Last week, the students of Professor Ka Wong’s Art of Asian Calligraphy class unveiled an artistic display titled “Out of Character: From Japanese Prints to Chinese Calligraphy,” located in the Buntrock Cage Student Gallery, the Tomson third-floor display case and the Dittman Center Print Room. The project explores different interpretations of calligraphy as a form of linguistic and artistic expression and offered Asian 286 students a chance to demonstrate what they learned throughout the semester.
One display, prominently placed in Buntrock, is comprised of three billboards of calligraphy written on golden paper between two massive landscapes comprised of individual characters. The expressed intention of the work is to “interpret and integrate the Chinese characters for bird, fish and child/person into new artistic forms.” The first landscape piece shows flying storks in the distance as bird characters. The display also focuses on the evolution of Chinese calligraphy, particularly how the art form changed over centuries. Students recreated poems such as Zhuangazi’s “The Joy of Fish” from around 300 B.C.E. The exhibit contemplates the tension of calligraphy as a mode of public linguistic communication used for government documents, public decrees and official religious writing, along with private poetic and artistic expression.
Ka Wong’s class not only chronicled the artistic progression of this ancient art form thousands of years ago, but also exhibited how artists continue to expand the tradition of calligraphy today. The display in the Dittman Center Print Room took inspiration from Japanese Modernist artist Yoshida Hodaka and his prints currently on display at St. Olaf’s Flaten Art Museum.
The exhibit on the third floor of Tomson focuses on the meticulous and dedicated discipline required for creating calligraphy. Students accustomed to writing Western letters in the Latin alphabet remarked on the difficulty of learning details such as stroke order. Each character in calligraphy has a precise sequence in which the lines must be drawn, and adding a line out of order invalidates the entire word.
“It’s a lot harder than I assumed it would be,” Aisling O’Sullivan ’18 said. O’Sullivan described how a seemingly simple task – like creating a dot on the paper – required more skill and technique than she expected.
“Even a line wasn’t just a line,” O’Sullivan explained. “You have to go horizontally over your work twice, from left to right to left.”
Anna Gloriana Stephen Mwamasika ’18 said her inclination to pursue dentistry inspired her to take the calligraphy class.
“Proper technique requires developing precise muscle control in your fingers,” Mwamasika explained. Both Mwamasika and O’Sullivan concluded that whereas handwriting in the United States serves a mainly utilitarian purpose (even barely legible, scribbled notes are acceptable), fine calligraphy creates a kind of social status. Many people perceive calligraphy as a testimony of personality and character attributes. Taking the time to create excellent calligraphy characters “foreshadows your motivation and discipline,” Mwamasika said.
Such dedication and fine precision ultimately developed into being able to select characters and styles to represent personal and poetic meaning. Nutthanai Chowwiwat ’17 noted how preparing for the displays gave every student a chance to notice their own improvement over time.
“It’s great to see the final product,” he said. Each student got the chance to carve their own personalized seal and stamp for their final product.