Sheila Waters on the importance of passing on
the ‘great legacy’ of calligraphy
Panel presentation at Legacies, July 2005:
“Where’s the beef?” by Sheila Waters
My pet passion is training, a useful subject to address as the average age in the calligraphic community seems to be getting older. Are teachers of my generation dying off, retiring or are just plain tired? Is there a strong middle generation, able and willing to take our place and is there a young generation interested and eager to follow on? And what is good training anyway?
Do we still feel that we have a great legacy we should be passing on, so that the inner core of calligraphy, the engine so to speak, doesn't die too? Related to this, I've been reading lately that there is a malaise in the western world about intellectual pursuits, particularly in America, that there is a 'dumbing down' generally. One journalist commented that he was surprised to find, when looking through women's magazines of the sixties, that many articles were of an intellectual caliber that one simply wouldn't find in them today. Maybe there was more sense of purpose then and life seemed simpler than the present with all its uncertainties.
I hope we can still find a sense of purpose in what we do, but there are certainly signs that the focus of calligraphy has changed from a burning desire to master the craft before venturing into the art, to the other way round; that we are trying to prove ourselves worthy of being taken seriously in the fine arts world and that attention to perfecting the letterforms we use seems less important, that their quality won't be noticed in a sea of color washes and collage. This kind of thinking will inevitably lead to decay and a new calligraphic dark age. When 'anything goes' nothing goes.
So what is this legacy we have inherited and should keep alive? Medieval scribes, in scriptoria and later in ateliers, handed down their heritage by carefully training their novices and apprentices in their techniques, materials and writing skills. Western alphabet styles evolved and changed slowly, from century to century, not year by year, and scribes were probably unaware of previous styles in bygone centuries. Today the situation is entirely different because we have been exposed to the whole family tree of western writing, and its influence on type design, through being able to examine actual historical manuscripts, or their reproduction through the technological advances of fine printing. The handing down process now is still personally, through our teachers in classes and workshops, though usually in a fragmented way, with knowledge gained piecemeal here and there, and/or from the huge variety of books now available on every conceivable aspect, most of them now in splendid color, guaranteed to woo us away from dry old black and white alphabet exemplars. No, I'm not knocking the books - I seem to buy most of them - but I am anxious that we don't risk losing the baby with the bath water.
"These historical styles are the root of what we do now, however freely we depart from them, and certain basic principles of alphabetic harmony run like a golden thread through all of them."
These historical styles are the root of what we do now, however freely we depart from them, and certain basic principles of alphabetic harmony run like a golden thread through all of them. Edward Johnston, and many great teachers since, have shown how important the understanding of this alphabetic harmony is. Johnston called it 'family likeness.' Call it what you will, it is what differentiates one style from another, creating diversity and allowing the broad pen to express emotion and atmosphere and reflect an author's meaning in greater depth of expression than is possible with type.
Is knowledge of this historical legacy likely to harm and stifle creativity? I say, of course not. Shakespeare wisely said "A little learning is a dangerous thing," not a lot of learning.... So what is my concern that I feel passionate about? It is that the teaching of basic principles is getting watered down; that many teachers and students are becoming less concerned with fundamentals of good lettering from which to grow, and are focussing more on attractive peripheral tangents of our subject too early. There seems to be a lack of willingness to put in the years of hard work it takes to develop skills of craftsmanship and design to ensure a strong foundation on which to build personal expression. In other words, many try to fly before they can even walk.
"There seems to be a lack of willingness to put in the years of hard work it takes to develop skills of craftsmanship and design to ensure a strong foundation on which to build personal expression."
But there is also a brighter side, as a lot of very fine and exciting experimental work is being done by artists who are truly seeking to find their own voice and in their work the underlying knowledge of sound structure and good design is always apparent, however free and gestural the work may be. Possession of this knowledge will always show, and so will the lack of it. Neither can be hidden.
I want to tell you of the experience of one such artist which may surprise you, although she is not alone. Most of you know who Rose Folsom is - editor of Letter Arts Review, author of The Calligrapher's Dictionary, and a fine calligraphic artist who has many successful personal shows to her credit. Her work is always evolving and much of it now would be termed non-verbal and gestural. I asked her to write a paragraph for me about her development as an artist. This is what she wrote:
“I began studying calligraphy in the early '70s. In the early '80s, after I married a painter, and after more and more calligraphers were doing painterly things with their work, I felt left behind and 'out of it' because what really still interested me was black calligraphy on white paper. I was 13 years into my study of classical calligraphy before I felt drawn to take the traditional work in a more contemporary direction. Even today, my best gestural work is done after 'warming up' with pen and ink on paper to get the solid, classical lettershapes and rhythms into my hand before doing the looser writing. If I don't warm up with traditional letters, my gestural marks can look flabby and unconvincing.”
"We have to take care of the core of the art form we love so much and hand it on unspoiled to the next generation."
I've known Rose as a good friend for over thirty years and know something of her struggles. Her words ring a bell for me and probably for some of you. After 58 years in calligraphy I still find letting go, and making gestural marks that I am happy with, so very difficult. She tells me to stick to what I do best!
But to continue with the 'forward to basics' theme: fortunately there is a strong body of opinion that the discipline of understanding and making good letterforms is still important. This is why last year's small Black and White conference was thought to be necessary and was so successful that another one will be held in June of next year. Being on the west coast it is hoped that it will not reduce enrollment in the far larger conference of Letterforum in Virginia.
In closing, in any other field of endeavor, from mastering a musical instrument, excelling in a sport, or becoming highly skilled in a craft, it is recognized that long years of hard work are needed to achieve excellence. Mastering the complexities in the craft and art of calligraphy is no different. We have to take care of the core of the art form we love so much and hand it on unspoiled to the next generation.
Below: Sheila Waters (left) instructing students on writing and illuminating on vellum, May 2005.
Holiday greetings by Sheila Waters.