Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Visual Aids

By Bonnie Arant Ertelt

NOVEMBER 17, 1997:  It makes sense that words and letters form a major part of Jewish and Christian iconography. After all, one of basic tenets in both religions is, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

"Scribes of Hope," the current show at Belmont University's Leu Art Gallery, presents the word, quite literally, from the Judeo-Christian viewpoint; the contributing artists include some of the best calligraphers in this country and Canada, all of them members of the group Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA). CIVA's purpose is to expand the relationship between art and faith by generating artworks in a variety of media. This show, cosponsored by the Nashville Calligrapher's Guild, focuses specifically on calligraphy, the art form of Christian scribes for centuries.

It's easy to make the connection between letter forms and iconography. After all, all writing evolved from pictures--visual representations of worldly objects. The cave drawings in Lascaux or the Anasazi drawings in the American West are prehistoric vestiges of communiqus for people who, no doubt, knew how to read them. We can only speculate on their meaning now; our own language has evolved so much that alphabetical drawings and symbols have become mere abstractions.

As writing has developed over the past 5,000 years, the visual element has been lost to the point that printed letters no longer have any visual correspondence with what they signify. But the first pre-writing systems--Sumerian, Egyptian, Hittite, and Chinese--all developed from pictures. Of course, Chinese and Japanese characters still retain highly visual connections, and the calligraphic forms of words in these languages constitute an art unto themselves. Artists in these countries consider calligraphy an essential component in conveying the visual concept of their works. For them, the visual and the verbal are inseparable.

Although the Eastern tradition has little connection to Christianity, this particular approach can be seen in the best, and most intelligent, pieces in the Leu show. Like good illustrations in a picture book, these works communicate other meanings behind the words, bringing to our attention things we might not have noticed had we simply read a typeset passage in a book. Beth Weiss' "I Stand at the Door and Knock" does this in a most subtle way. Words are lettered on a dark background, while to the left is a slit of lighter color. Without actually drawing a door, Weiss has manipulated her shading to conjure an image of light emanating from a cracked opening.

The painted word Leana Fay's "Ask," a mixed-media piece that suggests the tension between words as a means of communication and words as pictures.
Jeremy Botts, a recent graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, uses words as an abstracted design element working in tandem with color and composition. "Esther (to be read at Purim)" showcases the text in English, but without vowels--in an approximation, the artist says, "of the task of reading the Hebrew Torah." It's difficult to tell whether he also represented the words from left to right, since one only sees Roman consonants, but the attempt is an interesting one. It's clear that Botts was trying to place his work, and therefore the viewer, within a context that many Christians sometimes fail to acknowledge--that of Christianity's Jewish origins.

Sandra Bowdon of New York also looks at her work from a holistic viewpoint, thinking about how the images of the words themselves can serve the written passage. Her works combine calligraphy, handwriting, collage, and collagraphy--a printmaking method in which the plate for the print is built up with glued layers in the manner of a collage. In "A New Song," she combines sheets of music with passages, handwritten in pencil, from Psalms 149 and 150. In the center are collagraphed panels with the same psalm passages; these panels are then gold-leafed and surfaced with red highlights. By presenting the biblical quotation in these two different contexts, Bowdon addresses the tension between words as linguistic signifiers and words as images. Significantly, the handwritten passages are not the most noticeable, while the collagraphed letters aren't even identifiable as words. But as with Botts' work, the meaning of the passages is clear from the outset. Following the psalms' command, Bowdon is singing a new "song," praising God through the expression of her own creativity.

Yet another artist, Kristin Malcolm Berry, follows a similar approach. Her works coalesce around biblical passages, but the words themselves aren't necessarily accessible to the viewer. In Berry's case, this is because she uses the original Greek of the New Testament. As she explains in her artist's statement, the unfamiliar alphabet reminds us "that the Bible comes to us through the vehicles of cultures other than our own."

In "The Stones Would Shout, Luke 19:40" and "Simon Peter's Net, John 21:11," Berry employs a circular composition in which Greek letters flow out of the middle of the design. The images themselves--of rocks, of fish in a net--are simplified and often repeated within borders, accompanied by geometric patterns rendered in undiluted watercolor. Berry, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, grew up in the Philippines, and it's obvious from her handling of the images that she draws from a variety of cultural influences. Native American, Philippine, and Hmong sources combine with her own Scandinavian and Midwestern origins.

Edward Johnston once said, "While it is the general function of the craftsman to make a thing legible, it is his particular function as a decorator to make it becoming." Certainly, any viewer will look with joy upon these beautifully made letters. But with the best works in this show, there is more to look on than attractive letter forms. Through their designs, these artists magnify and deepen the message they're trying to get across. In a faith in which the word is made manifest, this is indeed an effective way to witness.

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