Just across the East River from Manhattan is Queens, one of the most ethnically diverse counties in the nation. Attracting immigrant from all over the world, a study in 2006 revealed that 44 percent of its residents were foreign born. Just a stroll through the grocery stores of the borough reveals its diversity; produce stands spill onto the sidewalks, bearing fruits and vegetables from other continents, unrecognizable to the eyes of a fourth-generation American. The scene was a perfect primer for meeting Christopher Calderhead and Holly Cohen, the editors of The World Encyclopedia of Calligraphy. Wholly illustrated with rich imagery, the book introduces professionals, students and beginners to the methods of calligraphy. Like the vast complexity of Queens, The World Encyclopedia of Calligraphy reveals the array of styles found around the world, and how each culture fosters or ignores the practice and development of letter arts.
Their quest for samples led them to contact people all over the globe, from Thai gallery owners to secluded Cambodian monks. Doing what no other study of calligraphy has done before, this book takes a broad survey of the world, rather than focusing on the practice of one specific region. Yet because of the vast languages covered in the book, cultural sensitivity was paramount and often overwhelming. “Fortunately, living in New York was great for this,” explained Christopher. “There are a lot of people from all different cultures here, eager to promote their values.” In New York City’s Chinese enclaves, for example, parents eagerly send their children to Chinese school, where the practice of calligraphy is taught and encouraged.
Calligraphy is still very strong in Asia and the Middle East, especially where religions require students to practice handwritten craftsmanship. In Judaism, for example, a qualified scribe is required to write the mezuzah, a piece of parchment that contains a Hebrew verse from the Torah that many families hang on the door frames of their homes. But just because a culture’s language is based on a handwritten script, does not mean the art is still practiced. “Calligraphy is not thriving in a lot of these cultures,” explained Christopher. “In India, calligraphy has a similar role as Western calligraphy, kind of a subset of graphic design. It’s specialized and few people do it.”
During the 1970s, calligraphy experienced a huge resurgence, led by Donald Jackson, the official scribe to the Crown Office in the UK. Calligraphy guilds and associations flourished, bringing a whole new generation into the fold. But since the 1990s, when word processing software came on the scene, the field has seen a slow decline. The community remains active, however: a recent holiday fair thrown by the Society of Scribes, a New York City-based non-profit organization that fosters the study of calligraphy, saw a large gathering of professionals, amateurs and beginners, taking part in how-to workshops and holiday shopping. Children eagerly mastered the proper method of holding a pen, while their grandparents learned the process of gilding.
As a teacher at Pratt, Christopher’s class is more of a sampler, introducing students to the basic hand of Humanist Roman before advancing to more playful techniques like making giant letter forms with sponges and creating calligraphic designs on the streets of Manhattan. “In the past, I would hand students one sheet of paper with the master alphabet, and they would work with that one sheet of paper for the entire term, very content to try and figure out how these strokes are made and how they join up,” Christopher said. “Now, it seems students lack the focus and attention required for the practice. It can take three years of concerted practice to master one of the classic scripts.” Like learning a musical instrument or a dance, practice is required to build such muscle memory. Holly leaned forward and added, “When I first started studying calligraphy about twelve years ago, I ended up having surgery on my thumb. I practiced so much that I developed carpal tunnel, and that was just from the alphabet, over and over.”
Despite dwindling interest in the tradition of calligraphy, people seem to be more passionate about letter forms today than ever. Computers instigated an awareness of typography that has, over the years, percolated into countless image blogs that document found examples of handwritten lettering. Christopher showed me the work of Luca Barcellona, an Italian-born graphic artist who began with graffiti and eventually studied traditional calligraphy (see video below). His work is a hybrid, exuding all the flow of classic script while maintaining a contemporary edge. But even with such experimental artists, calligraphy classes are becoming harder to find, and more specialized.
Maybe an overhaul of identity is just what calligraphy needs. When we seek relief in our overscheduled lives, we often go no further than yoga or a glass of wine. But watching Christopher and other scribes work in peaceful silence, with an almost ballet-like agility, calligraphy could be repositioned as a healthy means of dealing with stress. “I have to say, for me, it’s in the stick ink from Japan or China,” said Holly. “When you put it on the stone, and there’s a scent, and just the sound of it… the motion is very zen. It’s very relaxing and really inspired me.”
“Frankly, in the United States, if all the calligraphers disappeared tomorrow, I don’t think anyone would notice,” laughed Christopher. It’s true, machines have taken over some of the few remaining jobs for calligraphers, namely wedding invitations and college diplomas. But nothing will ever replace the quality and flow of an original work from a scribe. The richness of the paper and the varying density of ink from changes and hand pressure could never be captured by a machine or reproduction. “I do think there’s going to be some kind of reaction, some kind of craft movement, ” Holly said with a smile. “People are going to always want something more handmade. The pendulum will swing back.”
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.