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Julie Wildman

Sleight of Hand

Sleight of Hand

A sweeping tour of the new expressionist "gestural" calligraphy. From Russia, Brazil, Vietnam, and points between, Fraterdeus talks to 12 masters of the art of handwriting, and shows examples of their work.

“We try to make an honest gestural mark of our expression. We’re focusing on the content—and its meaning and subtle qualities, the energy, presence, aesthetic, and expressive force with which it was written.”
—Fábio Rodrigues

Humans are a mark-making species… I think we learned early from the cave bears. Lately, though, we spend so much time staring at various forms of glowing portals-into-the-cloudverse that the handmade mark seems an anachronism, barely seen beyond the crayon scrawl of the UPS driver on an Amazon delivery.

Many school systems have stopped teaching handwriting altogether, a terminal form of shortsightedness brought to us, no doubt, by the same administrative sorts who remove all the books from the library, to “create a common-use space” with plenty of Wi-Fi and lunch tables. There needs to be some serious pushback on this trend, and a call for a revival of the true italic hand, at that, rather than 17th and 18th-century frou-frou. Unfortunately, most of these “cursives,” when they are taught, are truly awful letters, backed by corporate copybook publishers, not by masters of writing.

Our current scenario is perhaps reminiscent of the later nineteenth century when mechanization and mass production rapidly erased the tradition of craft, whether in making boots, beer or books. Fortunately, the likes of John Ruskin and William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement found ways to resist that march to conformity, whether material, social or spiritual. One inheritor of that resistance was the Englishman Edward Johnston, perhaps better known today as the designer of the iconic London Underground alphabet (whence Eric Gill’s Sans). But Johnston was also the great-grandpa of today’s calligraphic explosion with his manifesto for authentic letters, made simply and directly.

The burst of calligraphic revival in the United States of the mid-1970s seemed to have faded by the end of the first decade of the 2000s. Everyone I met (or so it seemed) at the International Calligraphy Conference in Chicago in 2008 was 25 years older than the last time I’d been there, and there was a noticeable lack of younger scribes. Calligraphy was about to slip away again, becoming the domain of scribal éminences grises, while the enthusiasm of youth was directed at the renaissance of letterpress, micro-studio music, web-apps, podcasting, game design—or even fonts, albeit with a noticeable bias toward the geometric and grotesque (taken in both senses!)

Anna Zakai

Yet, ten years later, the internet seems to have been the salvation of the handmade mark! With social media and direct access to high-resolution images of masterful work—both modern and ancient*— from across the entire planet, a new generation of lettering artists and designers are seeing, imitating, critiquing each other’s work, and some are now producing incredibly skillful letters. While an inordinate amount of the tens-of-thousands of #calligraphy hits on Instagram may seem more appropriate for a pirate-biker’s tattoo, or alternatively, a pastel-paisley-covered rainbow-unicorn get-well card, there are, indisputably, more master scribes scrivening today than ever before, and more font designers are also calligraphers, a fortunate confluence, after the many horrors of the “font decades”!

In the East, near, middle or far, the art of the written word (or shodo, the “Way of Writing”), has never disappeared. But today, we see Japanese masters of 18th Century European styles, brilliant Zen Shodo from Brazil, Vietnamese designers owning the Monumental Roman Capitals of the Trajan Column, and amazing work from practically every inhabited continent, transcending all boundaries.

Their letters or ideograms are formal, or informal, gestural, asemic (i.e. writing without semantic meaning), constructed, deconstructed, personal or professional, monumental or fleeting. Indeed, much of my own calligraphy (both eastern and western) is brush-written in water on slate, or a water-practice sheet, and it evaporates and disappears in moments. This is as much a meditation as anything, but it also serves me when I want to design something more permanent, perhaps carved in stone, or quill-written on handmade paper or scratched with a diamond bit into a glass bowl. Today’s calligraphy is all of these—a human way of making a mark in the world. It is a design tool for type designers, it is a personal note to a dear friend, it is the side of a building, a ketubah, or a paper flag hung to disintegrate and disappear in the wind. The abstract and the formal coexist beautifully, often in the same work.

Hoang Dao

One important point, of course, is that these are not merely the shapes and forms and “pictures of things” that we can show here in print or on the web, but that the artifacts are authentic in themselves, and almost always unique. The tactile mark of a tool on a surface cannot be experienced through pixels on a screen, nor the way sunlight illuminates a page as it’s turned, or the specular brilliance, warmth and depth of burnished gold on a plaster gesso, let alone the smell of Chinese stick ink, or the sound of a quill on handmade paper.

The calligraphers featured here have generously responded to my invitation and agreed on short notice to share their work. I have, almost exclusively, invited artists whose work I have found on Instagram, or from the Calligraphers’ Page on Facebook.

Our scribes are highly accomplished, some are very well-established indeed, but I’ve avoided the perennial superstars in favor of brilliance less well-known. I’m sorry that Yelimane Fall from Senegal was unable to join us due to our deadlines, but look up his work anyway, and his West African Calligraphy Institute.

Of course, there is nothing at all comprehensive about this survey. It is not meant to be more than an instantaneous sampling of the vitality of the written letter today. There are thousands upon thousands of mark-makers at work today, and that bodes well for the future of handmade letters.

With the curator’s license that Type Mag has kindly provided, I can choose from the nearly infinite selection available in these astounding galleries of the world. The glowing screen is a portal to the entire history and culture of humanity, it seems, so it’s not surprising that we are enamored. Without the internet, we would never know these scribes and their beautiful handwritten marks. I love a good paradox, don’t you?

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