Brooklyn Boro

Calligraphers are spotlighted in Brooklyn art prof’s new book

Brooklyn BookBeat

October 16, 2015 By Raanan Geberer Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Examples of Chinese calligraphy by Rose Sigal Ibsen. Ibsen, born in Romania, began her art training by studying jewelry design, then became proficient in Asian calligraphies. Photo from “100 New York Calligraphers” by Cynthia Maris Dantzic
Share this:

Cynthia Maris Dantzic, senior professor of visual arts at Long Island University Brooklyn and a Park Slope resident, has written nine art-related books. Among them are “100 New York Painters” and “100 New York Photographers,” but she’s really excited about her latest, “100 New York Calligraphers.”

There are lots of books about painters and photographers, she explains, but not that many about calligraphers or calligraphy. Dantzic, who grew up in Crown Heights and Flatbush, is a calligrapher herself. “When I was at Yale getting a BFA, it was required. I tried to get out of it, but they said it was very important, so I stayed, and seemed to have a knack for it,” she says.

Now she has been studying Chinese calligraphy for many years at the China Institute in Manhattan. “There are things you can do with a Chinese bamboo brush that you cannot do with any Western medium,” she says.

Wikipedia describes calligraphy as “the design and execution of lettering with a broad-tip instrument, dip pen or brush, among other writing instruments.” Many people in the general public might ask whether there is still a need for calligraphy in today’s high-tech world, since any number of type fonts, designs and sizes can be produced by computer graphics.

“A human being is not a machine,” Dantzic responds. “Writing with a pen is a completely different experience. More and more people are studying calligraphy now — they want that human touch.”

Indeed, a perusal of “100 New York Calligraphers” shows that many of the nation’s largest corporations and institutions appreciate calligraphy. Some of the various calligraphers’ clients include Lord & Taylor, Chanel, Cartier, New York University, Macy’s, Yale University and many others.

Perhaps most impressively, one calligrapher represented in the book, Patricia Blair, currently serves as chief calligrapher for the White House. The book replicates a dinner invitation sent to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband on behalf of President Barack and first lady Michele Obama.

Most of the calligraphers in the book, says Dantzic, came to calligraphy “as an adjunct to studying the arts and graphic arts.” Of course, there are exceptions. For example, Dr. Yoo Sung Lee, a practitioner of traditional Korean calligraphy, is a botanist and professor of biology.  

Dantzic is also quick to point out that calligraphers also have a wide variety of other interests. For example, Marion Andrews, who died at the age of 98 when the book was in production, was a pioneer female pilot, having received her pilot’s license at Tetertoro Airport in 1955. Another, Moki Kokoris, a freelance calligrapher, graphic artist and illustrator, was the first woman of Ukrainian descent to reach the North Pole. The book contains a photo of her at the pole holding the Ukrainian flag.

Calligraphy is especially valued in the traditions of East Asia, so it’s natural that some of the calligraphers represented in “100 New York Calligraphers” have ties to the nations of that area.

For example, Yoshiko Katsumi, who creates Japanese flower arrangements as well as prize-winning calligraphy, grew up in Japan and now holds classes in Westchester. Fusako Otsubo has taught Japanese calligraphy for many years at the Japanese-American Association of New York. In addition, some artists of Western descent have been drawn to Asian calligraphy because of their study of Eastern spiritual disciplines such as Buddhism.

Calligraphy is also important in the Jewish religious tradition. Torah scrolls, or the Five Books of Moses, must be written by hand with special implements, on parchment made from the skin of a kosher animal, by specially trained individuals known as “sofers.”  Dantzic, in her book, spotlights the work of Jen Taylor Friedman, the first female scribe, who has written two Torah scrolls as well as numerous scrolls of the Book of Esther and Jewish marriage contracts.

Perhaps the most unusual calligrapher highlighted in the book is Assemblymember Dick Gottfried (D-West Side Manhattan). Dantzic says that Gottfried travels to China frequently and has been studying calligraphy at the China Institute for many years. Many of Gottfried’s pieces are quotations from political leaders such as John and Robert Kennedy and Barack Obama, translated in Chinese by Zhang Jiaxuan of the institute.

In addition to her Yale undergraduate degree, Dantzic holds a master’s degree in fine arts from Pratt Institute. For those who are curious about calligraphy as well as people who are already admirers of that ancient art, “100 New York Calligraphers” is a must.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Comment