Friday, December 07, 2018

Forty Years #20: Workshop with Jaki Svaren

In 1982 I attended the Calligraphy Conference in Philadelphia. I'm pretty sure it was the first workshop I went to and it was pretty overwhelming. I was filled with insecurity and very shy. I chose a week of mornings with Jaki Svaren because I loved her book Written Letters. Her alphabets were accompanied by a running commentary ranging from big ideas on letterform, letter history and philosophy to detailed hints about the formation of each letter. Her voice was kind and clear: “Strive for equal amounts of white space between the letters, but delight in your humanity.”
The workshop was in what Jaki called the bone alphabet which involved pen manipulation. The calligraphy part was great but nothing in comparison to philosophy shared through words of wisdom and stories and especially the introduction of the book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. Jaki urged us to take away value judgements in reference to 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. Suzuki wrote: “Good and bad are only in your mind. So we should not say, ‘This is good,’ or ‘This is bad.’Instead of saying bad you should say, ‘not-to-do!’”
While in Philadelphia, I found a copy of the book in a bookstore. I think it's fair to say that Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind changed my life. I tried to extend the taking alway of value judgements and not defining things as good or bad to other aspects of my life. I can't say I have always succeeded but it has made a difference. The other passage that really stood out to me was: “Of course some encouragement is necessary, but that encouragement is just encouragement. It is not the true purpose of practice. It is just medicine. When we become discouraged we want some medicine. When we are in good spirits we do not need any medicine. You should not mistake medicine for food.” These words were a guide on my path to being an artist. The understanding that validation for one's work has to come from within has deepened over the years.

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