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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Calligraphy Projects - Pictures!

As you might remember from a post a long ways back, I've always wanted to get into calligraphy. Well, part of the reason I've been MIA for the last couple of weeks is that my beautiful older sister recently made her first vows as a sister of St. Benedict's Center in Still River, MA. What exactly do you give your sister on such an occasion? It was the equivalent of her wedding day; as a Bride of Christ, she wore our mother's wedding dress and veil and a wreath of white roses. Believe it or not, Brides of Christ don't have a gift registry at Macy's. My mother, wise lady that she is, asked if I might be able to draw a few verses from a Psalm that could be nicely framed and given to my Sister Sister on her big day. As is usually the case when I get going on something, I started out very excited, and then got very quickly discouraged and had almost resolved to just print out the darn thing in a fancy font. Luckily, getting the proper pens and tools for everything partway through the project made it much much easier. Allow me to say, then, you can do it too! Here's a little photo journal for you of various steps along the way. Enjoy, and get crackin.

I started out by copying the shapes of the letters of other calligraphy that I had seen and liked. Of course, working with a mechanical pencil and lined legal pad is hardly the proper way to go, but I figured I'd start cheap and work my way into the pricier materials as I figured out what I was doing:


I wanted some sort of symbolic motif worked into the capital letters, hence the grape vines. As it turned out, in the end I found something I liked better. This is why we practice, right? Eventually, I moved onto uni-ball black pens and printer paper and I continued to experiment with the shapes of letters. I'm still not satisfied with the final outcome of some of them, but it makes for pretty scratch paper:


I wasn't sure initially which colors I wanted to incorporate, especially as I hadn't done any shopping for appropriate pens and markers, and was only working with what I had in my pencil cup. Green seemed like a natural choice (growth, new life, springtime, my assigned color at work and so the color pen I have most of), and in looking at images of old manuscripts it seemed pretty consistent that red and black were the colors of choice. So, ultimately I decided to use black for the majority of the text, and use red for key phrases. At this point, I was still on printer paper, and still tracing the outlines of the letters and filling them in with a pen. It was tedious.



It was about this time that one of my out-laws over at Like Mother Like Daughter (Pippo and newborn little Mary are my niece and nephew; the Captain is my older brother) had her first gorgeous little girl, Evangeline Rose. Needing to mix things up a bit and work with some different text, I went on the hunt for some appropriate scripture passages for the new baby. I melded various not-so-racy verses from several chapters of the Song of Songs, putting together a passage that wasn't too long, and seemed like the right thing for a little girl to grow up hearing. Then, of course, I had to figure out the colors and motifs appropriate for that passage.

The last line speaks of the sun and the moon, comparing the "she" in question to the beauty of each, so I knew I wanted to work in a sun and a moon. I google image searched variations on "medieval sun and moon" and "illuminated manuscript sun and moon" and came up with a hybrid melding of the two that I like pretty well. This first draft of the passage is done with highlighter (that's that garish yellow - you know, what I had in my pencil cup) on the back of a piece of lined scrap paper from my desk. I drew over the lines with a heavy dark pen so I could see them through the paper - I can't do this properly without guidelines! I traced the outline for the sun around the bottom of the mug on my desk. Not sure if I should leave the moon blue or color it over with silver, I left it half and half so I could decide on it later.

Next, I finally got myself some proper utensils. A word on those: Michael's was the natural choice for me, but I'm sure, if you want to get serious about this, probably going to a proper art supplies store is a better bet. Not feeling adequately confident enough to handle calligraphy pens with free flowing ink, I went the beginner's route and got calligraphy markers. I liked them because they came in a pack and so were the more economical way to go, and also because they had two tips to each pen. I didn't like them because the nibs of the markers, especially the black as it was the most often used, wore down and became imprecise far too quickly. That being said, I do recommend them if you're starting to learn:

I also got Faber-Castell pens in silver and gold. They don't have calligraphy tips, but they do lend that metallic sheen that I wanted in imitation of the gold-leaf that the real old manuscripts used. Having acquired the proper writing utensils, I got out a piece of my Crane & Co. stationary to see how the pens and markers would react on thicker, grainier paper. I guess I also hoped that it would maybe even possibly be a final draft.


Guess what? It wasn't a final draft. For one thing, though it doesn't show up so much here, the sun came out looking kind of green, and also way too heavy. I didn't like the "O"s at the beginnings of the sentences, there wasn't enough room on the page to write all of what I wanted to, the last sentence wasn't a question but I ended it with a question mark anyway, and the question mark didn't even look like a question mark. Back to the drawing board.

Re-estimating how much space I would need to fit in all of the text, I took out another piece of stationary, measured out the lines, and voila! It came together. There were definitely still a few little mistakes, but that's to be expected. The next step was to find a border that meant something, and one that I liked. Ultimately, I decided on a take-off of something I found in one of my all-time favorite books (found in a used book store near Dallas several years ago):

Allow me to forewarn you that the author expects you to make pigments out of bits of egg, paint on vellum, and purchase gold leaf for your projects. If you have the funding for such endeavors, more power to you. That being said, I've learned more than I ever would have known about illuminated manuscripts by flipping through this book. Also, it's just really pretty. So, looking for something meaningful to add a little decorative border, I stumbled across these: 


I ended up going with a variation of the border suggested on the far right. I liked the idea of incorporating the "good works strawberries" because they were pretty and symbolic, and I liked the blue and gold twisty curlies (I'm sure there's a real name for that) because they weren't too tricky and because blue and gold are good reminders of Mary. So, this was the final product for Evangeline Rose:

I added the fleur-de-lis in the corners to bring out the Marian imagery more -- unfortunately, I think they came out looking a little like the squat dancing flowers in Fantasia. Oh well. We'll work on that. I also got distracted here and there in the border and forgot to alternate. All things told, though, I was pretty happy with it, and hoped that The Artist would overlook the various mistakes. 

Back to Sister's present. It was time to get to work with card stock. This was also from Michael's:


Once I had measured out the guidelines in light pencil, made a few (okay, a lot of) mistakes, and trashed a few attempts, I finished what I hoped would be a respectable draft. I had updated my initial "H" along the way, opting for imitating one that I found online somewhere that I'd really liked. Here are the last few lines of the one I had thought might be it:


Notice anything funny on that bottom line in red? Also, did you notice how the "h" is missing from "daughter" and from every single "brought"? No, that is not antiquated spelling. That's me not paying attention. And then I was having a conversation with my roommates as I was finishing it up, hence distraction-induced repeats on the last line. Oh sigh. It was just as well, as I hadn't figured out borders for it yet and needed some room to experiment:

As you can see below, I couldn't decide. I still liked the idea of the grape vines, but I didn't like the colors I had to work with, and the pens weren't built for drawing grapevines, so they came out looking kindergartenish. There's a line in the passage about "golden borders" so I thought about the little bunches of three golden flowers, to match the decoration of the initial "H" and give a hint of the Trinity. No good. Little red flowers? They came out looking like misshapen poinsettias. I did really like the poppies (that came out of the same book as the strawberries idea). They had straight stems rather than curly ones, adding a little variety to what I had been working with. I knew that the red and the black would work, as it would match the text so well. They even symbolized peace. Guess what else they symbolized? Death. Hm. Maybe not so good.


As it turned out when it came time to find a frame for it, the border would have been covered up by the matting anyway, so I didn't end up needing to worry about it. Phew. I went with the blue matting and the gold frame for what I hope by now should be clear reasons (golden borders, protection of Our Lady).



As you might imagine, by the end of this, when I knew what I was doing, I was having a lot of fun with it. So, I have two suggestions for you. First, start learning yourself - it really was only the space of a few weeks or a month to get this far. Or, if you prefer not to learn it, but would like something like this, let me know! I'd be glad to have a reason to keep practicing.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Dolly Parton Meets Evelyn Waugh

Okay, no. Not literally. That was to make you click on the link and read this. But there is a connection -- I promise.

A friend recently lent me Helena, Evelyn Waugh's historical-fictional-mythical-legendary account of the life of Constantine's mother. She's my patron saint, you know, so I have a bit of personal interest in the book, but I've also been thinking that I need to move beyond Brideshead in the world of Waugh. George Weigel wrote the introduction for this particular edition. I really only started reading introductions routinely back during my teaching days, and now I've come to the point where I feel it's only vaguely permissible to skip one, and not at all if it's less than ten pages long and written by someone like Weigel.

Weigel quotes some of what Waugh had to say on how fond he was of this particular book, and why he is especially fond of St. Helen. We're all called to be saints, yes, but God doesn't much care for Stepford Saints; he made us all different on purpose. Waugh found in St. Helen's bodaciously unique duty in life--finding the actual physical cross that Jesus had died on--the perfect hyperbolic demonstration of how we each need to figure out what God wants from us as individuals, not as some indiscriminate and faceless bunch of lumps of that albeitly unmatched great communion:
In the course of his conversion to Catholicism, which took place in 1930, Evelyn Waugh came to the conviction that sanctity was not for the sanctuary only. Every Christian had to be a saint. And one of the hardest parts of that lifelong process of self-emptying and purification was to discover one's vocation: that unique, singular something that would, in accord with God's providential design, provide the means for sanctification. Helena's sense of vocation. . . was what attracted Waugh to the fourth-century empress, whom the world remembers as the mother of the Emperor Constantine. Waugh later explained his choice in a letter to the poet John Betjeman, who confessed to being puzzled by the fact that, in the novel, Helena "doesn't seem like a saint":
"Saints are simply souls in heaven. Some people have been so sensationally holy in life that we know they went straight to heaven and so put them in the [liturgical] calendar. We all have to become saints before we get to heaven. That is what purgatory is for. And each individual has his own form of sanctity which he must achieve or perish. Is it no good my saying, 'I wish I were like Joan of Arc or St. John of the Cross.' I can only be St. Evelyn Waugh -- after God knows what experiences in purgatory." 

If God had done what we might have expected and advised (we're good at telling God what he should do, cause we're so smart and everything), he would have found a more conveniently placed individual to dig up that cross on Golgotha. Instead, he got a little British girl of pagan upbringing who only came into contact with the world at large because a sallow-faced Roman soldier got stuck on a far distant outpost. I bet no one saw that one coming.

Not all of us will have such dramatic lives, paths that will literally take us across the world, and cause us to be remembered for however many millennia are yet to come. But our quieter and less-known wayward journeys and wanderings have to be filled with that same sense of epic proportions and world-scale battles. Striving and struggling to find our place, earnestly and whole-heartedly applying our whole selves to recognizing, learning and doing whatever that it is that God wants each individual one of us to accomplish -- that is our way of sanctification, our way of becoming saints, and the best and only right way that it makes sense for us to mimic all those liturigical calendar saints. It would be all very noble and lots of hard work and then really dumb for me to physically go look for the Cross. That was somebody else's job, and it's done. The question is, where is my cross?

This is where Dolly Parton comes in: "Find out who you are, and do it on purpose."

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Write What You Know

Gentlemen, don't be scared away. Allow me to begin by saying that Jane Austen is an excellent novelist, and it's no accident that her works have been continuously in print for the last several centuries and have been repeatedly adapted for the screen. What's so special about them, anyway? To the casual, and, dare I say it, lazy observer, her books are one boring parlor scene and stuffy romance encounter after another. Why on earth should we care? And yes, as I have heard more than one man exclaim, why the hell do they have to get measured up against Mr. Darcy? (As long as we're on the subject, Mr. Tilney from Northanger Abbey is my favorite; he's got all the best bits of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Knightley combined.)

Jane Austen lived a quiet life, traveled little, never married, and died at a fairly young age. She was one of many siblings, the daughter of a clergyman, lived within modest means, and was eventually supported by one of her many brothers. She was highly intelligent, artistically and intellectually gifted, subtly and comically sarcastic and satirical, and viewed the world of social niceties that was her bread and butter with a critic's eye. Encouraged in her education and literary efforts by her family, and most especially her father, she was a woman in many ways ahead of her time in sense and scholarship. And in her writing, she was determined, among other things, that she would only write what she knew. She wanted to write the world as she saw it, examine and present characters that were true to the life she knew and the society she encountered. As a single woman of the middle class, parlor room encounters were her stomping ground and observatory. They were her world. And so she wrote about them. You'll notice that in not one of her novels are the main characters a married or older couple; as neither she nor her sister Cassandra, with whom she was the closest of friends, ever married, it wasn't a life she knew personally, and so she only wrote about it from the outside. (N.B. Cassandra, Jane's first and most trusted editor, drew this portrait. It's the only known image we have of her.)

So. We need to write what we know. This is not to say that the best of any writing is some sort of autobiography, but that the world we know, the experiences we have had, have to inform the bulk of the meat of what we write. Embellish as you will, but, to quote a favorite old professor, fiction is not opposed to reality. It has to be grounded in truth, or it really isn't any good at all. And this is why Jane Austen is still awesome. The embellishments of her stories -- the bonnets, top hats, parasols, dances and carriages -- are a happy bonus to those of us who enjoy such details, but the reason her stories work is that they tell true things about the way that people relate to each other and discover themselves. And she learned those true things by observing, with her educated and well-informed mind, the people that filled her day-to-day life. That's what she wrote about.

I had a 12 hour layover in London and made a mad dash to Austen's
home at Chawton in Hampshire. That little table is her writing desk.
Other great notables who have even more clearly incorporated their personal experiences: James Joyce in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Fitzgerald in This Side of Paradise (yes, I'll keep bringing him up) and, perhaps most shockingly and delightfully, Dante in his Divine Comedy. Why not send all your mortal enemies to various circles of hell? Work it all in. It's for the sake of truth, after all.

So, thinking about all of this, I've been struggling with how to reconcile it with the fact that art is not about self-expression. Yes. We have to write about what we know, make art based on what we have seen and understood. Like Professor Bhaer tells Jo in Little Women, critiquing her sensational but not very deep adventure stories that had just been printed, "You must write from life, from the depths of your soul!" And we all know what Louisa May Alcott's best book is.

How do we write about the life that we have led without making it about us? And isn't that a self-centered way to go about things anyway? Luckily, I have a wise friend who gave the best answer I can imagine to my frustrated ponderings, and has since given me leave to share it with all of you. First, part of my inquiry to him:
I've been thinking a lot about novels in the last several days, and, believe it or not, thinking about the possibility of maybe writing one myself. Before we get that far, though, I have to tell you what all I've been ruminating on. Here's the thing. Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Just so we're clear, I'm not a huge fan of Dickens. I think he needed some serious hardcore editors, for one thing. That being said, Harold Bloom says that the three best writers ever (I'm assuming he means AD) are Shakespeare, Cervantes and Dickens. That being said, you have to understand that I admire Dickens in the same way that I do Jane Austen; they wrote about real things happening in their own day and age. They found the extraordinary in the ordinary, found a way to talk about everyday life in a lasting and universal way, connecting the humdrum doings of mankind to the sense of the universal that is a necessary proponent of every great work of art. You were asking me a while back what direction I think writing needs to go in, what new form or great work of modernity we (as in, the great writers of our day and age, not we literally, you understand) writers can give to define this period. I think we need to return to Austen or Dickens. All great art, like clothing, mundane as it might seem, repeats itself to some degree, for all great art must contain the common elements of truth, universality and entrancing or at least fascinating beauty. Those three elements are such that they lend themselves to some degree of repetition. So, what we need is someone who can write a novel about our day and age, about our people, our lives and our day to day nothings and goings and happenstances in such a way that our humdrum boring lives are rightly revealed as remarkable and terrifyingly beautifully revealing of the truths of the way that men communicate with each other and become the best forms of themselves.
You'll have to forgive me. But these thoughts have been spinning, and I needed to share them. I might have been wrong in what I believe I said to you earlier about wanting to avoid writing something or anything that was somewhat autobiographical. That's what we know, right, and so are the most qualified to write about, correct? Perhaps the lack of distance makes us biased and incorrect in our judgement of the facts, but I'm wavering on that position. I think perhaps, solipsistic as it might seem, our own lives, or some element of them, are the only thing about which we can put pen to paper.

His response:
As a wise man commented after your Fitzgerald article, it's profoundly true that one's early work should be driven by personal passion, but the groundwork of craftsmanship and discipline should already be laid by the time that passion strikes, and that groundwork is laid (as with anything) by study and imitation and good old-fashioned practice. So first one writes what other people know, just to get the hang of writing, and then one writes about one's own experience (howsobeit veiled in fiction) once the experiences become powerful enough to demand expression in one's writing, and THEN, once one has "manifested" that passion, one learns to control it and use it in conjunction with one's discipline and reason, at which time -- one can write anything at all. I have no doubt Austen could have written swashbuckling adventure novels quite well if she'd been of a mind to, but that wasn't what she wanted to write about. So in short, it's definitely wise to begin (at least) by writing about the stuff we know directly, and then see where it goes from there. I don't think you need to worry about being solipsistic; we're designed to have unique perspectives on the universe, and to try and communicate them to each other. The trap is the notion that each person represents his own universe and that art is the showcasing of one person's inner reality, whereas obviously the point of art is to discuss the eternal reality in which we all partake -- but to do it in such a way that maybe you can point out some things that the rest of us never noticed before. Personally, I think the real reason a given writer chooses a given topic is simply that it's something he or she wants to read about, and no one else has done it quite  right. That's what Lewis and Tolkien always used to say, and it's certainly been the case in my own writing: "Wouldn't this be a cool story? I can't believe nobody's written this yet, I guess it's up to me."
The part of his response that sticks with me most profoundly is the individual revelation of the truths of the universe that is given to each person. It is undeniable that no two persons are the same. Each person sees the great truths of our world through his own eyes, his eyes and method of understanding that are his unique gift and lens. To him whom much is given, much shall be expected. We are, in a sense, called to communicate our perspective of universal truth with as many people as possible. It is such a grace, such a blessing, that we all have our own view and snippet peak of the incomprehensible fullness of reality. We communicate that individual revelation, not for the sake of highlighting our individuality (it's not about me), but rather to call attention to that brilliant point of truth that has been revealed to no one else as we have seen it.

I've started writing a semi-autobiographical something. We'll see what happens.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Brown Shoes and Bruno Mars

"Expect the Lord, do manfully, and let thy heart take courage." -- Psalm 27:14

I went shoe shopping this week. My three-year-old work shoes, trusty veterans of two New Hampshire winters, had six holes between the two of them, leaked in the rain, and were daily approaching solelessness. I hate shoe shopping because it's such a commitment, an expense, and such a necessity. I had one of those moments on the mall escalator, running finances in my head and making sure I could still go grocery shopping, buy shampoo and work out school expenses, where I thought, "Okay, guess what? Everything's okay. This will work out just fine. Relax." And then one of my least favorite songs in the whole wide world came on:

Here's the thing: this song summarizes everything about my generation that causes our parents to say, "Kids these days..." It embarrasses me. It makes me angry. It fills me with a sense of righteous indignation and a zeal to render swift justice to self-centered twenty-somethings who never left adolescence behind them. It makes me wish I were the sort of person who believed in standard castration of societal leeches. And yes, it makes me angry that he sits around not doing anything while I'm working a full-time job and still feeling guilty about spending money on a necessary pair of practical boring brown shoes.

People tell me I'm prone to overreaction; I blame it on my being an INFJ: "Situations which are charged with conflict may drive the normally peaceful INFJ into a state of agitation or charged anger." So yeah, sometimes I get really p.o.'ed about things that aren't that big of a deal. But this is a big deal, people. The lyrics of this song involve him masturbating, sitting on a couch all day in a snuggie, having sex with a girl he just met (sex that he hopes will validate his mistaken sense of manliness), telling his Dad he'll have to wait on him finishing college, procrastinating, and sitting around naked.
"'Human beings do not live forever, Reuven. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So it may be asked what value there is to a human life. There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to have suffered so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye?' He paused again, his eyes misty now, then went on. 'I learned long ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable, though its quantity may be insignificant. Do you understand what I am saying? A man must fill his life with meaning; meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one's life with meaning. That I think you do not understand yet. A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here. Do you understand what I am saying? . . . Merely to live, merely to exist -- what sense is there in that? A fly also lives.'" -- The Chosen, ch. 13.
Bruno Mars is a fly.