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Battle of the brush - life and art of calligraphy

by Katja Silverd, staff writer


On the floor with knees bent under her, sits a young woman—the supreme commander—of Japanese ancestry, in her mid-20s, her back straight, yet relaxed. She seems to be comfortable. Her face looks peaceful, and her breathing is deep and relaxed.

She opens her eyes and takes in the sight before her: a battlefield, a weapon, a castle, armor. Silent, the supreme commander decides to attack.

Click on image for larger view

This is the Battle of the Brush—calligraphy, a 6,000-year-old living language of the heart and mind. The paper is the battlefield, the brush is the weapon, the ink stone the castle, the ink stick the armor, and the heart and mind of the calligrapher is the supreme commander herself.


Meet Rie Takamasu from Yokkaichi, Japan. This extraordinary woman is unique and one cannot help but like her immediately. She is forthright, bold, sensitive, compassionate, and has a great passion for what she does; yet, she does not show her emotions openly. “In calligraphy,” she explains, “if one draws thick lines, one is said to show more emotions. With regards to my calligraphy, I am not one who draws thick lines.”


As she reaches for the brush and wets the ink stone with small amounts of water, grinding the ink stick with circular motion in order to make an adequate supply of ink for one session, she looks focused, yet relaxed, as in a state of mind where peace is present.

With the brush prepared, holding it in her right hand, she pauses for a brief moment, overlooking the paper, determining on where to start. With her back still perfectly straight, she holds the brush with three fingers, and starts to draw in the upper right-hand corner of the paper. Her stroke is reminiscent of a smooth river flowing from one part of the character to another, her brush never leaving the paper. Some parts of the character she draws have thicker lines than others, and most of the ends of the lines making up the characters curve a little.

When she finishes the first character, she goes on to draw the second, located in the lower right-hand corner. When it is done, she continues with the third, located in the upper left, and finishes with the fourth character in the lower left-hand corner of the paper. She does this with the same perfection, and calmness, over and over again, always holding the brush at a nearly perfect 90-degree angle.

Takamasu (or Rie-san, which is a polite way to address her, or anyone from Japan) knows what she is talking about. She has studied calligraphy for 12 years and has earned third dan level. “I have one more level to study before becoming a teacher,” she said.

Learning calligraphy takes patience, lots of patience. “Every Saturday after school I used to go to calligraphy practice. I had to finish 10 of these ‘battlefields’ and show them to my teacher—first five, then three, then two—before I could go out to play with my friends,” she continued.

Concentration is something she mastered through the many years of practicing calligraphy. Seeing her concentrate, one wonders how in the world she does it. “In calligraphy, one has to learn how to concentrate. Your legs have to be folded under you, and sitting on them for a long time, as we have all experienced, makes them sore.”

Rie-san admitted. “It is a learning process,” she added with laughter. “The way you hold the brush and draw your characters, the way you sit, the way you concentrate, all show your personality. If you are not straight all through— you were, and still are, considered a lazy person with a sloppy personality.”

In Japan, character is important and should be instilled early in childhood, and calligraphy is a way to teach it. Therefore, calligraphy is on the school curricula throughout Japan.

“My parents wanted me to be able to write nicer and better, especially when attending formal occasions such as weddings,” says Rie-san. “In the guest books, which everyone will be able to view, if there is anyone who has written with poor character, they will forever be remembered as shameful people.” On the other hand, she also explained, if one can write beautifully, one is considered educated.

In this battle, Rie-san will be remembered for the beautiful character she has, her artistic sensitivity, her compassion, determination, energy, and perfect simplicity. She is truly an inspiration.




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