Monday, September 2, 2013

Art Swap 2013: Japanese Calligraphy

Every Monday for the rest of the year I’ll be highlighting a different project from Art Swap 2013. Interested in joining next year’s fun? Post in the comments section, or e-mail ianmrogers[at]hotmail[dot]com. 

 I didn’t make this – Yukichi Fukuzawa did.
I’d originally planned on writing a short story for the Art Swap; but wouldn’t it have been more fun to try something new? 

Japanese calligraphy, or shodō, is a Japanese art form dating back over 1600 years, though it’s now practiced mostly by elementary school students as a required course. The country is proud of its calligraphic writing: one sees it inscribed on pottery, hung over restaurant doors, framed in museums, and sold on the street.

When I was in Japan, one of my students gave me a calligraphy set and showed me the basics: air-tracing kanji and hiragana letters over paper, pouring the ink, holding the brush straight over the paper, then, and only then, drawing the strokes that make up the letters. The strokes follow a strict order, and you can lose yourself in the pattern.

In calligraphy, setting up one's work space is an integral part of the process. I’m getting there.
But that was three years ago. Earlier this summer I set out with my ink bottle, instruction book, and plenty of scrap paper to learn enough calligraphy to make an Art Swap project. The strict posture and rigid brush handling feel unnatural at first, but your hand soon becomes used to holding the brush while the other steadies the paper, and, with practice, it soon feels like writing anything else.

I did make this one though. Try to guess whose name it is!
My end result was sixteen names written in katakana (Japan’s special alphabet for foreign words and names – think of it like Japanese italics) for everyone in the swap. They weren’t bad for a first try, though the later names were marred by brush flattening and humid working conditions. To help people decipher their altered Japanese names (mine, for example, is pronounced ian rojāsu), I printed up How-To reading guides to accompany each one. (Not to Art Swappers: There’s still a prize out there for anyone who can solve the final quiz!) 

My first attempt at hiragana.

As a bonus, last weekend I made my own 5x7 card for Bennington’s alumni weekend exhibition, to be hung with the rest of the cards in the Deane Carriage Barn in their yearly alumni project. It occurred to me that this was the first creative thing of any kind I’d done for Bennington since graduating, which gave me the pleasant feeling of contributing to a community that, though it now feels decidedly foreign, once meant a lot to me. And if it not for the Art Swap, I doubt I would have done anything at all.

(Special Note for Bennington Alum: If you’re interested in the 5x7 exhibition, the received-by deadline is this Friday, September 6!)

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