Category Archives: hand-writing

Letterforms prominent in “Fractured Yet Rising” exhibit at ARC Gallery

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“Fractured Yet Rising” is a juried multi-media exhibition of works on the subject of violence against women.  In addition to works submitted by artists, the artist-members of ARC, a women’s co-op gallery, worked with residents of a domestic violence shelter on collaborative pieces, giving voice to their experiences.

Dates:  March 5-29, 2014.  Details here.

Calligraphy Inspires London Exhibit of Islamic Art



The Victorian & Albert Museum is focused on design and decorative arts.  According to the V&A website, the Jameel Prize “ is an international award for contemporary art and design inspired by Islamic tradition. Its aim is to explore the relationship between Islamic traditions of art, craft and design and contemporary work as part of a wider debate about Islamic culture and its role today.”

In addition to viewing the exhibit, I attended a panel  discussion at King’s College, London, about the exhibit.  The panelists I quote here were:

  • Tim Stanley (Curator, Victoria and Albert Museum)
  • Reedah El-Saie (Director, MICA Gallery)

According to Tim Stanley, the history of the V&A is bound up with Islamic design from the beginning.  In the 1830’s, Britain realized it had industry, but no design education.  Owen Jones, the author of the classic Grammer Of Ornament, was a Welsh architect who travelled to the Middle East in the 1830’s.  He published a work about Moorish ornament on the Alhambra, which led to his involvement with the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Government School of Design and the creation of the V&A Museum.

The Jameel Prize, an international award for contemporary art and design inspired by Islamic tradition, began in 2006.  Curators, gallerists and art historians from around the world recommend artists for participation.

Reedah El-Saie, Director of Mica Gallery, said  the strongest unifying theme in the exhibit is calligraphy, which brings the past into the present.  She pointed out, “Calligraphy is the strongest tradition of Islamic art.”  As a gallery director, she says that calligraphy sales in auction houses are huge—“booming.”  She said that her gallery can’t keep up with the demand.  Forty percent of the collectors of Arabic calligraphy served by Mica Gallery are from the non-Islamic world.

The V&A website has wonderful videos about each artist, but I will mention two here:

NASSER EL SALEM:  He presents the world “Kul” (all) in hand-written, contemporary calligraphy: black ink on white paper, very stylized, both modern and traditional.  Next to it, a devotional phrase is created by the peaks on a heart monitor.  As Ms. El-Saie pointed out, “The heartbeat shows Islamic art is alive—the past is so relevant to the present—it is a living organism.  You can’t separate Islamic calligraphy from the Divine message in which it’s rooted.”

PASCAL ZOGHBY is a font-designer.  Arabic fonts are very new—they were only created in the 18th century.  Zoghby created a huge concrete carpet, similar to tatami mats from Japan (his birth-place) and also traditional Islamic carpets.  Each panel of “carpet” contains Arabic letters in fonts by his design.  Each section has one letter that is inlaid with mother-of-pearl.  The “fringe” on the “carpet” is made from strings of steel ball-bearings.  He incorporates the play of hard materials against expectations of softness, and puts letters where we would not expect to see them.  One could say that the letters  underfoot are our foundation.

In addition to the Jameel Prize, I observed Islamic ornamental design as an influence in the current fashion collection of designer Roberto Cavalli, in the shop windows of Knightsbridge.

(also see this review on The Culture Trip )

Peacock fan in S. Asian collection, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Peacock fan in S. Asian collection, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Chicago Skyline and Midwestern Farm Landscape

Chicago Skyline/ Midwestern Farm Ketubah by Judith Joseph, 23" square, egg tempera and india ink calligraphy on rag paper.

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the Chicago skyline this summer:  from the Sears (Willlis) Tower, from different angles driving around, and from photos taken out on Lake Michigan.  As I painted it across the top of this ketubah in a moonlit scene, I tried to render the famous landmarks recognizably.

This couple will be married Sunday at a farm in Michigan, which is portrayed across the bottom of the ketubah.  This farm landscape doubles for the Ohio farm where the groom grew up.

The couple wrote their own text, which I was able to have translated into Hebrew.  (More of my ketubahs may be seen here.)

“When This You See, Remember Me…”

In an antique store in Woodruff, Wisconsin, I came across a little album of autographs.  It had a well-worn velvet cover, and its contents told me that it was the property of Emelia Daw (nee Buchert), who received it in 1890 at the age of 15 years.  The last signature is in 1930, when Mrs. Daw (as she is addressed in the later  salutations) would have been 55 years old… the same age I am now.

All of the signers wrote “Dear Emelia (or Mrs. Daw)”, followed by a formulaic inscription.  Her “friend and teacher”, Marguerite Hill, wrote:

“Premeditate your speeches, words once flown

Are in the hearer’s power and not your own.”

On May 19th, 1898, Otto Brandt wrote, with creative spelling:  “Dear Emilie, If you love me as I love you know knife can cut our love in to.”

The pages are signed “Your Friend”, “Your brother”, “From Your Dear Melda” (her daughter, who signed twice).  The earliest signers wrote in German, so I can’t vouch for the contents, but I think it’s safe to assume they followed the convention of the day and wrote well-used tropes.  One of my favorite pages is from Emilia’s sister, who wrote in 1897:

“Sister Emelia,

The time is swiftly passing by,

When we must bid adieu,

We know not when we meet again,

So these lines I leave with you.”

In the corner margin, she wrote:  “Remember the pantry jokes”.  Salt in the sugar bowl?  What mischief did they cook up?!

I brought the album to the Chicago Botanic Garden, where I am teaching a class in calligraphy.  My students were fascinated with the beauty of the penmanship.  The writers used quill-shaped pens dipped in ink bottles, similar to the ones we use in class.  As the years went along, the writing became less formal, resembling Palmer cursive hand-writing.  One imagines that the manner of dress and speech also became less formal, as these German immigrants adjusted to their life in America and things became more modern.  Today, we can compose and publish with no pen, no paper, and no pants on.

They had names like Alma, Anna, Elsie, Hermann, Otto, Hazel.  They came from Wisconsin towns called Bancroft, Ellington, Hortonville, Greenville, Washburn, Appleton, Watertown and Stevens Point.  I think Emelia came from Hortonville, which made me laugh, because Hortonville was always my family’s synonym for “Nowhere” after our car broke down there on a family road-trip.

Emelia cherished this little album for at least 40 years.  As her friends married, she went back to their autograph page and inscribed it with their wedding date (e.g., Henry Riesenweber,  Ellington, March 11, 1891; married 13 Oct., 1901.)

Each of the inscriptions, with its ornate calligraphy or pencilled scrawl, conjure up a personality.  One can almost hear their voices.  As a person who embraces the fluidity and ease of technology, I find that calligraphy brings a slow pace and tactile quality to writing that is all but lost today.  In the careful forming of letters, the scratch of pen on paper, the  setting-up of ink between two scored lines from a metal pen, the content of the inscription (whether it be a saccharin couplet in an autograph book or a literary quotation) becomes a separate concern.  For Emelia’s friends, their inscription showed their devotion; writing was their gift.

I am learning Copperplate, a very formal and difficult style of calligraphy.  Here is my practice piece:

It humbles me that Marguerite Hill, Emelia’s “friend and teacher”, wrote better than I do, and she wrote that way ALL THE TIME.

Teaching Text-ers Calligraphy

note from Annie, who participated in my calligraphy workshop at Stevenson High School

It is interesting teaching calligraphy to high-school students who mostly type.  Most people of a certain age remember the green hand-writing charts that ran around the top of the chalk-boards (another anachronism!) in our grade-school classrooms.  I am told that the systematic teaching of cursive hand-writing is being phased out of schools.

Calligraphy is related to the part of the brain that draws.  Interestingly, it isn’t the same as the part that controls writing.  So, when I teach calligraphy, I always encourage my students, pointing out that, while my own hand-writing is nothing to brag about, I am able to do calligraphy.

Palmer Method of Cursive Handwriting

I’ve been teaching calligraphy to kids since the mid-90’s, and it seems that, the less they write by hand, the more fascinated they are with calligraphy.  They watch with rapt attention as I demonstrate how to use a chisel-shaped brush or pen, how the tool makes the thick and thin parts by itself, where to begin the strokes for the letters, how to figure out the proper height.  For an hour or so, the classroom is silent as they dip their pen into a bottle of ink, shake off the excess drops onto scratch paper, prime the pen with a few strokes, and hold their breath to write until the ink runs out and they have to repeat the process.  It’s meditative, repetitive, mesmerizing.  I tell them that calligraphy itself is not a particularly creative art form, it’s more of a discipline.  It trains the hand and the brain.  It allows the hand to draw and paint with more mastery, control, confidence.  Calligraphic letters can provide a framework and structure for a riotous explosion of creative expression.

I specialize in illuminated marriage contracts.  I guess that probably makes me the queen of obsolescence:  writing by hand, illuminated manuscripts, not to mention marriage.  The pen I use is the same one I learned on in high school (Speedball handle and nib, C-4 for Hebrew), but I have learned a great deal about painting since I was a kid and now I decorate my manuscripts with egg-tempera paint instead of what we used to call “magic markers”.

I am increasingly fascinated with hand-written text.  We see less and less of it, and when we see someone’s hand-writing, it’s almost like catching a glimpse of an intimate scene through an open door on a busy street.  It’s a glimpse into the personality of the writer.  The Owing Project, my exploration of owing and debt which will be exhibited at ARC Gallery this summer (July 21- Aug. 14) and at The Art Center, Highland Park in April of 2011, has collected many slips of paper with anonymous hand-written answers to personal questions about what people owe, how they feel about it, what they feel they owe the world, and what the world owes them.  The little papers are fraught with emotion, which is conveyed in the handwriting of the author.