Visual Arts
Mizrach by Aharon Baruch, ink on parchment (1990).

Mizrach by Aharon Baruch, ink on parchment (1990).  

Calligraphy at the Castellani

by / Jan. 10, 2018 10am EST

Part of its wonderful continuing series of folk art exhibits—always with an eye to folk traditions surviving and often thriving among the local area population of unsurpassed ethnic diversity—a current exhibit at the Castellani Art Museum is entitled Calligraphy Traditions in Western New York.

Five calligraphic traditions are examined: Chinese, Japanese, Arabic/Islamic, Hebrew, and the Western basically Christian tradition that developed as part of medieval monastic scriptoria production—or really reproduction—of the Bible and other religious texts. The works on display include two exquisite actual Middle Ages to Renaissance decorated pages on parchment, one from about 1400, one from about 1600, but the rest of the works—of more or less equal beauty to the ancient examples—are by area contemporary artists working with calligraphy: Jiannan Wu (Chinese); Takako Fukuda Truskinovsky and Toshie Kenney (Japanese); Muhammad Zaman and Amjad Aref (Arabic/Islamic); Aharon Baruch (Hebrew); and Rosemary Lyons (Western Christian).

One of the Jiannan Wu items, done in what looks like a somewhat overhasty writing technique—almost negligent looking—turns out to be statement about calligraphy by a T’ang Dynasty monk and calligrapher who was criticized for just such a technique. Defending himself—his technique—he said calligraphy should be like “a flock of birds darting out of the trees, startled snakes scurrying into the grass.”

An item by Toshie Kenney consisting of two bold face black ink ideograms is a Japanese folk saying that succinctly sums up the idea of human transience. It translates as “One time, one meeting.” The thought that every encounter with another person could be—for whatever reason—the last time. One by Takako Fukuda Truskinovsky in a rather feathery script is a poem by tenth-century poet Ki no Tsurayuki about transience and nostalgia. It translates, “The state of human / hearts I cannot know and yet / the blossoms of this / familiar village still greet / me with the scent of years past.”

The Arabic/Islamic works include several vibrantly colorful paintings by Muhammad Zaman consisting of multiple overlays of elegant Arabic script repetitions of a single poetical phrase or sentiment such as, in one case, “As the water covers the sea, your love covers me.” Works by Amjad Aref include black on white decorative script versions of statements or formulas from the Quran. Such as the formula that opens every surah in the Quran, “In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.”

The Aharon Baruch items include a mezuzah, consisting of a several inches square parchment of twenty-two neat lines of Biblical text in minuscule Hebrew script and small decorative case in which the parchment is to be placed, thereupon to be affixed to a doorpost, in fulfillment of the Biblical command to write the words of God “on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:9). And various testimonial or commemorative display certificates as for a bar mitzvah or wedding or anniversary, in combinations of Hebrew text in Hebrew lettering and English text in regular alphabet, plus decorative bordering.

And as if calligraphy in and of itself weren’t hard enough, Rosemary Lyons does it tongue in cheek. Calligraphy and illuminated and decorated manuscripts in the medieval monkish manner, but updated by reference to secular contemporary matters. Her centerpiece work is a 9/11 commemorative page mimicking a large-format monastic community hymnal page—large-format because hand-copied materials were rare and precious, each singer didn’t get his or her own hymnal, but multiple singers had to look on the same hymnal, which would probably be placed on a lectern in front of the choir—consisting of the opening lines of the Star Spangled Banner in medieval chant notation—square dot notes on a four-line stanza—and in Latin: O ecce spectasne per primam lucem / Quid salutamus bene. With illuminated initial letter O in brilliant red and gold, and within the letter O circle, a miniature depiction of the iconic scene at ground zero the next day of firefighters raising the American flag on a pole—one of the few artifacts left standing upright after the debacle—the still smoking ruins of the twin towers in the background. (Musical transcription into medieval mode by Herbert Tinney, translation into Latin by Thomas Bancich.)

The calligraphy exhibit continues into June. Meanwhile, much else to see at the Castellani, including exhibits of work by Nancy Dwyer, Thomas Kegler, Mark Snyder, and Dana Tyrrell.