winter the Swale swells and rises by fifteen feet or more, and when the water subsides in springtime the banks and tree tops are decked with driftwood. Some of these pieces have been shaped by man, others simply wrenched from nature by the sheer force of the water. Whatever their source, they are all orphans. Turning them into Driftwords gives them new lives, new meanings and, hopefully, new homes too.

glemish: Is it: a) the merest glimpse of a thing; b) a ventriloquist's birthmark, or c) to remove the nap from fur? (NB This work is available for purchase.)

The idea came to Barfield as he walked along the Swale, running over in his mind plans for a forthcoming school visit. This was to present his dictionary-themed wordshop
Defining Moments. One of the most popular parts of the event is a runaround quiz in which students try and identify the true meanings of obscure, obsolete and otiose words from the Oxford English Dictionary. Words like frippet, nelipot and turdiform. Words that the great rolling river of the English language has swept up onto the banks and abandoned. The literary equivalent of Swale driftwood.

stroupe: Is it: a) to scold an inncoent child; b) the spout of a teapot or watering-can, or c) an undersized soft fruit? (Sold)

Barfield says it came to him in a flash: 'Not just driftwood, drift
words. Typically for me, the whole idea began with a play on words, a caprice of language. I instantly realised I could rescue both the wood and the words by bringing them together in a single new piece of art. Besides, it seemed such a perfect combination: lost words and found objects.'

sillock, cooth, harbin, cudden and sethe: Are they: a) diseases of horses; b) types of heather, or c) stages in the life of the coalfish?
(This work is available for purchase.)

He made his first piece - mimp - within weeks, the only delay being a need to wait for the wood to dry further. The idea for combining painted and distressed driftwood with whittled willow pegs developed as the piece progressed. As did the notion of the holes: 'I wanted to bury the meaning of the word in the object itself, both metaphorically and literally. I also wanted people to have to physically engage with the sculpture in order to satisfy their curiosity. That's why one of the peg-holes on each sculpture holds a personal handwritten definition of the displayed word.'

vorago: Is it: a) a clogging-based dance; b) a recalcitrant hawk, or c) a gulf or chasm? (This work is also available for purchase.)

But which one? 'Well, that's all part of their appeal,' he says, before adding, 'I've spent twenty-five years shaping sentences. Now I shape single words, as well.'

Anyone interested in these works should contact the artist through the 'Make Mike's Day!' page.