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June 21, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

Brush can be louder than words

Taking a break after calligraphy practice

(0ctober 24, 1991)                                                           

My father, who was born at the end of the 19th century, wrote on vellum paper with a fountain pen he dipped in ink. At a time when it was considered an accomplishment to have good penmanship, he was known to have a “fine hand”. The neighbors appreciated it when he set up a blackboard in our living room, put out a table with writing implements, and offered to give penmanship lessons to their children.

Naturally I attended these lessons, and learned to love the technique of transferring words from pen and ink to paper. My interest led me straight to calligraphy. Although that word “is not an exact equivalent of the Japanese expression sho” as John Stevens says in Zen and the Art of Calligraphy, I had long wanted to study this art form.

After arriving here and inquiring about calligraphy classes, I met a woman who offered to introduce me to her teacher, if indeed I wanted to be a “serious student.” How serious was I? How serious did I have to be? I heard from others that the sensei, Oki Roppo, well known and highly esteemed, was called “One of the five fingers of Japan.” Though grateful for the chance of an introduction, I was hesitant: could I possibly meet the expectations of this eminent teacher? And, more practically, did I want to travel five hours just to get to the class in Shizuoka city and then another five hours back to our home in the mountains?

I attended one class with the idea I would make my decision whether to join or not afterward. But my mind was made up the minute I stepped into his studio. Eighty-three years old then, Oki-sensei sat at his writing table surrounded by his brushes and time-worn suzuri (inkstones), and an aura of tranquility. I presented him with a loaf of bread I’d baked. He received it telling the students present how pleased he was to have a homemade gift.

He told me he would be glad to accept me as his student, and said that although I might not realize it, I was fortunate in not having ever studied before as I would not have any mistaken preconceptions.

I was given an o-tehon (a book of samples, that he wrote himself) and told that I should bring my work the next week to be corrected. I practiced at home every day the simple characters I’d been given, but after a week of effort I could not be pleased with the results.

When I returned to class the following week I sat in the formal seiza position and watched while he checked the work of the students before me. Their work was beautiful. (I later learned that most of his students, including the woman who had introduced me, were teachers of calligraphy themselves.) By the time it was my turn to show my work I was so embarrassed and ashamed by its primitiveness, I cried. He made the corrections, said a few inaudible words, and wrote the samples for the next lesson. Oddly, I felt encouraged. I mean, he hadn’t thrown my work away and told me never to come again!

I continued to study with him for about 5 years, and for a long time I felt handicapped by my lack of knowledge of kanji and the techniques of calligraphy. Disadvantaged is what I felt when I compared myself to the other students, not “fortunate.” And I could not reconcile myself to his method of teaching – he rarely spoke. I wanted desperately to be told and instructed in very definite terms, as I was accustomed to. I could hardly see the point of traveling so far just to watch him write.

But after a while in all started to come together, and I could see that this method, teaching without words, new to me at the time, had its merits. The student was expected to observe and endeavor, in the truest sense of those words. It was instructive just to see how he sat, how he held his brush. It was an inspiration to watch him writing, and see how one stroke followed the other – flowing in perfect order.



I studied with Oki Roppo-sensei until my fourth and last child, Lila, was born in 1983. With a baby and young children and a large house to take care of, I just found it impossible to keep up with all the practice that was required. And then Oki-sensei died not long after.

After a long hiatus, I began to study with a local teacher. She was young and lived in our same residential development. Quite unlike my former teacher, she explained everything. Of course I found it useful – but I also found myself often thinking: Please just let me see you write it. 

In any event I studied with her for more than 15 years. I decided to quit in December 2008. By that time I had achieved ni-dan (second level mastery). If I had third level, I would be qualified to teach. But I had no interest whatsoever in teaching. And in order to reach that level, I would have had to continue with the relentless copying of the teacher’s work, taking examinations, submitting work for critical review, and required to show my work in group exhibitions. 

Of course there’s a lot to be learned from this form of study – most particularly, discipline. In this manner of study, you are not supposed to veer from doing your utmost to make an exact replica of the teacher’s work. This is not about personal expression. In fact, the last thing the teacher wanted was for you to express yourself.

But after twenty plus years of this endeavor, I decided that what I wanted more than technical expertise was to be expressive in my writing. I wanted to play with calligraphy more. I was anxious to create pieces that I could enjoy, and give as gifts to friends. So now, I make cards, and write on paper boxes, blank shopping bags, shikishi. Recently I produced patterned paper for my daughter Nanao’s custom chocolates – that she created for Japan disaster relief.  

I have found trying to be free and expressive while doing calligraphy has been a struggle. Because after years of having my work judged, it’s almost impossible for me to write now without judging it myself. Of course, all artists judge their work – but I suspect they are not crippled by that process. I often write as though there were someone looking over my shoulder. I finish a piece, and rather than thinking do I like it or not, I think whether the technique is good or not — the same as I did when I had to show my work to my teacher.

But now I do my best to loosen up when I write.

I go to as many exhibitions of calligraphy as I can, viewing classics work as well as contemporary shogaka. These latter I find particularly inspiring. So many have created their own styles. Although they are expert at technique, they have reached a stage where they can just break out and ‘do their thing’. Recently, when I wrote calligraphy for my business card, I did it while moving to the music of Bob Marley!


© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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