Lessons From My First Calligraphy Exhibit

Last week I added “exhibited calligrapher” to my list of achievements.

My art school held a major exhibition at the Hillside complex in Tokyo’s fashionable Daikanyama district. I had only one piece in the exhibition, taking up a tiny bit of real estate within three big rooms dedicated to calligraphy and ink-based art.

Compared to most of the other work on exhibit, my piece looked small, precise, and careful.

In a way that’s a fair description of how I’ve started out in Japanese calligraphy. I’m trying to acquire basic technique and get things right. The work that held most visitors’ gazes for longer was bolder, more inventive, and of course came from artists who’ve travelled a lot further than me along this path.

Faced with this kind of realisation, of the gap between where we are and where we’d like to be, there are at least three possible responses: cynicism, despair, or inspiration.

The Folly Of Cynicism And Defeat

The easiest option, the one that asks the least of us, is to be cynical. We can call into question the gap between our work and the better work, usually by exaggerating the failures of the better work (it’s not really that good), or playing down the gap (there’s not much difference). We protect ourselves in a cocoon of cool indifference, “no fucks given” and all that crap. But we don’t progress, we don’t grow.

An alternative is to claim defeat, to overplay the gap between our work and the best work, to say it’s a river too wide to bridge. This, of course, is another form of self-protection, disguised as despair, a way to avoid grabbing our boots and pack and facing the adventure that awaits.

You’ve probably guessed that I’m going to point to another alternative, which is to draw inspiration from the better work.

On Luck And Inspiration

Too often in creative circles we describe inspiration as a momentary thing; the flash of brilliance, the spark of genius, the eureka moment. We treat our muse like a leprechaun, a mercurial creature whose appearance is, more than anything, a matter of luck.

Real inspiration, of the kind that sustains creative careers, is nothing of the sort. Our muse is much more like a work colleague, mercurial for sure, but apt to turn up quite predictably as long as we first set out our tools, quieten our minds, focus our attention, and do a bit of work.

Of course, this kind of inspiration is also a recipe for hard work.

As I toured the exhibition, considering the most captivating pieces, ideas lifted off the paper and coalesced into categories and strategies. There were techniques to be explored, such as lightening and smudging ink to create shapes and images. There were combinations where text became more fragmented and abstract, or where large and small text were played with in stark ways.

Inspiration is about being able to respond, being able to invest time and effort while the passion to try new ideas is still burning strong. To sketch, draw, study and experiment right now will be a lot easier than waiting for six weeks or six months and then trying to remember what it was that made such an impact.

Also, Don’t Forget To Celebrate

It’s important to celebrate these kinds of milestones. All the talk of inspiration and creative growth is fine. But it’s too easy, dangerously easy, to forget the effort and sacrifice made to get here and to let that pass by unrecognised.

This calligraphy journey started when I was mired in anxiety and trying to recover from a crippling sense of panic. The slow brush strokes, the simple yet complex challenge of the work helped slow my mind, retrain me to be in the moment. It helped me heal. The exhibition, small as my place in it might’ve been, also closed a big and important chapter in my life.

I’ve bought a small gift for my teacher, a thank-you for her patience and kindness, which I’ll give her at the next class, because I’m going to continue to learn. I’ve bought myself a gift as well, a book on Japanese calligraphy, something to enjoy and look back on in years to come.

And I’ve made a space on a wall in my home to hang the exhibited work. I look forward to sharing it with friends and family when it goes up there.

Finally, I’ve given myself permission to make bigger, bolder and more fanciful pieces in the future.

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1 Comment
  • leonie - 12th July 2017

    I was gifted a Chinese calligraphy brush by one of my sisters and am very much in love with the ensō. I have a beautiful paper journal bought in Italy years ago that was sitting empty in a cupboard, so I pulled it out and started doing a circle a day in the pages a few months back, then put it away when life distracted me by other things. Your description of the slow brush strokes and the simple yet complex challenge retraining you to be in the moment has reminded me to pick up this brush and continue. Thank-you

    Also: I love your statement about the muse being “apt to turn up quite predictably as long as we first set out our tools, quieten our minds, focus our attention, and do a bit of work.”
    I have indeed found that to be true for me.

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In his Tokyo studio Fernando combines his life-long passions for art and technology. On the road, he is always looking to take the next wrong turn, just to see what kind of images and stories might unfold. A photographer and writer, with a background in music, Fernando has lived in Chile, Australia, the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan. Read More.


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