Book Review – Calligraphy by Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord
Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord of Newburyport is an author and artist who was featured in the January/February 2018 edition of mvm (read here). Long before she began work in 1992 on her Spirit Books” — cradled, wordless volumes made with handmade paper and organic materials such as leaves, feathers and coconut shells — Gaylord was a student and teacher of calligraphy.
In her latest book, “Calligraphy: How I Fell In, Out, and In Love Again,” she uses this practice as an entranceway into her life story, starting when she acquired her first set of Speedball C nibs as a high school student. Gaylord, who had a background as a competitive swimmer, drew upon that sport for her discipline, along with her love for the written word, to help her perform the demanding, repetitive exercises required to develop calligraphic skills.
Fitting for an artist who searches for meaning not just in words, but in letters, and even in the space between the letters, she was, at least early on, influenced by Zen Buddhist art. The book is written in a style that fits in with that tradition: Its style is immediate, while also being suggestive. The words seem to mean more than they reveal at first glance. Despite this, her writing is also unpretentious, and at times so casual that that its very transparency hints at how much Gaylord is accustomed to paying attention to language. Consider these lines from the first chapter: “For me, the absolute magic of calligraphy was, and still is, the fact that the thicks and thins of the letters are created by the placement of the edged pen at a consistent angle to the writing line. Nothing extra is done to change the line from thick to thin. It just happens.”
Magic? If you compare this with any number of artist statements, you’ll feel that here you’re dealing with an author who isn’t afraid to cut away the extraneous. This thing that “just happens” takes an extraordinary amount of thinking and doing, fueled by a patient willingness to refine and question her own approach. It’s not so easy to make such a thing just happen.
“Calligraphy” is heavily illustrated, and one of the pleasures in reading it is to witness how Gaylord’s approach has changed over time as she matures as an artist and as the market changes. In the predigital age, she made money by inscribing event notices, book covers and advertisements — an earlier edition of the Lowell General Hospital handbook cover uses her lettering. She also sold handwritten poems and Biblical quotes, examples of which are included in “Calligraphy.” Read any of the poems or verses included in the text and compare them with the digital or even print versions. The style of the letters entirely changes the reading experience. I came away with a longing for the days when human hands played a much greater role in literary productions and the decorative arts.
One aspect of Gaylord’s story I found most inspiriting is that she never seems to stop learning. Although she taught calligraphy for many years, she continually seeks new teachers and learning environments. Gaylord credits two factors with her recent evolution: She no longer teaches, and she no longer does commercial or commissioned assignments, and can thus be “completely personal.” Her relationship with calligraphy changed after she began the Spirit Books in 1992, and now unfolds in an “organic process.” There are no more routine exercises. As she says, “I only work with words and ideas that touch my heart.”
“Calligraphy” is a levelheaded look at the artistic process from someone whose relationship with words constantly shifts. It functions both as a crafter’s catalog and as an autobiography, as well as the record of a Merrimack Valley artist whose work spans decades and has remained invigorating, and grows more profound over time.
Gaylord will be appearing on The 495 podcast.
Wednesday, March 4th. Click here to listen. >>
Calligraphy: How I Fell In, Out, and In Love Again
Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord
Susan will also be making the following Merrimack Valley appearances this spring:
“How an English Lit Major Became an Artist: A Conversation with Susan Kapuscinsky Gaylord”
A Lowell Women’s Week Event
UML’s Lowell Center for Women and Work
150 Wilder Street, Lowell, Mass.
Newburyport Public Library Program Room
94 State Street, Newburyport, Mass.
Pollard Memorial Library
401 Merrimack Street, Lowell, Mass.