photos: Photo courtesy of the Social Calligraphy Collective.

Local calligraphy group promotes growth and compassion through art

Heartbeats: Organizers see calligraphy as a means to provide inspiration and self-awareness

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By Lauren Bentley


You Are Loved. Shine Bright. Hope is the Anchor of the Soul.

These are powerful words. And at the Social Calligraphy Collective, they are transformed into powerful messages that speak directly to women in need. Vancouver calligrapher Justine Hwang was in high school when she realized how much power words held. She recalls doing an exercise in her church youth group where everyone wrote down a simple, encouraging message to someone else on a single piece of paper.

At high school graduation, a fellow student pulled his paper out, which he’d been carrying around for years. “It was really tattered. You could tell he read it a lot,” she says. “It was just a piece of paper with some ink on it, but it has a lot of power to encourage somebody.”

This rang true with her own experience.

“Part of why I care about words so much is because in [my] culture, you don’t sit there and say positive things about your kids out of fear of inflating your kids’ head,” she describes. “Because of that, words ... are super valuable to me.

“They are more valuable than gold and silver to me.”

Ancient art form revival
A recent exhibition at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology, called Traces of Words: Art and Calligraphy from Asia, describes the transformative effect of calligraphy:

“Artwork transforms writing—a form of communication that is often looked through rather than looked at—into materialized words. You may experience and sense, rather than read or translate, script in new ways.”

The ancient art form has been around nearly as long as writing itself, but calligraphy—along with its close relative hand lettering (the two terms are often used interchangeably)—has experienced a resurgence in recent years.

“I think people were starting to react to the over-digitized world and calligraphy Hwang says. “It’s started to explode in the past three years ... there’s a whole underground world of snail mail these days.”

The Social Calligraphy Collective began in the midst of this renaissance nearly four years ago. Hwang had recently rediscovered calligraphy, in which she had dabbled as a child. After experiencing severe burnout in her early 30s, she had taken up the pen again as a creative and meditative outlet.

The collective now hosts both paid workshops and free meetups teaching calligraphy and giving amateur calligraphers dedicated time to practice their skills. But more than helping creatives achieve the perfect brushstroke, Hwang sees calligraphy as a means to provide inspiration and self-awareness while being a vehicle for compassion and encouragement.

For example, at every workshop or meetup, participants have the opportunity to write an encouraging hand-lettered note to a woman in recovery—notes that are far more valuable than the piece of paper they’re printed on.

‘Made for purpose’
Alexandria Menta is the program facilitator for Genesis House, a Vancouver-based recovery program for women coming out of the sex trade. She sees the value the encouragement has for the women she works with every day, many of whom have experienced a lifetime of hardship.

“They don’t all have mothers and grandmothers to tell them who they are, to remind them that they are made for purpose,” she says. Many keep the notes on their walls, incorporating them into their recovery. “The notes sow the seeds for who they really are, not where they come from. It helps them remember who they are as women, as mothers, as daughters.”

Menta also sees the power of the words enhanced in the form of calligraphy: “The most hurtful things we’ve ever experienced have been words—but also the most healing things. Words absolutely have power.

When we connect them with beauty [in calligraphy] there’s just something innate in them that brings beauty and power.”

The collective has shared thousands of handwritten notes, many to local Vancouver organizations like Covenant House or Beauty Night Society, with some going as far as Moldova, a country in Eastern Europe, to an organization serving women rescued from human trafficking.

Beyond the notes, Hwang always wanted the collective to promote community and social justice.

“From the outside, maybe it’s not an obvious connection,” she says.

“But for me, it was natural.”

In the beginning, Hwang simply collected donations from workshop participants for local non-profits (she still donates 10 per cent of all proceeds to charity).

Eventually, she began to see the enormous potential of the workshops themselves.

“I didn’t intend on that, but the free meetups are becoming more of a front-line social justice space,” Hwang says. “Some people come ready for the calligraphy, but some are literally just there ... to meet people.”

For example, Hwang offers workshops to women in recovery and income-assisted seniors, through Vancouver non-profits like Servants Anonymous and More Than A Roof, giving vulnerable people a chance to explore their creative side and develop a new skill.

She’s also partnered with a local mental health support group to host workshops. While many of the participants had little interest in calligraphy at first, the artistic focus helped create a safe space for making connections.

At the first mental health group meetup, “There were conversations about mental health happening, and stereotypes breaking down,” she says.

Even for attendees coming from less vulnerable situations, she has seen how important it can be for people to come together in a creative environment, especially in a notoriously lonely city like Vancouver.

Imperfect calligraphers only
The workshops are a place to focus not on perfection, but on process. It’s a value embodied in Hwang's own calligraphy style—which she describes as “bold and messy and colourful”—and on her Instagram feed, where she shares behind-the-scenes looks at her creative process, flops and all.

In workshops, participants are encouraged to focus more on personal growth and creativity than the end goal. “Something that’s really rewarding about calligraphy is that if you stick with it, even if you do it for only an hour, you see progress,” she says.

“There’s a confidence that comes from that.”

There is an exercise she likes to do in her workshops. Each participant picks a word. With a slanting calligraphy pen or brightly coloured marker, they write it five times, then pass it along to the person next to them.

That person writes the word five more times then passes it along again. As new words are formed, the unique nature of each person’s creation is more easily seen.

“The whole point is that it’s not supposed to look identical,” Hwang says.

“And it’s not supposed to look perfect. Even if ... you copied it exactly the same, it’s still not going to look like mine.

“And that’s a beautiful thing.”

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