David Wurtele: Calligraphy

This semester I joined a calligraphy classroom for my CIP. We met once a week for two hours at varying locations in Kyoto. There is one sensei who sits and does his own work in the front of the class, periodically walking around to check out if the students are making progress with what they are writing. I actually joined a class where most of the students have many years of experience under their belt so I was given a lot of attention as the only first-timer. In terms of linguistic learning, I was at a serious disadvantage because you only speak with the sensei a few short times an hour. Culturally, however, I was able to pick up a lot.

There is a lot of consistency in the way the calligraphy class is held. First, the students arrive, then the sensei. Some students are at the classroom practicing long before the class starts, and the rest come within the five minutes before the start of the class. When students enter, age-related privileges are dropped, and despite differing skill level between the students, there is no concept of senpai or kouhai. There is just student and teacher.

In addition, I learned that you are not supposed to look at others’ work unless the sensei shows it off. Every now and then if the sensei wants to encourage a student, he will hold up the work, display it in the air for the others in the classroom to see, and remark that he is impressed, to which everyone nods and gives an emphatic one or two word agreement. I was surprised to see that the rest of the class will stop what they are doing each time to encourage the student who wrote the character. The reason I am so surprised is that unless someone is whispering with the sensei the room is totally silent. The idea is that every student should be totally focused with a very serious mindset when writing a character. As a beginner I have found it very difficult to get the right balance of focus without overthinking it, and when I do get in that zone, I am very reluctant to get out of it. So for every student to have that focus be interrupted so often by the sensei yet graciously smile every time without fail demonstrates incredible willpower.

I am fortunate to have learned a lot about the atmosphere and customs of calligraphy classrooms, but I am most happy that I can return home not just knowing more brushstrokes but having a deeper appreciation for calligraphy as a whole, as both a physical and mental skill.

4 thoughts on “David Wurtele: Calligraphy

  1. David–sounds like you had a truly new and interesting experience in your calligraphy class! Thanks for sharing 🙂 It’s interesting how the classroom culture is so different not only among different countries, but different fields.
    Why is it that in your class students shouldn’t look at each others work? Is it a matter of focus and individuality? Also, did you find that you had to use a lot of keigo when speaking with your sensei?

    • Hi Chelsea!

      I think not looking at others’ work before they are done is a lot about respecting each others’ focus, and probably a little about privacy is mixed in there too, but I can’t say for sure.

      I started out using keigo but my sensei quickly told me I didn’t need to. I thought maybe it was just me but the other students don’t use it either. I mean there are small basic where you say itadaku instead of morau but nobody is saying omenikakaru or anything like that.

  2. Sounds like you had a very Japanesey CIP David, good for you! What kinds of words did you normally write? Why were the classes at varying locations? I enjoyed my CIP but I also wish I had done some kind of traditional art and calligraphy is especially impressive especially to non-Japanese people. It’s also nice that the teacher recognized that you were a beginner and helped you out a lot even though he is a distinguished pro!

    • Thanks Sophie, it was a lot of fun.

      I was focused on the basic strokes and different kanji that use them, but recently I’ve been doing different phrases from a book my sensei gave me. It’s not super planned because it’s just one semester but it would be very easy to plan it more properly if someone had the initiative.

      Yeah I can’t say enough good things about my sensei, he has been crazy encouraging the entire time I’ve been there. I once said half-joking that I couldn’t write something and he told me that’s something I am not allowed to say there. 🙂