Function and Form

Sometimes, it is the elective course or a course needed to fulfill a major requirement that ends up being the most rewarding. That is precisely what happened to senior John Maher, an art history and German major. John needed a non-Western art requirement to complete his major and, since he had taken a Winter Study class with Professor Ju-Yu Scarlett Jang on Chinese Calligraphy as a first-year student, he thought he would try his hand at another course taught by Professor Jang: Chinese Calligraphy: Theory and Practice.

Chinese CalligraphyThe format of the course is somewhat different, combining art history with studio practice. Students learn the theoretical and aesthetic principles of Chinese calligraphy and explore the social and political functions its has played in both ancient and contemporary China. Then, students get to practice the art form, applying the theories they learned to their own artwork.

“I really enjoyed the format of the course,” says John. “A single art history class that has both scholarly and practical elements is relatively rare, but in this class we are able to learn about the history of Chinese calligraphy for half of a 3-hour long class period in Lawrence Hall and then walk to the Spencer Studio Art Building for the second half to actually try to recreate the forms that we have just seen in lecture.”

Calligraphy, which means beautiful writing, became the highest art form in 4th century China and is still widely practiced in East Asia.  One need not have taken an art studio class to do well in this calligraphy class, nor does one need to know Chinese. For John, producing the Chinese characters required a great deal of time and concentration. “As someone with almost no artistic ability,” he says, “writing the characters required a lot of effort. But it’s very satisfying to see how much your work improves with practice.”

An unexpected, and enjoyable, side effect was the calming aspect of practicing calligraphy. “In order for my characters to come out reasonably well,” he says, “I had to be calm and focused. Going to the studio became an almost meditative activity.” John says that he has often felt stressed about getting his schoolwork done but, “calligraphy provided me with a change of pace. It helped me to focus.”

Although John cannot read Chinese, he thinks that can be an advantage. He says, “Whereas people who can read Chinese instantly associate characters with their meaning, I can appreciate them based purely on their aesthetic and expressive qualities.”

Photography by Stephanie Owyang ’13.