Archive for the ‘calligraphy’ Category

A tale of a sparrow

In the late 1950s, when my husband Tony was a student, he strolled into a junk shop in the small town of Hawera, New Zealand. A charming image of a sparrow caught his eye. Fast forward ten years. Tony was by then an engineer at a high tech company in Silicon Valley. The sparrow pops up again in a letter I write to parents:

14 April 1969
A friend of Tony’s from Memorex came to dinner. A Korean boy … He is really charming, and we had a pleasant evening. One interesting thing that came out of it – Yun also reads and writes Mandarin Chinese, so was able to translate the inscription on our sparrow picture for us. Do you remember our sparrow? It is a little brush drawing that Tony picked up in a junk shop in Hawera when he was a student, shortly before reading in a magazine a story about a famous Chinese artist who was objecting to a government campaign to kill off the sparrows to improve the wheat production. He made these little posters, inscribed with sentimental stories about the sparrow. And this, as far as we can tell, is what we have got.

four pests poster

Poster “Exterminate the four pests!,” 1958

With the help of the Internet, I’ve been piecing together my fragments of knowledge about this period in Chinese history. What I discovered is a familiar story about well-intentioned interference with nature leading to ecological disaster.

In the First Five-Year Plan of the newly-founded People’s Republic of China, families were each given their own plot of land. In the Second Five Year Plan, begun in 1958, a new agriculture system was announced. Family farms were grouped into collective farms, making each village a single production entity in which everyone would have an equal share. Food would be provided in a communal kitchen.

everybody poster

Poster “Everybody comes to beat sparrows,” 1956

In theory, a collective farm where resources were centrally controlled should be more efficient and yield higher productivity. In practice, agricultural production figures fell. Food shortages were exacerbated by flood and drought. Believing that getting rid of sparrows, who ate grain, would improve production, Chairman Mao Zedong launched the Four Pests Campaign, which encouraged citizens to kill them, along with three other pests: rats, flies, and mosquitoes. Sparrow nests were destroyed, eggs were broken, and chicks were killed. Many sparrows died from exhaustion; citizens would bang pots and pans so that sparrows would not have the chance to rest on tree branches and would fall dead from the sky. Citizens also shot the birds down from the sky. These mass attacks pushed the sparrow population to near extinction.

eliminating sparrow poster

Poster “Eliminating the last sparrow,” 1959

In hindsight, the result was inevitable.  Too late, Chinese leaders realized that sparrows didn’t only eat grain seeds. They also ate insects. With no birds to control them, insect populations boomed. Locusts, in particular, swarmed over the country, eating everything they could find, including crops intended for human food. People, on the other hand, quickly ran out of things to eat, and tens of millions starved.

 

A taonga returns home

Honi Tuwhare PoemThis week, when I fly to New Zealand on a family visit, I will have with me a small sheet of drawing paper. In a top corner is a drawing of a bird flying over a hill, with a delicate watercolor wash. The rest of the sheet contains a tiny poem, hand-written in beautiful calligraphy, and signed by the poet/artist, Hone Tuwhare.

The manuscript is one my treasured possessions. I have pangs of regret about parting with it, but know I am doing the right thing. In New Zealand Tuwhare’s work is considered a taonga, a treasure. He was the first Māori poet writing in English to win widespread acclaim. His best-known book, “No Ordinary Sun.” first published in 1964, was reprinted ten times over the next thirty years, becoming one of the most widely read individual collections of poetry in New Zealand history. The title poem is a response to French nuclear testing in the Pacific. Many more collections followed. His work has a conversational tone and incorporates both Māori and biblical rhythms; the subjects range from the political to the personal and often powerfully evoke the beauties of nature. He won several New Zealand book awards, and was poet laureate of New Zealand in 1999–2000. He died in 2008, at the age of 85.

No Ordinary Sun cover

Cover of the 1998 edition of “No Ordinary Sun”

The Māori concept of taonga also includes the story that goes along with the item. My little manuscript was a gift from Jean McCormack Tuwhare, Hone’s ex-wife. She and my mother-in-law were friends. On a visit to New Zealand in 2000, I spent a delightful afternoon with Jean at Mother’s house discussing poetry and literature. Mother had shown Jean my first poetry collection, “A Place Called Home,” and later suggested I send her a copy. Enclosed in Jean’s thank-you letter for the book was the Tuwhare manuscript. Unfortunately the letter is lost, but as I recall, Jean wrote that Hone (with whom she was still close friends) liked to practice calligraphy and had given her several of these small pieces to dispose of as she wished. She thought I might appreciate having one.

[Update 6/2/1016: While in New Zealand, I learned from Rob Tuwhare, Hone and Jean’s son, that Jean herself did the calligraphy, and Hone signed her work.]

I am of an age when I need to make decisions about my stuff. Knowing that the manuscript could easily get overlooked among our mountains of paper and art works, I sought professional help. I told Malcolm Moncrief-Spittle of Renaissance Books (New Zealand) , who deals in rare and out-of-print books, that I thought my taonga should be returned to New Zealand. Which university or cultural institution in New Zealand already houses a collection of Tuwhare material and would be a suitable recipient? I asked. He recommended the Hocken Library at the University of Otago in Dunedin.

Staff at the Hocken Library responded to my query with enthusiasm. We’ve arranged a meeting on May 9, when I will hand over the carefully packaged manuscript. I know it will be a happy/sad occasion.

Word Art

calligraphy

A wall in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

I spent this morning thinking about the intersection of writing and art — how we can be moved by a piece of art that involves words, even when the writing is undecipherable. Or when you are ignorant of the language, as I was recently in Istanbul, where I was captivated by the Arabic script that decorated walls of mosques and palaces.

Last night was the opening celebration in Mendocino for the show “Boundless: Art of Letter, Word and Book,” which curator Janet Self describes as a “hands-on conversation about art, language, books, and engagement in the modern age.” I have several pieces in the show: a poem collaged onto a cast paper fish, the poetry box from my vegetable garden, a handmade book that employs a complex flower-fold structure (suggested by Alisa Golden in “Making Handmade Books”), plus some broadsides and tiny chapbooks.

 As I looked around the room, I saw uses of the written word that sparkled with creativity. Janet has posted some pictures on her Flockworks blog site. Among my favorites were “House of Cards,” a walk-in house shape whose walls were linked postcards from all over the world, sent years ago to members of the same family, and inherited by the house-maker. I chatted with Harry Van Ornum, a calligraphy student who, having filled his practice paper with lyrics by a favorite singer, turned the paper sideways and continued, making of the words an abstract form. Janet Self, faced with a huge collection of her father’s Reader’s Digest Condensed Books that no thrift store would take, repurposed the pages into large, flowing geometric sculptures.

My favorite encounter was with a young man who stood entranced in front of a calligraphic painting by the late Jim Bertram, one of the artists who helped found the Mendocino Art Center in the 1960s. It was part of a collection being sold as a fund-raiser for Flockworks, the tiny nonprofit that creates such community art projects as the “Boundless” show.

 “Excuse me,” he said. “Can you tell me if that calligraphy is in some language?”

Having met and written about Jim Bertram not long before he died, I was able to tell the young man that no, the beautiful shapes were not words. I told him about the quote I found while researching this artist: Line expresses the inner thought. It is a narrative of what we really want to tell each other but somehow can’t seem to verbalize.

“Now I really want that painting,” the young man responded. “I don’t have any money. But next payday, I’m coming back to buy it.”

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