The Newberry's 20th annual calligraphy show rewrites the rules of the written word
What we’re doing is fine-art calligraphy—it’s not addressing envelopes.” This is the first thing artist Corinna Taylor wants the public to know about “Exploration 2006,” the Chicago Calligraphy Collective’s 20th annual juried show taking place at the Newberry Library through April 1.
After one look at some of the artists’ handmade work that makes up the exhibition, it’s easy to see why Taylor stresses the distinction. The colorful compositions look more like graphic art or 3-D design than anything created with an old-time fountain pen. “A lot of what we do is not even really meant to be read but appreciated for the calligraphic feel of the strokes,” she explains. In past years, artists have submitted pieces that couldn’t be read by most showgoers, including work in braille, Japanese, Hebrew—even a calligraphic sculpture by Chicago’s top instructor, Reggie Ezell.
For calligraphy’s dedicated followers, it’s these creative new approaches to an ancient art that make the show a hot ticket every year. Bob Zuranksi, who has been with the collective for ten years and is the group’s exhibit director, has noticed a marked change in the hun-dreds of entries he reviews annually.“Now what you’ll find is a combination of traditional letter forms and outrageous abstractions,” he says. “The lines have calligraphic form and movement, but they’re not necessarily letters; you can take letters and stretch and bend them and twist them around into something new and different, and there’s a lot of excitement about that.”
The Chicago Calligraphy Collective—which was founded in 1976 to promote the study, practice and appreciation of the art—has worked with the Newberry annually for two decades. The partnership helps the library highlight its own gems, says Paul Gehl, curator of the Newberry’s calligraphy collection. “We’ve had a large historic collection going back 500 or 600 years that deals with the history of printing and the book,” he says. “If the show functions for us as an institution, it does so by bringing people upstairs to the reading room [to the permanent collection].”
Gehl has other reasons for getting excited about the show. He’s in charge of the Newberry’s Purchase Prize, a $1,500 allowance—which the Chicago Calligraphy Collective matches—that enables the library to acquire a new piece from the show each year. “The prize is fun for me, of course, because it means I get to go shopping,” Gehl says. “And there’s the added pleasure of announcing the prize. It’s the one time of year I can be sure that everybody will be hanging on to my every word—at least until I announce the name,” he says.
The Purchase Prize, which is the only one of its kind in the U.S., will be awarded at the show’s opening reception Saturday 4. Besides supporting the artists, the award has also given the collective’s reputation a boost. “It’s really been remarkable over the past ten years; the show has grown in prestige, size and quality, and the club has grown in terms of national membership,” Gehl says. “It’s not just a local group as it was years ago.”
The collectiveboasts about 250 members locally: Students, teachers, graphic designers, professional artists and hobbyists make up the core of the half-dozen or so outposts in the Chicago area, including a group that works out of the Portage Park Center for the Arts on the Northwest Side.
As calligraphy’s popularity grows, Gehl says there is still a message that the library has difficulty getting across. “The exhibit is there for the pleasure of everyone, but we really do invite people to come and look at the things we’ve bought out of the show or the many other calligraphic items we own,” he says. “I think people are shy about that. People have this idea about art as strictly being on the wall, but these pieces really have to be sat and read, not just looked at under glass.”
The writing’s on the wall through Apr 1 at the Newberry Library.