Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Art Lessons: Part 2

 In QiGong class, Rose instructs us to let our feet connect with the earth and the top of our heads reach up to the sky as we place our hands, one on top of the other, on our chests. We breathe deeply and feel the energy move through our bodies as she says, “Smile at your heart.”

My son has said to me, “You need to be as generous to yourself as you are to others.” It isn’t always easy. Self-criticism and self-awareness have been my long-time companions. I call them my “critical eye.”  

 For me, the critical eye is active twice. The first is when I am at work. It is my partner. It gives me guidance as I make a brushstroke, stitch a bead, or assemble images on the computer. It helps my work grow. The second is after I am finished, when I step back and see what I have done from a distance. Then it can become my enemy.

With calligraphy, the long initial phase of my learning was about the eye as much as the hand, seeing as much as doing. The basic principles of art and design, the fundamental drama of light and dark, positive and negative space, were played out with every mark I made. While I formed a letter or wrote a word, I was completely engaged and absorbed in the challenge. It was after I finished that I saw the flaws and became discouraged. 

In 1982, about four years into my immersion in calligraphy, I spent a week of mornings with Jaki Svaren at the Philadelphia Conference on the Calligraphic Arts. I chose the class because I loved Jaki’s 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.”

Jaki introduced us to the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. She 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!’” 

Our critical eye is what enables our work to be our guide. If we love the work for itself more than for the result, we will find a way. It is our hearts, forgiving and strong, supple and generous, that will carry us through. May we continually let Rose’s words echo in our minds and smile at our hearts.

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