Zong Bing (375–443), one of the preeminent Chinese painters and aestheticians of the Southern Dynasties, loved to wander through mountains. When he grew too old to travel by foot, he covered the walls of his house with landscape paintings so he could continue to experience the pleasure of wandering without having to physically travel. The paintings became aids for dreaming and spiritual nourishment. Calligraphy provides a similar expedient. It affords the viewer the pleasure of contemplating text without necessarily having to read or even take account of literary content. And, in fact, calligraphy is appreciated and often produced with distinctly non-literary concerns in mind. Foremost is the delight in brush, ink, and paper—the fundamental tools and materials of the art. Distinctly transitive, calligraphy also functions as a mediator that leads the practitioner or viewer beyond these materials. On the one hand, calligraphy invokes external referents or associations, for instance the winter branch or dancer's step. On the other, calligraphy provides a glimpse into the state of mind or character of the calligrapher.
This preoccupation with the non-literary aspects of East Asian calligraphy is embedded in the most popular legend concerning the origin of Chinese writing. Its invention is credited to Cang Jie, a man born with two pairs of eyes and who was so trusted and revered that he was appointed Royal Minister to the Yellow Emperor. It is said that one day while reveling in the beauty of bird tracks, constellations, and tortoise shells, Cang Jie realized that structurally different marks could represent different ideas. Using these forms, he created Chinese characters. Thus, the very forms of characters recall elements in the natural world as well as the virtuous character and profound insight of their inventor.
Two thousand years of aesthetic discourse have generated a staggering array of metaphorical associations and moral exhortations. Calligraphic works have been compared to bird wings, the robes of dancers, an avalanche of stones, charging horses, luxurious vines, the necks of swans, autumn leaves, rolling clouds, squashed toads, drip marks from a leaking roof, bones and sinews, and spinning water wheels. Dedicating oneself to the practice and appreciation of calligraphy is also deemed most advantageous and beneficial. Over the centuries, calligraphic dexterity has been an essential skill for passing the official Chinese examination system, attaining prominent political positions, and for more esoteric ends such as enlightenment and immortality. Emperors commanded members of their courts to practice the calligraphic style of upright and virtuous ministers of the past, as if by osmosis the members would absorb the rectitude of that person through emulation of that calligraphic style.
Today, the practice of East Asian calligraphy has moved well beyond the geography of China, Korea, and Japan to become a global phenomenon. In the American Northwest, the transcendental and expressive qualities of East Asian brushwork have captivated several generations of artists, teachers, and collectors. Some of the prominent practitioners and transformers of this tradition include Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan, Carl and Hilda Morris, Lloyd Reynolds, George Tsutakawa, Robert Sperry, and Margot Thompson. In recent years, the Northwest has been graced with a large influx of exhibitions of calligraphy, indicating that interest in this art is still very much alive.
In 1992, Sun Wuk Kim, a Korean born calligrapher living in America, conceived of an exhibition that would display traditional East Asian calligraphy alongside western abstract brushwork. His idea was that such an exhibition would foster a greater awareness and appreciation of the many approaches to the calligraphic line. After two years of organizing and selecting work by various artists, he staged the first exhibition, called “Art of Ink in America,” in 1994 at Gallery Korea in New York. The exhibition was a success, and nearly annual reincarnations of this exhibition have been held across the United States at Golden West College (Huntington Beach, California), Seton Hall University (South Orange, New Jersey), Wesleyan University (Middletown, Connecticut) , the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (Los Angeles, California), The Newark Museum (Newark, New Jersey) as well as at the National Taiwan Arts Education Institute (Taipei, Taiwan). Each year the number of participating artists has grown. This year, “Art of Ink in America” makes its debut in the Northwest at Contemporary Crafts, Portland, Oregon, with thirty-two artists from Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, Romania, France, Italy, and the United States. Thanks go to Sun Wuk Kim for his insight and energy in organizing this exhibition.
Crab Quill Press, Walla Walla, Washington