A Finite Brush with Time

This interview with Alex Kerr was conducted by Patricia McNaughton (Pasadena) An American who has spent most of his life in Southeast Asia, Alex Kerr is an international business consultant, author of two books and many monographs, and also a calligrapher with a unique style of artistic expression. An exhibition of some of his recent work was shown in the Pasadena Center's Shumei Hall Gallery from April 12 through June 2, 2002. His calligraphy is notable for his use of mixed colors in addition to the traditional black ink, along with dripped pigments of gold and silver into the wet ink. On the opening day of his calligraphy exhibit, Patricia McNaughton interviewed Mr. Kerr on behalf of the SHUMEI Magazine.

Shumei Magazine: How did you get started in calligraphy?

Alex Kerr: When I was nine, and living in Alexandria, VA, which is near Washington, D.C. my father was a career officer in the Navy, and he was stationed at the Pentagon then. I was attending a private school that decided to be very modern, so they taught us Chinese. We had to learn many of the basic Chinese characters, writing them each over 100 times. Most of the other children were quite bored with this task, but I found copying the strokes rather like art exercises and enjoyed their beauty. When I was twelve, my father was posted to Yokohama, Japan; so my learning of the Chinese characters was immediately adaptable into Japanese written language.

S. M: I understand that you have an unusual approach to traditional Japanese calligraphy.

A. K: Historically, calligraphy was a skill that one first practiced to achieve technical mastery. At that level, one could then be free to express individual interpretations of these characters. There is an old Chinese expression, "Calligraphy is a portrait of the heart --a painting of the heart." So in a sense, calligraphy is seen as an expression of one's inner being. It was also a type of amusement. Rather than being an artistic career or occupation, the practice of calligraphy was an activity one did in spare time. Like bubbles floating on the surface of a person's major career pursuit, calligraphy was an entertaining style of expressing oneself indirectly through the disciplined and stylized strokes of an ink-filled brush onto coated paper. Historically, no one had a career as a calligrapher.

S. M: Did people also practice calligraphy as a form of meditation?

A. K: Yes, they did. They used to copy sutras. Somewhat like the chanting of ancient Japanese during the Shumei Sampai, the individual became absorbed and focused on the experience of doing the brush strokes of the sutra he or she was copying.

S. M: So it's not merely a matter of the physical action of creating a character, but instead it's an experience that involves body, mind, and spirit in this holistic experience. Is that approach to calligraphy still the model in today's activity?

A. K: It's good that the art has been formally organized and preserved. Unfortunately, much of the opportunity for individual interpretation has been abandoned in recent times. Now people think that calligraphy is a very serious activity, that you must make each stroke in the absolutely correct way, with no allowance for personal variation. The discipline has become more important than any freedom of expression or pleasure one might bring to the art form.

S. M: Do you see any hope for that freedom of expression to return to the practice of calligraphy?

A. K: Fortunately, it never went away totally. There are people in both Japan and China doing very creative forms of calligraphy. However, in formal classes, both Japanese and Chinese friends report that their teachers took a very rigid approach to the style of the characters. No flexibility seems to be allowed, no matter how skillful the student may have become.

S. M: That sounds like the way that some American art teachers instruct young children. Trees must be green; lines constrain expression, and so forth. I call it the "coloring-within-the-lines" syndrome. Some people spend their whole lives attempting to comply or rebel against what originally may have seemed a helpful method for developing children's creativity.

A. K: Exactly. You might think of calligraphy as similar to learning music. You do need to develop skills in music basics, harmony, and perhaps the discipline of a particular instrument. That mastery is necessary before individual inspiration and interpretation can be expressed. Just as you might want your child to hear great musicians and orchestras. I'd like to see calligraphy students be inspired by the great calligraphy artists, as they are learning to master the necessary basic elements.

S. M: On television, I saw a documentary of Japanese artists. One of them was a child of twelve who was reported never to have had formal lessons. He seemed to have a natural ability, and thought of his calligraphy as "just scribbling."

A. K: Yes, again it's like learning music. A few children seem able to play the piano or violin, for example, apparently having only watched or listened to another person, or perhaps heard a piece on radio or television. There are always exceptional persons with such spontaneous creativity. I'd like to see ordinary people experience calligraphy with the freedom of jazz or "blues" --to maintain the analogy. I'd like to have them experience the "fun" of doing calligraphy, rather than just discipline and frustration. As I mentioned earlier, there was a period in both Japan and China when this component of spontaneity and creativity were encouraged. In my calligraphy practice, I emulate this approach of the ancient literati. I enjoy using various colors of inks or dyes, rather than just black ink on white paper. Again, the doing of calligraphy is rather like singing an operatic aria --the performer has trained his or her voice, and memorized the words and musical notes, but the actual singing is over in just a moment --a "once-in-a-lifetime" experience. And with calligraphy, I look at the paper and wonder, "What's going to happen this time?" You really can't plan ahead; although I know that I want to create a certain character or group of characters, the results are quite unexpected.

S. M: Is there anything unusual about the paper you use?

A. K: I do use rice paper from Japan, but with a special surface that prevents the ink from being absorbed into the paper. Traditionally, calligraphers in China and Japan coated the rice paper with egg whites or glue made from seaweed or animals, so that one can paint very delicate or fine lines without any "bleeding" into the paper surface. Modern rice paper isn't actually made from rice, but from fibers. And this glue coating isn't used much in Japan currently, so that's one aspect of my art that's different from the majority of contemporary artists. Originally, I coated the paper myself, until finally I found a commercially-made one that satisfied me. You can still buy the glues in Kyoto, shaped in cubes, beads, or elongated sticks. You boil this in water, use a brush to coat the paper, and then hang it up to dry --it's quite an elaborate process.

S. M: Do you use a special brush to coat the paper's surface?

A. K: Yes, there are special brushes that are wide and flat that you coat the paper with; and it must be a soft brush to soak up the glue so you can thoroughly fill and coat the paper surface.

S. M: What else is different about your particular style from that of traditional calligraphy?

A. K: The biggest difference is that I mix gold, silver, and other colors of pigments into the ink while it's still wet; and I also use many different mixtures of ink colors than just the traditional black ink. What might be comparable with traditional Asian fine art is that the painting would use many varied colors; and then the traditional black calligraphy would be applied --perhaps in the form of a poem or explanation of the painting. The technique I use is called tarashikomi, which literally means "dripping in." It was a technique used by Rinpa painters, as in the famous iris screen. This technique was favored because it was closer to nature than painting everything in. For example, if you were painting a maple leaf, you'd do it basically in green and maybe a little brown; and then you'd drip red or yellow into the wet paint, which would then spread out and really look more like a natural leaf.

S. M: Do you use any special ink or pigments?

A. K: Yes, I use finely-ground minerals, like cinnabar, which creates that magical Chinese red color. You have to grind it by hand. I also use gold and silver powders; and a few natural items --such as kachinio, which is a tiny insect from Portugal. You can buy a little vial of these dried insects, which produce a fantastic pinkish-purple color after they're ground up, and sometimes I even use poster paints --whatever seems to work.

S. M: Is calligraphy your career now?

A. K: No, like those calligraphers from the past, I'm actually a writer, art collector, and art dealer, and involved in managing cultural events of various types all over Asia. Not just in Japan, but I'm also in Thailand, Singapore, and Cambodia --that's my primary career. The calligraphy is an added, experiential aspect of my life; but not the main focus. Calligraphy was for fun! A lot of calligraphy was done at parties, and I have collections of calligraphy that was done by court nobles, which would be done on occasions when everyone got together socially. They would each write a poem, and then do some calligraphy. And then the literati would often get their friends together, and each paint a scene on large pieces of paper, which might eventually be mounted on a standing screen when someone could afford to do so. Amusingly, I have some calligraphies that are signed with the remark "totally drunk."

S. M: The screen that you painted on yesterday --is there something unusual about it?

A. K: Yes, we found it in Japan. It was probably made in the 1930s, but had never been written on, other than the small specks of gold. The saying that I chose to paint is from Confucius, "Value the old, and know the new." Actually, that's what I'm doing with the calligraphy --in some ways, it's a very old tradition, and in other ways it's quite new in that my methods are not traditional. For instance, I think I'm the first person to use colored inks.

S. M: And, in fact, your screen represents just what it says --you have an old screen, with some new calligraphy --a "happening" of the old and the new combined.

A. K.: If you had to define calligraphy, you'd say it was writing a word, or ideas. The real magic is that you're not only looking at a thought, but also a beautiful shape, design, or strokes. For instance, the character that reads "round" means "well-rounded," or that in personal relations you're gentle, without "sharp edges." It also means "world," and any of those concepts that come to mind when we think of "round." So, because it's a word, and also a thought, it becomes abstract --the character expands in various directions.

S. M: So, first you as the artist have the pleasure of the experience; and then the viewer can see it on many different levels --as a piece of art, as a colorful representation of a word, as a personal experience located symbolically in the word itself.

A. K: Yes, for example, the character for "heart" evokes a personal response from each viewer. I actually wrote the character "heart" twice, with a little gold added after the characters were drawn. To me, it meant "two hearts together."

S. M: And I "read" into those characters "open hearts to one another." One doesn't have to say that response --instead, I felt it as I responded to the calligraphy.

A. K: Of course, that's true of all art; but calligraphy encourages the mind to wander even further from the specific words expressed into a larger realm of ideas conveyed by the words. It's as though you're having two experiences at once --you're looking at something, and also you're thinking something also.

S. M: Before the placards with the English meanings of the characters were posted, I looked at the calligraphy and imagined my own concept, depending on the color, the shape, and the seeming depth. So, that can be yet another level --even without knowing what the character represents, the viewer can still be involved with the artistic experience.

A. K: Yes! Someone said that "a line is a force"; and calligraphy concerns a line moving through space with a dynamism that carries a force with it.

S. M: So this is an active encounter, both for the one who creates the calligraphy and for the one who views it, in each case almost like a kinesthetic or visual dance. Does the particular color of ink that you choose bear a relationship to the concept you're painting?

A. K: Yes. There's a group of three red characters, all of which have the heart radical, or component part, on the left portion of them. All three of them mean "joy and ecstasy," although they are each written differently on the right side of the completed character. Then there's "cloud and water," which are painted in a bluish-green color. That was the color I felt was appropriate at the time I was doing that character. If I'd used a different color, the viewer might get quite a different feeling. Of course, black is really the ultimate color. That's why I wouldn't have used any color except black on the screen that I mentioned earlier. Black has the real power --the contrast between the depth of black, which you can go "inside" of in a different way than any color might evoke. Black is the presence of all colors, although white is the presence of all colors in a different way. I've done calligraphy in white. There's a huge category of both Chinese and Japanese art, which are rubbings from old monuments. In these, the background is black and the calligraphy is white. The artists wet the paper and pressed it into all of the cracks, then take a little pad of black ink and dab on the surface, after which they'd lift the paper off --so the inside of the cracks is white, while the larger area of background is black. There's quite a different sense of the calligraphy done in this manner rather than in the black method.

S. M: How do you see your future in regard to calligraphy?

A. K: I'll just keep doing it. I have commissions from people who ask for a particular character. A recent request was for the character for "journey" or "quest." And I give them to friends; or we have parties where everyone does some calligraphy and listens to music; or I may have a show, such as this exhibit. And, of course, I'll continue with my "real" mission of my career.

S. M: Wouldn't it be a surprise if your "real" mission turned out to be the calligraphy?

A. K: There are instances like that from the past, where the individual was a court authority during his life, but we regard him mainly for his calligraphy, perhaps not even realizing that he was essentially involved in another activity. So, perhaps in a few hundred years, the answer to that question about me may be different than the one I give today. For me, one of the major purposes of calligraphy is to bring joy to people; and that's one of my purposes for using these colors --to make the work beautiful as well as visually interesting.

In addition to his calligraphy art, Alex Kerr has written two books, "Lost Japan," and "Dogs and Demons," both lamenting the decline of traditional Japanese values in favor of Western technology. For those people interested in the more traditional Japanese rural life experienced by expatriates, there are two recommended books. "The Road to Sata," written by British author Alan Booth in the 1980s, describes his hitch-hiking journey over the entire length of Japan from north to south. Reversing direction to follow the cherry blossom season, is Canadian hitch-hiker Will Ferguson's "Hokkaido Highway Blues." Both books describe Japan's beauty and traditions, as well as some of the serious concerns mentioned by Alex Kerr. All three authors are "outsiders" in love with Japan.