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Why I’m Doing Japanese Calligraphy

For the past few months, I’ve been practising Japanese Calligraphy, or Shodō 書道. I take a three hour lesson twice a month (which I wrote about here) and if you follow me on Twitter or Instagram you might have seen some examples of what I’ve been doing. Part of the reason why I quit so many things in 2016 was to make room for new creative adventures like this.

Quite a few people have asked me why I’m doing this, so here’s the four main reasons why I’ve decided to make Shodō part of my creative life.

1. An Artistic Dissatisfaction

I’ve written before about my trip to James Victore’s Brooklyn studio in 2015. While there I was surrounded by designers who had a tremendous facility to express their ideas in drawings, sketches and graphic text.

It made me feel deeply dissatisfied at having allowed my own drawing skills to wither. I started drawing cartoons in elementary school and took technical drawing classes all the way through High School, so I entered adulthood with a decent ability to draw everything from detailed 3D mechanical parts to basic architectural sketches and even comic-style panels.

Then I just stopped.

It wasn’t a conscious decision, but thumbing through my old journals the doodles, sketches and freeform shapes just start disappearing, replaced by ever denser blocks of text.

Sitting in James’ studio, with a marker in my hands again, trying to move ideas from my mind onto paper felt liberating, like breathing deeply after having a bad cold. I wanted to do more, but knew my schedule would have to change to make room for it.

2. Deepening Japanese Understanding

When I moved to Japan I made the decision to try and learn Japanese, beyond just the basics needed for shopping and taxi rides. It hasn’t been easy.

Japanese Calligraphy is not the most efficient way to learn the language, but it does help me remember characters, and also be able to read them in a variety of scripts, which can be quite a challenge for foreigners learning the language.

It also slows me down. One of the hardest parts of learning a new language, especially if you live immersed in it, is the panic, the “oh shit, that’s all foreign to me” moments when you are faced with a form to fill out, or a dense menu to navigate.

The practise of Calligraphy has helped slow my mind down in those moments, it’s a kind of meditative skill, focusing on fine details so my memory can catch up and start filling in the details, so the panic can subside into understanding.

3. Trying To Design My Environment

For a number of years now I’ve had a growing urge to customise my living and working environments. It really started with building my studio desk in Singapore, the first big DIY project I had done in years. Quite a few friends and followers on social media were snarky, saying the desk would fall apart, that I should really pay someone to make it for me.

What I met in their criticism was the scent of fear. So much of what passes for design and fashion n today is really just a desperate, generation-wide urge to fit in.

I loved working with tools and making the desk, but more than anything I loved designing it, realising an idea in physical space. It’s one thing to have an aesthetic sensibility that is cut and paste from magazines and blogs, but it’s totally something else to bring your aesthetics to life!

While writing my book in 2014, I was reminded over and over that most of my childhood home was remade or modified by my own family. We were constantly sketching and drawing ideas. My walls has more posters that I had made than posters I bought. With no computer fonts available all the lettering was hand drawn. For me, the roots of creativity lie that desire to reimagine and shape the immediate environment.

4. Moving Beyond “Just” Photography

As much as I love photography, I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with the notion that our art is just about taking a photo, then processing it in Lightroom or Photoshop, so it can be printed, framed and hung in one of 2-3 standard formats.

Why can’t a photo become something different? Why must be framed in 3×2, 10×8 or really any kind of quadrilateral format? Why can’t I make photos for an octagonal frame, or draw on them, hand colour them, or mix them with other media or art forms?

Every time I read a photography book, magazine or website I feel like I’m being told, in a subtle, horizon limiting sort of way, that I can photograph anything I want as long as it fits within a predefined box!

Purity, to me is never ever an appealing or inspiring concept, yet so much of the photography world, the conversation around what makes photographs good, or even artistic is driven by concepts of purity that we might find at best silly and simplistic and at worst, morally repugnant, were we to apply them to other arts or life in general.

That’s Enough For Now

There’s certainly a few more reasons why I’m enjoying doing this, from the way calligraphy is helping me pay attention to visual details in all my work, to the way the quiet and solitude is helping me rebuild my confidence after a very difficult year. But, the four reasons I’ve outlined above are the main motivations right now, not just for the practice of calligraphy but also the increased focus on hand drawn details in everything I do.

Tomorrow I’ll answer the follow up question I’ve been asked, how does this fit within your “strategy?”

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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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