The ancient art of calligraphy is having a revival
The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Tuesday, July 16, 2024

The ancient art of calligraphy is having a revival
Calligraphy, a centuries-old art form, is seeing a surge of interest, including among young people more familiar with coding than cursive. Image generated by ChatGPT.

by Jenny Gross

NEW YORK, NY.- For the first time in many years, a teacher was correcting my handwriting.

“Go more slowly,” Laura Edralin, a calligraphy teacher in London, told me, as she walked around a table of beginners on a recent Wednesday night, explaining how to achieve even, flowing strokes.

As a breaking news reporter for The New York Times, I am not used to being told to slow down, nor am I accustomed to writing by hand. But both those new to the medium and seasoned calligraphers say the deliberate, steady nature of the practice is a huge part of its appeal — one that is on the upswing. With so much digital fatigue, writing elegantly with pen and paper can be a joy.

Calligraphy, a centuries-old art form, is seeing a surge of interest, including among young people more familiar with coding than cursive. At Michael’s, the largest arts and crafts chain in North America, more than 10,000 customers signed up for lettering classes online between January 2023 and March 2024 — nearly three times more than in the same period a year ago, when about the same number of classes were offered.

An increase in calligraphy-related posts on social media and the popularity of online classes may have helped drive the trend. On TikTok, where users can find how-to videos or watch clips of experienced calligraphers at work, 63% more posts used #calligraphy in April 2024 than in April 2023, according to TikTok. And on Instagram, top calligraphy influencers such as Nhuan Dao in Ha Noi, Vietnam, and Paola Gallegos in Cuzco, Peru, have 2 million or more followers apiece (on TikTok, Gallegos has 9 million).

Rajiv Surendra, a calligrapher and actor (best known as the math MC Kevin G. in the 2004 film “Mean Girls”), said he was surprised to find that his how-to calligraphy videos were some of the most popular posts on his YouTube channel; one video on calligraphy basics has garnered more than 840,000 views.

In this digital age, “we have come so far away from consciously thinking about how to form a ‘w’ — and how to form a beautiful ‘w,’” he said in a recent interview. For that reason, he explained, now more than ever, people are craving the ability to bring intention and care not just to what they write, but to how they write it.

He has seen this reflected in the response to his videos: A woman in Denmark recently told him, in a handwritten letter, that they had inspired her to start practicing calligraphy with her grandfather’s fountain pen.

Calligraphy dates back to before the first century, said Dr. Chia-Ling Yang, a Chinese art history professor at the University of Edinburgh. By the 10th century, good brushwork had become known in China as a sign of good character. Separate traditions also developed with roots in other parts of East Asia and the Middle East.

In Europe, the introduction of the printing press in the mid-15th century paved the way for a distinction between handwriting and more stylized scripts. Calligraphy in Europe experienced a decline in the 19th century, with the advent of the typewriter, but it continued to be used for official documents and scholarly purposes. “What is the same in all practices of calligraphy, regardless of the language, is the beauty of the confident stroke,” Surendra said.

Today, part of calligraphy’s appeal is its accessibility: Anyone with a pen and paper can give it a go. Edralin, the London calligraphy teacher, took up the practice in 2017 as a way to cope with anxiety from a demanding job. Other than a few classes in high school, she had never really pursued art — certainly not professionally — but she lost herself in the beauty of crafting strokes into letters, and letters into words. “I could scratch the creative itch that I knew was in me, but it didn’t require me to sit at an easel for weeks on end,” she said.

Practicing calligraphy helped make Edralin aware of self-critical thoughts that had become ingrained in her internal dialogue. “If that’s happening day in and day out in everything you’re doing, it’s really hard to spot,” she said. Now, when she hears students criticizing themselves or wanting to give up halfway through a word, she encourages them to embrace imperfection and revel in the thrill of learning something new — lessons she hopes they can apply to other parts of their lives, she said.

Like Edralin, Amanda Reid, a calligrapher in Austin, Texas, began experimenting with calligraphy both as a creative outlet and as a way to ease stress — in her case, from a graduate degree she was pursuing in physical therapy. She started her own calligraphy business in 2019, taking commissions and teaching workshops, and it grew quickly during the coronavirus pandemic, when people were at home with time to learn new skills online, she said.

For Reid, crafting elegant words with her pens is not just an artistic practice, but a physical one, with a meditative rhythm of upstrokes and downstrokes. “Some people do yoga,” she said. “But I do calligraphy.”

Some preliminary studies suggest that working with your hands — whether by writing, knitting or drawing — can improve cognition and mood, and a study published in January by researchers in Norway found that writing by hand was beneficial for learning and engaged the brain more than typing on a keyboard. Some states, including California and New Hampshire, have begun reintroducing cursive (long regarded as obsolete in a digital age) into their curriculums, citing it as important for intellectual development.

The new emphasis on cursive comes even as researchers are developing products that will use artificial intelligence to replicate handwriting based on just a small sample of written material, Bloomberg reported.

Even with technological advances on the horizon, Ravi Jain, who attended the recent calligraphy class in London, said the beauty of calligraphy surpasses what any computer-generated letters could achieve. “Nothing will replace the amount of love, patience and time that goes into creating something by hand,” said Jain, 27, a data analyst at Credit Karma. “I know that the cards I give last a lot longer than a text message.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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