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Everyone knows what calligraphy is. To be classy, you hire someone with really good penmanship to do your wedding invitations in swirling script - rather than order them in bulk from Matrimony R Us.
Or a calligrapher is one of those folks who can take a Sharpie and effortlessly pull off Olde English text so that even his or her grocery lists look like something Martin Luther would nail to a cathedral door.
In the bigger scope of Art, though, calligraphy is a cross-pollinated creative expression that originated in symbols, alphabet and pictographs around 4000 B.C. in China. Over the centuries, utilizing ink wash imagery in conjunction with the various types of lettering - and with indigenous styles evolving in dozens of countries worldwide - calligraphy has become a form that simultaneously adheres to a meditative tradition even as contemporary artists expand the parameters in content and technique.
This is vividly evident in "Gesture and Beyond," an exhibition of more than 50 contemporary works of Asian-based calligraphy by 32 members of the Art of Ink in America Society (along with five invited guest participants). The show was first exhibited last November in the Godwin-Ternbach Museum at Queens College in New York.
Locally, "Gesture and Beyond" opened in March in two local venues. The Alexey von Schlippe Gallery of Art, on the campus of the University of Connecticut at Avery Point in Groton, has several of the works. The remainder are on display in the Charles Chu Asian Art Reading Room in the Charles E. Shain Library on the campus of Connecticut College in New London.
Many of the artists represented in the exhibit will be on hand from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Thursday in the Chu Room for a reception and demonstration. "Gesture and Beyond" runs through April 19 in both venues.
"The artists and the work in this exhibit are very much influenced by Asian artists and the Asian tradition," says Judith Barbour Osborne, an Ivoryton-based member of Art of Ink in America whose work is represented in the show. "Calligraphy is the highest form of art in the East, and contemporary calligraphy takes the discipline and flow and uses them as a stepping-off point beyond just text-based and into all sorts of territories."
For centuries, the art of calligraphy followed very strict standards - many of which were dictated by harsh governments. Over time, as artists expanded outside of China to freer societies in the Far East and ultimately to the Middle East and North America, new techniques and boundaries evolved.
"In the West, we are more into personal control, and we very much gain strength from who we are as individuals," Osborne says. "At the same time, the more you learn about the art, the more you become aware of and even embrace the traditional."
Osborne says that while there are certainly books or courses that teach calligraphy, "Nothing will replace doing it under the watchful eye of a master. It's in that environment that you move to a new level."
She's not just talking about the mastery of equipment and theory, but also about a type of higher consciousness that comes with total immersion into the art.
"When you're learning Chinese calligraphy," she says, "it's not just that you master the brush strokes, use of ink and how it's absorbed and sustained by rice paper. I wasn't expecting the flow - that's the only way I can describe it - that comes to the work when you totally let go. In the West, we don't necessarily think of making art in that context. The practice of calligraphy in the East is very much a form of meditation. At a certain point though I was aware that my forearm was very rigid (with effort), all of a sudden the most beautiful set of characters just started to effortlessly flow."
To walk around the exhibits is to indeed get an idea of how far the parameters of what was once a fixed discipline have expanded. Some of the works are very archival, as in Duk Joon Park's "Traditional Korean Cuisine," a whimsical neo-restaurant menu. Others place the alphabetic elements as peripheral within a larger image. Osborne's "Cloud of Unknowing - Cloud of Forgetting," for example, sprinkles subsets of sacred text within a swirling, sweeping form similar to a radar depiction of a storm cell.
Still more pieces are mixtures of naturalism and abstract - and a few are wonderfully conceptual. Sungook Setton's "Opus 7" seems similar to what Jackson Pollock might do if he'd studied with a master of calligraphy, blending bright colors into what are more typically black, white and gray works. Meanwhile, Silvio Ferragina's "Summertime" is almost an architectural blueprint for a fusion of calligraphy with musical scores.
The members of Art of Ink in America, Osborne says, are as varied as their works probably suggest. Because they come from all over the country, it's not as though they have weekly meetings.
"We generally gather at the different exhibitions, and of course it's not always possible that all of us can be at any one event," Osborne says. "But we're certainly very aware of one another, and it's always fun and an enjoyable time when we do get together. But the priority of these exhibits is to share the work and the art form with a new community. That's the goal - and we've been very successful."
Who: Reception and artist demonstrations from Art of Ink in America members
What: “Gesture and Beyond” exhibition
When: 4:30-6 p.m. Thursday
Where: Charles Chu Asian Art Reading Room, Charles E. Shain Library, Connecticut College, 270 Mohegan Ave., New London
How much: Free
For more information: (860) 439-2655