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From the Vault: Calligraphy

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Submitted Art Ulfert Wilke, "Without Words III," 1977, lithograph on paper, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Donald D. Martin.

By Aubrey Hobart

Curator of collections

and Exhibitions

Roswell Museum and Art Center

Calligraphy is the art of decorative handwriting, and there are some stunning examples of it from all over the globe. It was especially popular in medieval Europe, East Asia and throughout the Islamic world where, for centuries, artists were discouraged from drawing human figures so they turned to ornamental motifs and lettering instead. Often reserved for significant documents and religious texts, calligraphy is meant to enhance the beauty and highlight the importance of what is being said.

In the mid-20th century, artists involved in the Abstraction movement began to notice calligraphy as an art form. Its simplicity appealed to them. Writing is already quite an abstract concept, if you think about it. We use completely arbitrary shapes to signify the sounds we make when we speak. There’s no particular reason that a “D” sound — which is made when we send air from our lungs through membranes in our throats called vocal chords that start vibrating the air, past our tongue, whose tip touches the roof of our mouths behind our front teeth, and from there passing through our open, widened lips so that these vibrating airwaves that have been shaped by our mouths can be picked up by the eardrums of a nearby person as sound — should be represented by a straight, vertical line with a second line curving out from the top to the right and returning to the bottom of the vertical line. There’s no correlation at all.

As I’ve discussed in this column before, the Abstract Expressionist and Minimalist movements of the mid-20th century were both about generating an emotional response to the most basic elements of art, like line, shape, and/or color. So several artists of the time took a look at calligraphy and wondered if marks that looked like language, but didn’t actually represent the specific shapes from any known alphabet would have the same emotional impact as sacred and important texts of the past.

One such artist was Ulfert Wilke. Born in Bad Tölz, state of Bavaria, Germany on July 14, 1907, Wilke fled to the United States when the Nazi government became critical of his abstract art. The Nazis, like most authoritarian governments, only liked realistic art, but that’s a topic for another day. Wilke became part of the Abstract Expressionist movement in the United States and studied art at Harvard before getting drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942. After the war, he got a master’s degree in art at the University of Iowa and became an art teacher and museum director. He received a couple of Guggenheim Fellowships in 1959 and 1960, which he used to travel to Japan and study calligraphy with a group of Zen Buddhist monks. Through the 1960s, Wilke worked as an art professor, making abstract calligraphy, and building his own art collection. His reputation earned him a place as the founding director of the University of Iowa art museum where he remained until he retired to Hawaii in 1978.

According to his son, Wilke was a really fun person. He wore mismatching socks in bright colors and patterns, and would mow nonsensical designs in the yard with his lawnmower. Simply enjoying the process of making, Wilke once wrote, “Keep on drawing with these marvelous penpoints! Repetitious, eclectic … I just like the pen to make its marks. … Just forget about anything: Use up all the paper and do one after another.”

Another artist who found inspiration in the shapes of calligraphy was sculptor Peter Bilan who was born in Ohio in 1940. After high school, he joined the Air Force, coming to Roswell for the first time to work as an electronics technician at the Walker Air Force Base. He then went to college and taught art for a while at Fort Defiance, which is part of the Navajo Nation. Bilan returned to school for a master’s degree in art and began working for museums, including the Nevada State Museum and the Museum of Albuquerque. In 1977, Bilan was awarded a place in the Roswell Artist-in-Residence program, so he returned to this area for a year to build minimalist sculptures of wood, stone and metal. His woodworks, in particular, evoke the lines of calligraphy.

“While I’ve been involved in calligraphy as an image in space, I’m only beginning to realize these images in ammonia-plasticized wood. This process allows me to work quickly, directly with shaped wood and to consider the piece in the round.”

His wooden curves replicate the sinuous, continuous lines of writing but in three dimensions. His piece, “Hanging Calligraphy” in particular brings to mind a scribbled handwritten signature, the only cursive writing that most of us do anymore, yet in a much larger and more deliberate scale.

The exhibit Inspired by Calligraphy: Ulfert Wilke and Peter Bilan is opening at the Roswell Museum and Art Center on March 28 and runs through July 26.