TO A GREAT MASTER IN THE CALLIGRAPHIC AND LIFE ARTS: ALAN BLACKMAN
Updated: Nov 6
Calligraphy master Alan Blackman taught a Chinese brush technique class I took at the oLd basement de young Museum Art School some 40-plus years ago. When I was in my late thirties and into my "serious" stage of a lawyering career in consumer, regulatory, employment, then civil rights law, I decided I wanted to study calligraphy after hours. Art was always a stress-reliever and spirit booster for me, and goddess knows, I needed a fair amount of those when I was a lawyer!
I can't say I was always attracted to letters, and was only exposed to composition principles in my high school art class. My handwriting was atrocious, so perhaps I felt this might help me on that account? Nonetheless, I set out to learn how to make the letters of various alphabets with pens using rigid pen tips, and how to arrange letters artistically on paper. Calligraphy requires a fair amount of hand and arm control and manipulation, and so I pursued classes for a number of years while I developed a tidy little side business for about 15 years, one which I named "Fancy Writing for Plain Folk."
I started by taking a number of basic and other focused calligraphy classes from Selwyn Jones, (pictured immediately below) another de Young Art School master teacher and sterling chap with whom I became friends over the five or more years I studied with him. I even met Selwyn and his partner, Randy Jackson, in Venice one year, and we spent a glorious day there and in Verona soaking up the visual, architectural, and gustatory Italian arts.
Somewhere in my initial five years of study, likely from Selwyn, I heard about brush calligraphy, and Alan Blackman.
Alan was, and remains, a unique personality, a light spirit, a reputed wizard in brush calligraphy, and a Caucasian American, not Chinese. Take one look at his photo and you will immediately see this blithe spirit. To me he was a bit mysterious, too, a man of few and deliberate words as I remember, ones that you had to attend closely to or you would miss something important.
I never knew the background of his huge talent or this particular calligraphic specialty and interest, although I would like to. Alan is now in his 90s and living in his long-time house in Noe Valley not far from me. I have the intention to reconnect sometime very soon. I'm exceedingly proud to have had the foresight to purchase a colorful piece of Alan's brush calligraphy art and have it imaginatively framed by Lumir Manasek (a dear heart who owned a wonderful art store on Market in the Castro and was himself a master framer and fine artist). It now hangs in my dining room and has faded a bit over the many years:
Brush technique was the most difficult of the calligraphic techniques to learn (gilding letters in 23K gold was the next most difficult and laborious; my first modest attempt is pictured here).
In hindsight and thinking about music, brush calligraphy was rather gruesome, like I imagine learning one of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies or Ravel's marvelous Gaspard de la Nuit up to tempo would be (or name your favorite impossible piano piece!). I labored mightily and was agonizingly slow in putting blobs of black ink down on large pieces of paper. I felt enormously clumsy and incompetent with the floppy brush versus the neat, compact and rigid pen I had grown to love and manipulate rather nicely. I seem to remember that I did not attend his last few classes.
More's the pity. Alan was a master in both the calligraphic arts and in life philosophy. In an earlier blog I mentioned that we students felt frustrated time and again when Alan, with his droll visage and great certitude would issue his ever-pithy, slightly mysterious pearls of wisdom such as "just enough -- but not too much." He never explained what he meant and it did no good to ask. We were supposed to know, or figure it out.
It did not quite come clear to me until some time later that those pearls, while confusingly simple and sparsely offered, applied not only to calligraphy, but to life.
Bruce, whom I secretly call "The Piano Whisperer," and the broker-composer who found the original old shell of my beloved, to-be-rebuilt Steinway "The Duchess," recently happened to find my misspelling of a main character name from Strauss's opera "Salome" in a poem I had written -- and already published -- and he called it to my attention. I was grateful because at least I could correct the spelling in a blog that quoted my poem. His comment made me think about the general matter of making mistakes, which is a good thing to contemplate from time to time -- just enough, but not too much.
Early upon taking up piano lessons mid 2020 I used to get hung up on making mistakes in front of my piano teachers, but going into and out of depression because of it simply exhausted me. After taking Julliard Professor Noa Kageyamas' Psych Essentials of Performance zoom class last January, I gave up being hung up: !no mas! Noa's effective class about 99% cured me of my sad over-obsession with mistakes. The issue is fairly common among us later-life returning instrumental students and can even be devastating or disabling for long-term performing musicians.
When I first started piano lessons I wish I had remembered one significant lesson I learned from Alan.
Beginning calligraphy students waste a ton of paper repeating one letter ad nauseum...and making nothing much more than wobbles across the page. Lots of times learning to control the ink flow in the pen results solely in wobbling blotches...and then comes the dread brush!
I remember one classroom discussion on mistakes. We students were quite surprised to hear Alan say that professional calligraphers make mistakes, even years later! Who knew? And more to the point, they don't necessarily cover up the mistake by trashing the paper and starting again. While there usually is time to toss out and redo one or two envelops of 100 being hand-addressed for a wedding invitation mailing, that doesn't apply to unique art commissions such as a recognition or award certificate or museum display piece. Depending on when the error occurs in the process of creating an art piece, there may be no time left to re-start the project and one must move on to completion. Nor do calligraphers for unique art pieces completely erase their error, although they may employ the most delicate of effective gestures and techniques so as to disturb the texture of the paper the least possible and disguise the snafu.
They do their best, then let it go and deliver the art product with the error visible, and hopefully, discretely disguised or faded.
Alan explained that professionals as well as their aware clients and patrons, accept and allow errors to exist because errors in calligraphy are part of breath and of life.
Movement of the calligrapher's hand, body, and breath are characteristic of human beings, and thus characteristic of their human-made art. Alan told us that discretely visible errors are proof of human-made artwork, and are to be valued, not eschewed.
Trying, observing errors, ameliorating, then letting go short of perfection seem to be the important secrets of the calligraphic art — and life.
Thank you, Alan.
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Two of my favorite older pieces and displayed on my staircase are below.
The "ashes" piece is part of a longer poem by Jack London (and should have been duly credited); my calligraphy business name was "Anneve."
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