Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Reflections on Calligraphy After the Odyssey Conference

It's been over thirty years since I took out my old Speedball pen, nibs, and instruction book saved from high school, put pen to paper, and began what became a life in art. A recent visit to the 2010 Odyssey Calligraphy Conference sent me back in time. I see that I have grown as a person as well as an artist over the years.

It is 1982. I am at the Philadelphia Conference on the Calligraphic Arts. I've been crazy obsessed with calligraphy for about five years. Books have been my teachers and I am taking a week-long class with Jaki Svaren, the author of my favorite book, Written Letters. Her twenty-two alphabets are accompanied by a running commentary from big ideas on letterform, letter history and philosophy to detailed hints about the formation of each letter. Her voice is kind and clear: "Strive for equal amounts of white space between the letters, but delight in your humanity."

It's the first day. I'm intimidated as hell. I've never taken a class. I've done a lot of commercial work and have had exhibitions but I've never been around many people who do calligraphy. I don't know where I fit. I'm waiting for someone to come up to me and say, Who do you think you are? Why do you think you belong here? It is of course a reflection of my self-doubt and has nothing to do with the people who are there.

The class is heaven. We experiment with materials. I write with felt and stimudent. I love the freedom these new materials offer. Jaki teaches us her bone alphabet with its twists and turns of pen manipulation. We are all in love with it as a potential letterform but she sees it as a teaching tool. If we become comfortable with extreme pen manipulation, our traditional letters will improve. She tells stories to illustrate her points. The Italian family on the train who eat and talk and laugh and turn around and return. It is the journey that is important. The Japanese calligraphy master who gives thanks when he makes a mistake so that he has the opportunity to do his work again. She introduces us to Zen Buddhism and Shunryu Suzuki's book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. She talks about how our Western good/bad way of looking at the world has a detrimental effect on our lettering. If we make a letter and think it's good, it puts pressure on us as we make the next one. If we look at a letter we have just made and say it's bad, it decreases our confidence and our flow and we don't make the next one with the right attitude.

It is 1986. I am at the Innovation Calligraphy Conference in Hoboken, New Jersey. I now have a one-year-old son. We are staying with my father at the Jersey shore. Every morning I leave my husband and son behind and drive the hour plus to Hoboken. I am taking a week-long class with Thomas Ingmire who does powerful abstract work with a particular emphasis on the works of Dylan Thomas. I have been working a lot with pen marks and gestures. I have just completed a series called Childbirth Journey with abstract pastel drawings and lines from my journal in calligraphy. I've done lots of looking at and reading about the Abstract Expressionists. Franz Kline is my favorite. I've taken a class in abstract painting. I've taken a class in surface design. I am ambivalent about my commitment to letters.

I am in an awkward place in the class. There are some really well-known calligraphers in the class (who of course intimidate the hell out of me) to whom Thomas's approach is all new. There is actually little that we do that I have not already explored. It's still a great class but it doesn't have the mind-opening, revelatory quality that Jaki's did for me. What is most interesting to me is that at the end of the week, I find I don't want to leave words behind. I put words into my work and Thomas suggests that I had a good abstract thing going and wonders why.

It is 1988. Instead of a conference, I spend a week at a retreat/workshop called Knowing/Not Knowing with Jenny Hunter Groat at Green Gulch Zen Center in California. It is a life-changing experience. This time, I do in fact leave words behind. After two days in the studio, I am drawn outside where I spend my days composing little environments out of natural materials. With Jenny's gentle guidance, I find the answer to the questions I have been asking myself. Do I not care about practice anymore because I am lazy or because I want to go in another direction? Is it a weakness that I need to conquer or a sign that I need to follow?

It is 2010. I am visiting the Odyssey Conference in Easton, Massachusetts. John Neal, Bookseller sells a CD I have made about the Spirit Book Series, a series of sculptural books with natural materials, and my book, Handmade Books For A Healthy Planet which draws upon the teaching I have been doing with children using recycled materials. I am here to promote them and then be part of a book signing. I am at a table in a hall near the bulletins boards near the dining hall. I talk to people as they come by. I meet people I have corresponded with online for years. I meet people who get my monthly email newsletter of bookmaking projects and they tell me how much they enjoy it. I meet new people. We make little accordion books from recycled materials. I have a great time. I love that I am no longer intimidated and shy.

I reflect on calligraphy, both my past work and my recent combining of hand lettering with manipulated photographic imagery. I think back to my earlier work and don't know if I ever felt relaxed. I rarely created a piece that made me happy. I was so critical of the letters themselves. Perhaps it is because the work of the hand is so personal. Looking at my letters was like looking at myself in the mirror. When I look at others—friends, family, strangers walking down the street—I look generously. When I look at myself in the mirror, I don't. Flaws are first and foremost. In my new work, the lettering is just one element. I am relaxed. Using a Pentel brush fountain pen, I write freely. I am actually enjoying myself.

My story is one of personal growth as well as artistic growth. My fear and shyness were certainly more a function of who I was as a person than anything to do with calligraphy. But calligraphy is a balancing act. It requires discipline and freedom. The pen must be controlled but the control can't show. A critical eye is necessary to improve the letters but it can't crush their spirit. The twenty-six letters need to be a personal expression at the same time their history and legacy are honored. We all find our own way to walk this line.


Jeannie Hunt said...

Thanks Susan, for these reflections. I especially liked the thought that there are times in our creative journey when we are influenced by others who have a powerful presence, and other times when it is a gentle presence that encourages us to listen deeply to the voices within.

Char said...

Thank you for taking the time to write about your process, and thank you for your generosity and vulnerability to be willing to share it here. I am inspired by your experience, even if I play with different media and find myself at a different point along a similar path.
It's energizing to sense some kind of kinship in the realm of creative development--usually it feels like I'm alone, fumbling around through the dark, even when it's joyful.
Thank you.

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