Barbara Bash has always known that she loved the experience of writing. Even before she could read, before she’d ever attended school, she knew.
Her mother had rescued and brought home a bedraggled book from a rummage sale and given it to her daughter. “I remember very vividly writing in the margins my own illegible script.”
To anyone else’s eye, Bash had done little more than scribble in the margins. But to the only eyes that mattered, the grey/blue eyes of the girl who grew up to become one of the country’s most accomplished calligraphic artists, those scribblings told her a truth that she has never forgotten: The forms that writing takes – the letters that are the ineluctable bones of every writer’s words and stories – provided her a portal and then a path through her life.
Bash grew up in Barrington, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Her fascination with writing only increased with time. In high school, she drew inspiration for the posters that she would create by two contemporary giants of the day, Corita Kent and Ben Shahn. Then it was off to the University of Michigan for a year, then a year in Europe, then back to college, this time at Antioch.
Her wanderings and inquiries and practices and discoveries of great teachers finally culminated in the great artistic stew that bubbled up in the Bay Area in the early ’70s. Calligraphy, bookbinding, letterpress: There was an explosion of interest in those practices then. Bash found herself immersed in an atmosphere where she said yes to every artistic or professional inquiry, “whether I knew how to do it or not.”
She specced type, did layouts of every description. She once agreed to “personalize” a set of 100 wine labels and said yes again when she found out that the labels had already been glued to the bottles.
Bash’s calligraphic works had long been part of what she now calls her “precision phase”: works that echoed the painstaking, tightly controlled forms practiced by anonymous Japanese and medieval monks, of Islamic artists. And for a while, that was enough.
But by the late 1970s, this socially conscious Methodist daughter of the Midwest went inland, physically and metaphorically, to the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. It was there that she met her most influential teacher: Chogyam Trungpa, the preeminent teacher and interpreter of Tibetan Buddhism in the US. It was at Naropa that she learned that her lifelong practice of precise, Western-style calligraphy was not inimical to the looser, flowing approach of the large brushstrokes favored by the Buddhist tradition. “I learned a person always starts from their own tradition. That was a confirmation for me…. I discovered my path was to take Western letters and enliven them with Asian principles.”
Bash has been enlivening whatever she turns her attention to ever since then. She’s the author and illustrator of six children’s books that explore the natural world, and she has illustrated four other similarly themed books written by others.
Her most notable and courageous book was written for adults: True Nature: An Illustrated Journal of Four Seasons in Solitude. Anyone who has ever spent time alone in a cabin, in an unfamiliar place, meditating without distraction, knows why the book took courage to produce and why it resonate with readers. Those solitary days allowed her to observe and record the pleasures of the natural world, though not exclusively as an observer. She was a participant on that journey, having to face down primal fears of traveling into darknesses real and imagined.
In the same adventurous way that she traveled to unknown and unsuspected places in that book, she talks today about “working the edge” in her approach to calligraphy, of seeking a balance between what the Westernized calligraphy pen and her Asian “big-brush” work allow.
In working, literally, in broad strokes, Bash said that she draws on the Buddhist principles of heaven, Earth and human in the making of a brushstroke: the experience of space, the ground and the human experience.
“Calligraphy is essentially about moving through space and leaving a trace behind,” she has written. The brush, which for her can be the size of a mop, is the most sensitive of calligraphic tools, able to respond to the subtlest gesture.
Bash will be demonstrating, performing and teaching what her life’s journey has taught at the Unison Arts Center in November: a calligraphic performance to the music of Steve Gorn, Harvey Sorgen and David Lopato, a gallery opening titled “The Moving Line: Calligraphic Expression” and a three-hour workshop titled “Brush Spirit.” Teaching and performance opportunities such as these, she said, allow her, an artist who by necessity works in isolation, to participate on a larger, more encompassing canvas that includes others. She is constantly creating calligraphic communities, if you will.
Bash said that, for all her experience as an artist, she has never lost what she calls a sense of “positive panic” while standing at the edge of a new effort. But once begun, fears evaporate “in the doing of it.” It’s an experience that Bash is eager to share with whoever recognizes the need to do, and could use some company on their journey.
Bash will give a calligraphic performance to the music of Steve Gorn, Harvey Sorgen and David Lopato on Saturday, November 7 at 8 p.m. A gallery opening featuring her artwork – “The Moving Line: Calligraphic Expression” – follows on Sunday, November 8 from 4-6 p.m. and will be on display until December 6. Finally, Bash will conduct a three-hour workshop titled “Brush Spirit” on November 21 from 1-4 p.m.
Advance tickets for this Saturday’s concert cost $18 for members, $22 for non-members. At the door, tickets cost $20 for members, $24 for non-members. Student tickets go for half-price with a valid ID. The November 21 “Brush Spirit” workshop costs $23 for members and $25 for non-members. The gallery opening on November 8 is free and open to the public. Visit www.unisonarts.org or call (845) 255-1559 for more information/tickets.
To learn more about Barbara Bash’s work, visit www.barbarabash.com.