While I was initially led to Asia by my interest in philosophy, it was the beauty and mystery of calligraphy that drew me in aesthetically. Although calligraphy is usually done with ink and brush on paper, the extension of calligraphy to wood opens up countless creative possibilities. As with the brush, carving and woodburning allow for variation in thickness in lines, and lines may be continuous or broken, with smooth or rough curves. But unlike traditional calligraphy on blank paper, carving and burning on wood require that you take into consideration grain patterns, irregularities and other distinctive features of the wood and incorporate them into the design. Carving, and to some degree pyrography, also allows you to achieve three-dimensional depth in comparison to the two-dimensional flatness of ink on paper. And inlay opens an entire world of materials and colors: minerals, gemstones, abalone shells and more.
Traditionally, woodturners avoided color like the plague in deference to the natural beauty of the wood, but I love to use color to enhance the project. I often use metallic powders of various hues to achieve a raku-like effect, where the color changes depending on the lighting and angle of the viewer, creating a more dynamic and interactive experience for the viewer. In contrast to the black and white of traditional calligraphy, I also use airbrushing (with dyes or paints) to harmonize the colors and provide depth and shading.
One of the beauties of calligraphy is that a single character can be rendered in countless ways. There are many different styles of calligraphy, some of them very disciplined and precise, like the Chinese fonts on your computer. I prefer caoshu 草书 – literally “grass calligraphy” – a more freewheeling and spontaneous style. Not only does it better reflect the Zen spirit in my view, it allows more abstract rendering of characters and provides more freedom to adapt the character to fit the space and style of the piece in a more harmonious way.
Perhaps most intriguingly of all, calligraphy allows you to bring together in a very immediate way techniques, materials and concepts to illuminate the essence of a piece. The characters after all are not just an abstract design or a natural object. They are words and phrases that have meaning, that reflect my interpretation of the essential character of that particular piece of wood and how I feel about it. Not surprisingly, many pieces incorporate key ideas like – dao – 道, chan/Zen – 禅; fo佛 (Buddha or Buddhism); zi ran自然 (nature, spontaneity, what is so of itself); xu虚 (emptiness); jing 静(tranquility); wu 无 (nothingness) etc.– with the main inlaid character or characters often accompanied by woodburned passages from Daoist texts, Buddhist sayings or lines from classical Chinese poetry that capture the Zen experience.