It’s been raining for the last few days here, reminding me of all the indoor recesses I spent hanging in a corner with my friends making up our own handwriting. Do the kids still do that these days, or am I just a billion years old? A few years ago I saw a beautiful interactive video installation by the artist Xu Bing about the history of Chinese Characters.
Did you know that the strokes used to make the symbols were originally styled after bird tracks and shadows cast by trees? Such a striking way to honor nature, no? Xu created an insanely fun calligraphy lesson that used Chinese calligraphic principles to write English. Using brushes and ink to make expressive marks, he wrote English words in squares, writing left to right, top to bottom and outside to inside.
Here’s a quick explanation and introduction of the concept from Xu’s Exhibit at The Met in 2014.
Seeing his work reminded me of how beautiful our written language is, and the care that still goes into every letter in other cultures and practices, so I thought I’d try recreating this project with kids. This exercise in handwriting isn’t so far removed from the doodled and scrawled words and codes my friends and I drew in notebooks throughout elementary school. It’s a way to see our alphabet in a different context, and approach each and every letter with a new degree of TLC.
Kids just learning how to write may be familiar with this approach, but it’s amazing how quickly we forget that each letter is it’s own work of art. Rediscovering the process of writing through a different language system might just help the rest of us (kids AND adults) reconnect with our own language in a way we never thought possible. It’s also a wonderful introduction to the art of characters and calligraphy (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc.)
One more thing, this is SOOoooooo relaxing…
To make your own character alphabet you’ll need:
- Ink (We used Yasutomo Black Sumi Ink, but you can use any kind of drawing ink, or tempera cakes/watercolors instead)
- Brushes (we used Blick brand bamboo brushes, but you can use what you have – a variety of sizes and shapes makes it even more fun!)
- Some printed examples of Chinese calligraphy and/or Xu Bing’s English character set
- A small dish for your ink and a water cup
FOR THE “AGED” PAPER:
- Coffee + Coffee Grounds
A great way to start this project with kids is to begin with simple mark-making. To get a feel for the brushes and ink, make some lines, squiggles and dots. Play around with using different pressures and arm movements. It’s a wonderful way to loosen up, relax and just get to know the tools.
Once you’ve gotten a feel for the brushes, you can move on to creating letters. The Met’s website has a downloadable/printable photo of the English alphabet characters that Xu Bing created. This can be used as a reference, or kids can just experiment with making letters in their own style.
After practicing individual letters, move on to creating words, then sentences, in the traditional style of character writing. This means creating words within a square shape that will be read left to right, top to bottom and outside to inside, largest letter to smallest letter. Sentences are formed by making a column of words, writing and reading from top to bottom. Making variations on letters and words is part of the fun – as well as trying to figure out.
Once your kids have formed some words and sentences, you can exchange them and try reading each other’s work – kind of like cracking a code!
Traditional Chinese calligraphy is done on a beautifully textured rice paper – we didn’t have any, but wanted to make some special paper for our messages. We opted for an “aged” paper look and used with coffee and coffee grounds to make it happen. If you’d like to try the same, brew some coffee (1 cup per sheet of paper), place your paper on a cookie sheet, cover with coffee, then sprinkle with the grounds.
Let sit for about 5 minutes, then use a paper towel to dab off any excess coffee. Pop it in the oven for a few minutes (you’ll want to stand there and watch it, as it dries very quickly and can be flammable if left to long). The edges will curl up and there will be some bubbles, so quickly flatten it by placing it under a towel and ironing on a low setting for about a minute.
Not only does it create a beautiful effect – it smells DELICIOUS! 🙂