Xenium by Mark Stevens & Annet Stirling

Mark Stevens, Writer
Annet Stirling, Artist



On Oct 10, 2013, at 5:40 PM, Mark wrote:

Hi Annet

Given that we’ve needed to rely on email a lot as I’m in Denmark and you’re near London, perhaps we just continue in the same way with our creation story?

OK, so we met up in London, joining all the other teams wondering what words they would get.  I knew our letter – ‘X’ – but I was wondering what would turn up. X-ray? Xylophone?

When we got xenium my reaction was like most people’s I guess: “Huh? What’s that?”


On Oct 11, 2013, at 11:48 AM, Annet wrote:

Hi Mark,

My reaction? I will never remember this word! It seemed pharmaceutical or altogether made up.

And yes, our cooperation has all been rather digital. So it was good that you visited my studio and I could show you what sort of carving I do. And I was most impressed with the speed with which you managed to mine the internet for information on xenium. I think we sorted out that same day which way we were going. Once we found out the classical world connections…


On Oct 11, 2013, at 09:41 PM, Mark wrote:

Hi Annet

Your studio is amazing! So cool! And yes, we found out pretty quickly that xenium relates to the act of hospitality in the ancient world. And then we discovered that it’s important for Homer’s Iliad. (Stealing Helen wasn’t good manners from the Trojan guests!)

So we had a starting point. Actually, more than enough to start working things up. There ended up being lots of ideas, some of them pretty goofy. I believe you always liked: ‘Xenium, it’s mostly Ps & Qs.’

And I particularly remember you making a joke about ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’ and that really stuck with me. More on that later…

And out of these initial ideas we found our main phase: ‘Heavenly Hosts, Star Guests.’

This actually came from a lovely typeface you showed me in your studio, which had little star elements. It got me thinking about ancient Greece and astrology and trying to match it together with xenium / hospitality.

So immediately there was this play between the words and the visuals. All of which brings us to your trip to New York….


On Oct 12, 2013, at 12:45 PM, Annet wrote:

Hi Mark,

My little typeface is officially called Snowburst but I always think of it as Starburst….

I loved the ‘Heavenly Hosts, Star Guests’ phrase. It summed up xenium and all the connotations in the ancient world, but it also very much put me in mind of Elton John with all his sparkling glitter!

And yes, my epic trip to New York – a special trip with Christopher my son! While there, I was much taken with the mosaics in the subway stations. So, given our ancient Greek researches, it got me wondering how to incorporate this into our piece.

Maybe a mosaic border to surround our Heavenly hosts…?


On Oct 13, 2013, at 08:17 PM, Mark wrote:

Hi Annet

Right, New York subway inspired mosaic border. But what to say?

That joke about Beware of Greek gifts was interesting. This was the time of the Greek financial crisis and we wanted to be respectful. So what about adding an ‘a’ in there and make it: ‘Be aware of Greek gifts?’

And then we added ‘for Gods walk among us.’

This last bit was because we’d discovered that ancient Greeks always needed to have a gift for strangers at home – actual xenium! – just in case a god came by in disguise (seems kinda tricksy but they did that, apparently).

And then there was a lot of work on your part, exploring how the border might work. There were these lovely pdfs popping up in my inbox…

On Oct 14, 2013, at 12:01 PM, Annet wrote:

Hi Mark,

Yes the border was rather fun as I did not really know what I was doing at first! I’d decided to use the project to learn the Adobe Illustrator program; although for a long time I wanted very much to find a way to carve it – still do!

The mosaics were simplified into 2 colours, and I had to decide where the division was – except that somehow the program did that for me (real serendipity) and then I adjusted.

But the border with just that one phrase became really huge – such large letters – so we needed to add some more words. Remember how difficult it was to keep the ‘Ps and Qs’ out?

On Oct 14, 2013, at 11:45 PM, Mark wrote:

Hi Annet

Yes we kept trying to work in that Ps & Qs phase because it made us giggle. But nothing seemed work. Then – thankfully! – you came back with some lines of Homer: ‘descends like nightfall’ and ‘should a wandering man in weariness…’

So I put it together to create:

‘Should a wandering man in weariness descend,
Be aware of Greek gifts for gods walk among us’


On Oct 14, 2013, at 12:55 PM, Annet wrote:

Hi Mark,

After we cracked the text for the border, the rest was fairly simple. The last element came from a book that I’d found, Homer’s Secret Iliad (F&K Wood). This had an illustration showing the constellation of Orion containing the stars of Paris & Hector, which we had to include…

On Oct 14, 2013, at 03:39 PM, Mark wrote:

Hi Annet

You worked so hard to pack our piece with all these ‘secret’ meanings and references. Orion is a great example – hidden in plain sight in the typographic firmament!

So is that it for our creation story? Oh! We have one thing left to do. What about a name for it? I bet you can guess my suggestion:

‘Xenium, it’s…

On Oct 14, 2013, at 03:47 PM, Annet wrote:

…mostly Ps & Qs.’



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