Japanese Calligraphy: Brushes, Ink, and Inner Peace
If you’ve ever tried your hand at Japanese calligraphy, you’ve probably felt the frustration of ruining a perfectly nice piece with a wayward blot of ink and the elation of copying the characters just right all the way to the last one. To many, there is something almost meditative about the white sheet of paper, the smell of the ink and the unforgiving brush. To learn a bit more about this beautiful art, I’ve interviewed Kisyuu, a professional calligraphy artist from Japan based in Vancouver. I would like to take a moment to thank her for taking the time to answer my questions and for allowing me to share her gorgeous pictures. If you’ve never tried this traditional art and would like to, look for Kisyuu’s top three tips for wannabe calligraphers at the end of the interview.
I have taken the liberty of including a cursory history of calligraphy before the interview proper. Enjoy!
Although calligraphy has its origins in 28th century BC China, it wasn’t introduced in Japan until the 7th century AD. The karayo style (唐様) dominated until the early Heian period when, in part due to the apparition of hiragana, styles started evolving. The late 9th and early 10th centuries saw the birth of a characteristically Japanese style called wayo (和様). During the Edo period the wayo style fell out of favour while karayo continued to be popular. Despite the country being closed to outsiders, a new style called sosho (草書) made its way into Japan from China via the island of Dejima in the mid 18th century. Nowadays, calligraphy is part of the curriculum in Japanese elementary schools and is a popular elective or club activity in high schools. Wayo has been revived as shinwayo (新和様) and is also sometimes called kana-kanji-majiri(かな漢字交じり).
How old were you when you started calligraphy? When did you decide you wanted to make a career out of it?
I was 7 when I started going to calligraphy school in Japan. Calligraphy immediately became my a hobby and one of my after school activities. However, I started to expose and take commissions after I graduated from university which is also when I starting thinking about what I would enjoy doing for the next 10-15 years.
What kind of work does a professional calligrapher do?
It all depends on the person. I teach calligraphy by hosting workshops, seasonal 8-week courses, and regular weekly classes. Sometimes I give talks and/or group workshop at companies’ training and development events. Besides teaching, I do live performances for both public and private events. Lastly, I take commissions from individuals and companies.
What do you like most about calligraphy?
There are so many to list! I really like the simplicity of this black and white art form with its rich cultural and historical background from Japan and China. Calligraphy, in its essence, is just a brush and black ink. However, these two items hold countless possibilities. I love finding out those possibilities as I create pieces. Learning about how calligraphy tools (brushes, ink, paper, etc.) are made is also very interesting and fascinates me. Isn’t it amazing that we are still preserving the art of people from 6000 years ago using the tools they invented?
What is the most challenging thing about your art?
It may be a common struggle for creators, but when I can’t write, I can’t write. What I mean by that is I can write a “correct piece” with the right brush technique, but it is different from a piece that shows what I want to express. The brush is very honest and it’s like a mirror; it shows what I’m thinking and how I’m feeling. So coming up with a final piece is an endless process. I can spend weeks or even months creating a single piece. But when I am able to write how I want, the feeling of accomplishment is really rewarding.
Has your practice changed over time? If yes, how?
The “usual” is always the same, line practice and rin-sho (臨書) which is copying the work of calligraphy masters. This can never be skipped; it is a necessary to build a foundation. However, when calligraphy became no longer just a writing tool, my practice changed. I now write to polish my skills and to find new ways to express what’s in my brain and heart. In turn, my art tells my story, rather than just being the representation of acquired basic technique.
Which of your projects are you the most proud of?
I love all the projects I’ve been a part of! But if I had to choose one, I would say working with Dentsu Inc. was the most interesting. I’m proud of having contributed my art to this project. I wrote the title for “Dali-Noh”, a collaboration of Salvador Dali’s art and Japanese traditional performing art, Noh. The project was designed to expand the possibilities of Noh through the use of technology, in this case a cutting-edge technology to create Noh masks and allow this art form to develop in new ways. I studied a lot of Dali’s paintings and tried to understand who he was to extract the essence of his artistic expression. While I communicated very closely with the project manager in Japan, I wrote hundreds of drafts and came up with a piece on which we both agreed. There was a lot to combine from two very different art types. I am happy and proud that my writing became a part of this unique and valuable project.
What is your dream project?
There are many things I want to try both individually and in collaboration with other artists. In solo, I would like to do exhibitions and performances in different cities in Canada and Europe. I’ve traveled within BC and Alberta to give performances, but not to other provinces; I’d like to see what the rest of Canada thinks of Japanese calligraphy. As for the reason why I picked Europe as the next destination, it’s because I didn’t have a chance to showcase calligraphy when I lived in Scandinavia. It’s my biggest regret! Europe is such an interesting place where a variety of cultures and people live together. I’d like to challenge myself by taking an Asian language centric art to non-Asian countries.
What are three tips you would give to someone who wants to start doing calligraphy?
- Get a good quality brush. People think it’s okay to have a cheap brush, but the brush becomes the vehicle all lines come out from, so this is very important.
- Learn the foundations and don’t give up on practicing. Calligraphy takes time to master; it might take years to master one stroke. But the quality of the lines is proportional to the amount of practice. As in everything, master the rules before you break them!
- Find someone who can teach you in person at least once. There are many online videos and books dedicated to learning calligraphy, but I think it is important to actually see the motion of brush and how pressure is applied on the brush.
Even if you cannot follow the above advice, I would say to just enjoy it! Enjoy the smell of sumi (ink), the sound of brush moving in the silence, and writing characters from 6000 years ago!
Born and raised in Japan, Kisyuu started learning calligraphy when she was seven and was given a calligraphy master name “Kisyuu” from her master Kosyuu Kobayashi at the age of 18. Since then, she has earned numerous awards at calligraphy competitions both in Japan and Canada.
Kisyuu has worked on calligraphy installations, workshops, lessons, exhibitions, live performances, and commissioned art works. She has also worked on projects with different companies such as Microsoft, Shiseido, Dentsu, Toyota, Honda, 20th Century Fox, and Netflix.
Her goal is to build a bridge through art, to connect dots and beliefs in order to achieve both inner and outer peace.
ABOUT THE BLOGGER
Stephanie fell in love with Japan 17 years ago and her interest still keeps on growing. She lived in Japan for 5 years, mainly in the Tohoku area. She has a passion for linguistics, history, literature, and anthropology. She is from Montreal and lives in Vancouver.
Sosho style picture from creative commons.
Pictures from Kisyuu’s private collection