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Sulfuric smoke curled into the air as the boys unplugged their ears after setting off the firecrackers. One boy, curious about the charred remnants, unfurled the blackened paper to reveal strange writing, nothing like the ABC’s he knew so well. Carl Robertson was fascinated to find that the firecrackers were made from Chinese newspapers, and he remembers thinking, “I want to be able to read that.”
Today, Carl is a professor of Chinese and Chinese calligraphy at Southwestern University. He compares Chinese calligraphy to music. The characters are similar to musical notes—a flow of black lines, dots, and strokes set against crisp, white paper—that create language and art.
But in the years between the firecrackers and the teaching, Carl had to learn this language that so captivated him. As a student at Brigham Young University, he chose Chinese to fulfill his language requirement. “I walked into that classroom,” Carl says, “and it was just the most amazing thing. I fell in love with Chinese.”
After one year of college, he set off on his two-year missionary trip with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His destination was selected for him, but what a perfect choice—Taiwan. And while living in Taiwan, Carl truly began to discover Chinese calligraphy.
Carl says, “Calligraphy was such a part of the culture; it tied into everything.” At parties, he recalls, there were always sheets of paper rolled out for guests to write messages to commemorate the event. In the homes, though he lived in a poor area and the houses were sparsely furnished, there was always a scroll of calligraphy hanging on the wall. And at Chinese New Year, he says, “the whole complexion of the city changes.” The storefront doorposts and lintels are adorned with long red strips of cloth, on which calligraphers write poetic sayings. “All along the streets,” he says, “you’d have people sitting with their little trays, writing.”
One day, during his lunch break, Carl decided to buy some supplies for himself and try his hand at calligraphy. “The paper would be for sale at the stationary stores,” he says, along with models of the Chinese characters to practice copying.
The essential supplies include ink—which used to be available only in stick form—an ink brush, an ink stone, and rice paper. These are called the Four Treasures of the Study. Carl explains that “historically, these are the materials that allowed you to become well-known or even to have a job or be a scholar. And very early on—around 200 to 300 AD—calligraphy became an art form, so you could make a very good living being a calligraphy master.”
Carl continued mastering his own calligraphy, and today he shares his knowledge and passion for the art with his students. He is often amazed by the beautiful work his students create in just one semester. He starts them off with six strokes that are the basis for forming Chinese characters. It sounds simple, right? Not so. For instance, the horizontal stroke is not simply a line. There is weight (thickness) at the head and tail of the stroke, with an arc in the middle. While making the stroke, students must hold the brush vertically, creating the outline of the form by using the belly of the brush rather than the tip.
From basic strokes, the students begin learning simple characters and how to balance those forms on the page. Not only are the inked forms important, but so is the calligrapher’s ability to harmoniously balance the character within the white space. After this, the students work on short phrases. And finally, Carl encourages his students to write spontaneously and to begin creating their own style.
The ultimate goal in calligraphy is to capture the essence of the maker. Carl says, “You’re writing it so that someone in the future will know your heart.” Technique goes hand in hand with fluidity in the creation of the characters. This spontaneity allows the true expression of the artist to resonate through a work. Carl says it’s rather like a concert pianist whose technical proficiency frees him to lend his unique interpretation to the music.
A red seal, similar to the signature on a painting, gives the finishing touch to a piece of calligraphy. No work is official without one. Each calligrapher has his own Chinese name carved into the end of a stone, and then the seal is stamped onto the paper with “seal mud,” a paste made with cinnabar, Carl explains.
Carl’s own Chinese name was given to him in Taiwan. He says, “The Chinese name that I was given seemed prophetic. It’s a very noble name, but I always explain to people that I didn’t choose if for myself, so I can be modest and still get to have a great name! It means ‘responsibility, and to see/hope far into the distance.’” It is a fitting name for a man who once tore apart firecrackers to discover a passion and today shares with students the language he discovered within their paper folds.
By Karen Pollard
Photos by Megan Fox