“In ancient times, a way to connect to the power of the world was to draw it. In the act of drawing, an exchange of energy happens, and you receive some of that power.” Artist, illustrator, and calligraphic performer Barbara Bash is speaking in front of an expanse of white paper taped to the wall of the “black-box” room in the Dorsky Museum at SUNY New Paltz. In conjunction with a group art show entitled “Dear Mother Nature,” on display at the Dorsky through November 4, she is lecturing on the development of alphabetic forms, which began as drawings of nature.
While Chinese pictograms are explicit in their resemblance to natural forms, Bash says, “In the West, the pictures are deeper inside our letters.”
She starts with Sumeria in 5000 BCE. She draws a tilted semicircle with horns and an ear, a character representing an ox. The ox’s head becomes more stylized, and four versions later, we’ve reached 1000 BCE and the Phoenicians, who created a letter that looks like a triangular flag on a pole. Rotate the figure slightly, add a leg, and you’ve got the letter “A”.
“The Phoenicians were traders, dealing with a lot of cultures, so they wanted a common alphabet to help them do business,” explains Bash. “We think of our syllabic alphabet as so efficient — someone in China, to be considered literate, had to know 40,000 characters. But when the letters represent only sounds, we forget their connection to the natural world.”
However, she says, the portal to nature is still there within our letters. Furthermore, by studying the development of calligraphic forms, we can trace the changes in Western culture, the expansions and contractions of human nature.
The early Greeks, for instance, wrote in a form called “boustrophedon,” meaning “as the ox plows,” starting from left to right and reversing direction at the end of each line. The Romans, with their passion for order, switched to the consistently left-to-right orientation, carving the letters in stone in a form that was highly legible, formal, and precise.
“But society needs other letter forms to express other parts of the psyche,” observes Bash. With a pastel crayon she draws large Roman capitals with their elegant serifs, then demonstrates how the letters were compressed in the Rustic style to save space when writing on costly vellum. “The eye loves the clarity of Roman capitals,” she points out, “but the hand is struggling. It needs some ease and speed, so scribes invented a really loose Roman cursive for writing on wax tablets. And then Rome collapsed.”
Culture went underground in the early Middle Ages, and monks copied out texts, keeping the life of the mind alive. “The hand was literally carrying the culture,” declares Bash, as she demonstrates the rounded lettering of the Uncial style of 400-500 AD, with its subtle descenders, ascenders, and embellishments.