What Evert taught me
March 22, 2009
Book inscription from Dutch calligrapher, Evert van Dijk
One of my oldest and dearest friends here in Holland is an impassioned calligrapher and retired teacher of handicapped children.
My encounter with him when I first came to live here changed my life as an artist irrevocably. Evert saw my dilemma clearly. I was no longer growing artistically because I was caught in the prison of the prevailing aesthetic in the middleclass American milieu where I grew up. I’d learned that art had to be ‘beautiful’ and that my calligraphy had to be as close to perfection as the human hand would allow.
Evert, with his wonderfully ebullient personality and outspoken views, blasted through that shell of pretense and released my authenticity. I think this is the task of all true teachers and mentors.
This altered view is also what releases calligraphy from craft and lifts it to art. My letters and mark making became much more expressive of who I was, and this had a ripple effect throughout my life; one I am only truly coming to understand about 20 years later.
In the article I am writing about art and dementia care, this theme of authenticity keeps reappearing.
Artists accept people with dementia as completely whole, viable, interesting human beings, and therefore often elicit lucid repsonses where trained staff have failed. In an art session, the person ‘s markmaking is seen in the context of authenticity rather than conventional aesthetics. I am not after a pretty picture (this would expose the person and me to the potential of ‘failure’) instead, I look for interaction and engagement. The rules change, a person’s raw and spontaneous line becomes the new context for ‘beautiful’. The Japanese have a philosphy of aesthetics based on this called Wabi Sabi*.
It is the ability to see the worth in something or someone just as they are without requiring that they fit a preconceived ideal.
*Wabi Sabi is an asethetic of the fragile, weathered and transient. It is the opposite of the Western tendency to aspire to the imposing, large and powerful. We idealize a perfect rose in bloom, Wabi Sabi cherishes the rose past its prime: a chipped flea market wooden table with flaking paint as opposed to the latest design statement in glass and chrome.