Andrew Proebstle: Calligraphy

My motivation for learning calligraphy as a CIP came from a Japanese professor I had at Brown University.   She was the person who introduced it to me, got me to go out and buy a brush pen, and encouraged me to practice it in my spare time. Up until now, all the calligraphy I had done was all amateur practice because I was just writing with a vague notion of proper form and really just trying to get a feel for handling the brush. Therefore, receiving proper instruction while in Japan was an opportunity I could not pass up.

However, my initial expectations of calligraphy instruction were quite unreasonable. First, I had hoped to receive one-on-one instruction at a location where I could relax and focus easily. Furthermore, I dreamed of being able to work extensively and reach a considerable level of skill in a short amount of time. Then, by copying classical works and adding my own style, I would be experiencing Japanese traditional artistic culture at its finest.

Things didn’t work out that perfectly, and I’m happy that they didn’t. I don’t have the time or money for any kind of extensive one-on-one training, and it’s hard to beat the price I got for four sessions a month. Of course, at that rate there was no way I could get as good as I wanted to, is what I had thought. To the contrary, and thanks to the wonderful teachers I’m lucky to study under, I’ve been able to improve surprisingly quickly. In these past three months I’ve made it from practicing single, basic strokes to writing haiku and semi-complex characters. As far as experiencing traditional culture and art goes, I’m more that happy to settle for experiencing modern culture instead.

At first, I had been incredibly skeptical of being able to observe anything about modern Japanese culture by learning calligraphy. After all, how much can one classroom at 6pm on Tuesdays with two teachers and on average ten-year old students say about the culture at large? Perhaps non-surprisingly, seeing kids learning calligraphy in Japan reminds me of my own experience from that age. Most of the time, it’s the parents that are making their kids go to lessons because that’s what they did when they were kids. The kids who prioritize having fun over artistic discipline spend the time goofing off, while the few that choose to devote themselves are praised for doing so.

Instead of the kids, it was the teachers that I was really interested in. My mom is a public school teacher in America, and through her I’ve become well aware of the American teaching process. While the calligraphy classroom is in no way affiliated with the public Japanese educational system to my knowledge, it’s important to note that in general, at least one private calligraphy teacher exists in any local community. They are as much a part of the primary educational system as the schools are, but their integration with the local community means that the teacher-student and teacher-parent relationships differ from the norm. For example, because the parents live no more than a few blocks away, the teachers not only know the parents well, but also will not hesitate to call the parents in the event that their child is misbehaving. As I still have one more semester to study calligraphy, I hope to develop these observations even further.

2 thoughts on “Andrew Proebstle: Calligraphy

  1. As you know (having read my blog!) I chose to do a volunteering CIP rather than lessons or entering a circle, so thank you for the insight! I think being that your experience was a little different from your expectations is good too. Do you find that your instructors treat you on par with the 10 year old’s in your class? I am speaking personally from my experience at the Center in asking this, actually. I found that, although manageable, not having a full command of Japanese sometimes led people to “baby” me through some things that a native speaker of my age would not face. I was wondering if there is something similar in the ways that your position as a foreign student had an influence in that way? I want to see your calligraphy before I go!! (As a lefty, my ability to partake is severely handicapped so I am rather jealous 😀 )

  2. Hey Andy, thanks for the comment!
    Regarding how I feel I’m treated, I think it all comes down to how you present yourself and treat others. The 10 year-olds can be quite rowdy and rude at times, so the teacher is often quite stern with them. On the other hand, I make sure to be as respectful as I can be and am in return treated with respect. I never really felt “babied” at all, and there were a lot of times where what my teacher was trying to tell me made no sense. We would try our best to communicate, and in the end she would be the one to appologize first for trying to explain things in a way that didn’t end up making sense to me right away. Often times it’s hard for us to know what won’t makes sense to the other person–I find this happens a lot when I speak in English with my Japanese friends. Hope this answered your question!