or  Why I would have failed Kindergarten in China

Learning calligraphy appealed to me because I enjoy painting and sketching with ink and brush. Plus, I bought one of those calligra-pens a while back and impressed the heck out of people with my fancy-smancy penmanship. At this point I should mention that I do not have good handwriting. Way back in elementary school when we were graded on how well we wrote (not as in how literate we were, but how well we formed the letters of the alphabet), invariably I got terrible marks. So anything that would let me leave this ancient shame behind sounded appealing.

Well, it turns out that writing with a chiseled marker from Art-Mart is NOT the same thing as Chinese calligraphy. That was a painful surprise. We used a brush and ink, which I have done many times in the past (although never before with an authentic calligraphy brush from China), but we were expected to produce uniform lines. Uniform! As in all the same width. That’s not what calligraphy is, I thought. Haven’t you seen wedding invitations done in calligraphy? Lines change from thick to thin and have exquisite pointy endings. ‘No, no,’ Gan told us. ‘We will learn the old method with precise lines and rounded endings.’ You know, the really difficult (impossible?) way to use an ink and brush.

I tried, I really did. But the same character defect that gave me horrific penmanship also made calligraphy a pipe-dream for me. Sure, those graphic design and illustration majors made it look easy. ‘See?’ Gan would say. ‘This is beautiful! Do it like this.’ But my hand had other ideas (or was my Chinese brush actually evil?). Thick lines, thin lines, big old blotches, that’s what I produced. ‘In China, we practice for years. We must have perfect calligraphy to be a scholar.’ Hmmm, in that case, I think even kindergarten would have been out of my reach. Although hearing that during the Cultural Revolution scholars were ranked just below prostitutes made me think that maybe I still had a chance to make something of myself there.

This practice was torture to me. My brush had a mind of its own, going this way and that. I am not a precise person. Meticulousness (meticulosity?) does not come easily to me. That’s why most of my art has a ‘sketchy’ quality about it. Sketchy – the art school euphemism for messy. I love welding steel fast and furiously, leaving the welds visible. I tell people that it makes my art interesting. Thank god my professors embrace ‘process’ so I can get away with that. I do well despite (or because of?) my messy tendencies. But this whole calligraphy control nightmare put me right into my place at the bottom of the class.

And then we started painting birds…..

Here we could be freer, allowing the ink, water, and brush to guide us rather than trying to control them. ‘Interesting brush marks,’ Gan said. ‘Be more sketchy.’ Sketchy!! This was my kind of art. I can do messy (oops, I mean sketchy). Finally I could relax and really enjoy painting. The results were kind of pleasing – I even cut out several of my practice birds and made greeting cards out of them. You made those? my classmates asked, not really believing me. Yup. And with my calligraphy name stamped on them as well, they looked positively post-kindergarten!

Of course, none of this success translated into improved calligraphy (as my ‘masterpiece’ example proves). Rather, with birds I may have progressed to grade school, but in calligraphy I have many years of kindergarten ahead of me. Perhaps there is still a place for me in a higher ranked category?