Finding the Flow:
A Calligraphic Journey

On the very last day of a 3-month visit to Sydney, Australia, I was fortunate to meet Julie Williams, a fellow professional calligrapher and teacher. We enjoyed exchanging our calligraphic histories. Soon after our conversation she invited me to write an article introducing my book, Finding the Flow: A Calligraphic Journey, for the Australian Society of Calligrapher’s journal, Colophon. It was printed June, 2009, with Julie’s kind preface: “In 2006, Gina published a detailed instructional book as a way of helping others find and experience their own ‘flow’… that often elusive calligraphic practice of finding individual expression, gesture and motion where the mind, body, and pen are working together as one …”

By way of introduction. After enjoying a calligraphic career of 25 years, I confronted the unwelcome awareness that computer technology might endanger my future survival as a professional calligrapher. Not farfetched when I recalled an earlier precedent: when another technological development, the printing press, replaced my scribal ancestors. I bolstered myself with another memory: that those scribes had met this challenge with courage, reinventing themselves as virtuoso teachers of handwriting. What could I do to remain viable and stay afloat on this new techno tide? My answer: become a better calligrapher! But how, assuming of course this was an adequate solution, would I learn to write like those few modern masters, those whose work had the irresistible qualities — life, feeling, and expression — which I imagined discerning clients would not do without?

I set out to study with these master calligraphers, and when not traveling to workshops, to emulate their style by studying independently from enlarged photocopies of their work. At the same time I explored on my own, seemingly in the wilderness; my husband teased my daily efforts as “doodling.” In these ways, searching for a path by which to develop my skill, I found I could not make even one truly satisfactory stroke. Enlightenment! If I couldn’t make a stroke with life, how could I hope to make a living letterform?! What then was the essence of stroke making, of making vital strokes?

My first hint was from handwriting. I noted that handwriting often had what formal writing lacked: energy and force of character. How could these highly desirable qualities be retrieved and enter my calligraphy? In teaching a class called “Calligraphy with Ballpoint Pen & Pencil” I discovered that exercises emphasizing touch and movement, rather than form, helped students to directly experience the rhythm and energy of line. We were now enacting line, feeling it in our bodies. Certainly, calligraphers are attracted by form, but we can only create it physically, with fingers trained in tactile sensitivity, with a hand prepared to move and to shift its position, with an arm channeling and adjusting pressure for dynamic movement.

After all, wasn’t calligraphy an art of movement like music and dance? If so, wouldn’t calligraphers need warm up exercises, in addition to arm and finger exercises, to realize their potential? Certainly, getting comfortable with my arm in motion while holding a writing tool was a revelation and a joy. It gave me confidence. The pencil, I saw, was a great tool for achieving this. However, I now wanted to train my surprisingly untutored senses of touch and movement for edged-pen work. Exploring further, I discovered calligraphic ‘relativity’! With less edge in surface contact — a hairline being least — there is less impediment to free motion. With greater amounts of edge contact, the greater the resistance; indeed, this very resistance gives the pen the traction it needs to ‘hold the road’. And I could now make ‘road’ sense of curved strokes, strokes graduated in thickness: I could feel these variations in stroke width as they corresponded to variations in pressure and speed.

Naturally, this facet of pen work could not be separated from body work. Exercises with shoulder and arm, attend to the larger, more forceful work while exercises with thumb and index finger focus upon the smaller, more refined. Through these exercises we develop muscle awareness (proprioception) — perceptual paths needed for communicating feedback from muscular engagement — and awaken to the variations of weight and pressure exerted in dynamic movement. Isolating the thumb and index finger we cultivate their sensitivity: the tactile nuance necessary for controlling stroke walls. (Through a technique which I call “Partnering” we mentally imagine the thumb activating the left nib corner — the corner which corresponds to the stroke’s left wall. The index finger then partners with the right nib corner for control of the right stroke wall.) Calligraphy need not be like driving a vehicle without control on an icy road!

For ‘finding the flow’ I found an unconventional approach to alphabet work proved helpful: I let the type of stroke and my mood guide me into letterform, in contrast with working from alphabet model sheets. Although this latter practice of starting immediately with following arrows and numbers is customary, it only provides a guide for the eye, not the hand. (Unless, that is, the hand is fully trained.) The calligraphic senses, I believe, include the visual as well as tactile and kinesthetic: if I was to satisfy my passion for vital letterforms, I would need to develop them all. Thus, alphabet practice for me, whether historical or contemporary, follows ‘flow’ warm up and pen technique exercises! Finally, such exercises prepared me for living letterform and launched me into the next level of my development. (And, I’m still in business 13 years later!)

Another thrilling facet of my journey was discovering calligraphy as a way to self-knowledge. If you happen to be interested in this dimension, my website (Biography page) offers an essay, “Calligraphy as a Spiritual Way,” which was published in the San Francisco guild’s journal, Alphabet. When we take up any activity as an adult we inevitably confront ourselves: our fears and doubts and egos. Acknowledging this dimension has enriched the meaning of my calligraphic experience. The practice of calligraphy is a process as much as a product. Attention to the process, enacting the physical/sensuous facets of calligraphy, has become a path to discovery as well as one to skill. Hopefully, my book will stimulate your own calligraphic journey. I wish you a sense of adventure, courage, and the joy of ‘finding the flow’!

Gina Jonas