The art of calligraphy

Master calligrapher Izzy Pludwinski battles to stem the decline in the art

February 10, 2013 10:05
calligraphy art 521

calligraphy art 521. (photo credit: Izzy Pludwinski)

When I asked the leading calligrapher Izzy Pludwinski what he thought made a master of calligraphy, he thought for a while before answering. “A would be calligrapher should be possessed of passion and dedication, as well as a minimum amount of skill.” By these criteria he certainly can be counted among the masters.

But the how and why of such an obsession is beyond even his analytical powers. “I know that I had this urge to make letters perfect. The letter had to have a life and beauty of its own. Lines of letters had to be rhythmic. But I have no answer as to where this urge came from.”

American-born Pludwinski has just brought out a book, “Mastering Hebrew Calligraphy,” a summary of his life’s work and involvement in this ancient skill. It’s a copiously illustrated book, containing many examples of his own work plus a fair number of examples of other contemporary, or near-contemporary, calligraphers. Each illustrates a particular point as it appears in the text. This not only makes it easy to use (it is after all a teaching text) but makes the book a stunning visual record of contemporary Hebrew writing.

Pludwinski did not come from an arts background, though he credits his father with having beautiful handwriting. He graduated with a degree in psychology from Bar-Ilan University and, having obtained a chemistry teaching license from New York State, taught the subject at grade school level in New York and Israel.

“My first contact with formal Hebrew letters was a warning poster – that in a sefer Torah, if one letter, or even the serif (an oketz) of a letter, was damaged, or badly drawn, it made the whole scroll unfit. What secrets were in that little oketz? That fascinated me. That people could be so concerned with letters as to ban a whole, huge scroll because one letter was damaged!” “I was 25 and living in Tel Aviv when I decided to change my career. I went to Bnei Brak to learn the skills. The first time I held the quill in my hand, I knew there was no looking back. It was 1980. I had long hair. In Israel no one seemed to mind. But when I went back to America and wanted to study more seriously, I was looked at with suspicion. The message I received there was that to be a scribe, a sofer, you had to cut your hair!” Somewhat disappointed with this first exposure to Hebrew calligraphy, he went to Jerusalem and found a very good sofer in Mea Shearim. “He didn’t look at my hair. He was interested only in the work.

I worked at it, and I’m not going to say that it was easy. It was enough to get me started as a sofer, which I worked at for many years.”

Parallel with learning his skills as a calligrapher, Pludwinski was concerned with his own religious development.

Although he had a traditional Jewish education in New York’s Yeshiva University’s high school, he was drawn to various disciplines in order to develop his spirituality. But while in Jerusalem he went to the Hartman Institute to hear a lecture on Judaism.

What he heard was to change his view of Judaism completely. “Hartman was using the same texts that I had been learning throughout my yeshiva education but in a completely different way. My school had drilled us with a tradition that was narrow and unyielding. Hartman had a different take altogether on the same texts. The education I received was one thin stream of the tradition; they taught us only what they wanted us to be exposed to. Hartman opened up the world of Torah.

The texts he taught really excited me. They were far more open.”

“I joined different groups, including Leila Avrin’s, who had a calligraphy sub-group in her bookbinders group, Israel Bibliophiles. I became acquainted with art calligraphy, illuminators. I saw how artists were using calligraphy as a means of expression, and not just as passive transmitters of the text. I wanted to learn this new calligraphy, to study it seriously, and to open up these Jewish texts to the wider world.”

His solution was to go to London’s prestigious Roehampton Institute where he was able to study with the top calligraphers in England. “I appreciated how the English valued calligraphy – even if it was eccentric. It didn’t matter. This was unlikely in New York where you were looked upon as weird. People there would ask, ‘Can you make a buck out of it?’ Then they’d come up with a slick suggestion of how to make some money from it.

While at Roehampton, Pludwinski combined English and Hebrew calligraphy. This was not an easy thing to do. English is related to the Romanesque style of letter – certainly in italic form – which is based on the oval.

Hebrew, however, is based on the square. So it is extremely difficult to combine them. Indeed, when he was working on the combinations, his teachers would always look at the Hebrew and turn it upside down! That’s how it seemed to them.

“At Roehampton I was exposed to a much wider range of writing styles than was available in Hebrew. I needed a wider repertoire of Hebrew to properly express the different emotive content of texts. When I came back to Israel, I tried to develop an italic font for Hebrew, but abandoned the idea. My first experiments gave me interesting, but very abstract, illegible, letter forms. When I tried to tame them to give legibility, they were still interesting but not fun to write. That lead me to think about typeface design.

My efforts eventually emerged as Shir, the font I used for my book “Shir HaShirim” (“Song of Songs”). A copy of the book is now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.”

By now he was doing Tai Chi, a form of physical and mental training invented by the Chinese. “In ‘push-hands,’ one of the exercises, you tend to stiffen as a natural reaction, but the goal of the exercise is to become soft. Oddly enough it was parallel to a text in the Talmud: ‘Be as flexible as a reed and not as a hard as a cedar tree.’ That’s all well and good in the abstract.

But when you’re stuck in a line at the bank and someone pushes their way in front of you, you become as hard as the cedar. All this steered me away from the way I was writing to calligraphy as a way of life, of self-knowledge. The important point for me here is the turning away from heady, book-learning to a more holistic – body oriented – discipline, in which I wanted calligraphy to play an important role. With a loss of faith in texts, I became more interested in the process of writing.”

Pludwinski cast around for a model to suit his development. He found it in the Japanese tradition of calligraphy, or shodo. “This discipline is meant not to be just about art, but about self-knowledge and development, spiritual growth, the end product of which is the energy, which gets transformed into your work. It meant using the brush more. The Japanese have this thing about the brush. If you’re tense, if you’re hard, etc., it will come out in the line in your work.

There were connections I made between Hasidic teachings on bitul hayesh – the nullification of the ego – and the Japanese style of brush painting, in which the result is less important than the preparation, the inner preparation. Letters are my art form, my form of self-expression. So I combined brush calligraphy with Hebrew texts. Legibility became of secondary importance, especially when using very familiar texts. I began to do simple Hebrew inscriptions. The writing became a way of growth. I was working on my own spiritual development.”

Another way he found himself back into his own tradition was through his chance meeting in London with the late Rabbi Mickey Rosen, founder of the Yakar Center. “For Mickey, calligraphy was ‘the ideal Jewish art.’ Because we are full of quotations, we always have our favorite saying. Biblical or post-Biblical. To be able to express this in calligraphy is a natural match. I strongly believe that the words can be interesting enough, without decoration or illumination, to make a visual statement.” “It was in the London Yakar Center where I had my first exhibition. You could say that Yakar saved me. Maybe the synagogues I attended in London were not my style. They were very hazan-oriented; the congregation just sat back and listened.

At Yakar it was much more interactive.

“When I first met Micky, he had a beautiful quote from Rav Kook about natural ethics. It was framed but it was on crumpled paper. I thought I had to do something and give back something to Yakar. So I did a combined English- Hebrew work of the quote while I was still at Roehampton and then I presented it to Micky; that was the beginning of my relationship with Yakar.” He did likewise with other Rav Kook sayings, and his work adorns the walls of the Yakar synagogue in Jerusalem.

“I really have been lucky because most of my bread-and-butter work comes from commissions. When I started to do my own stuff, that was exactly when the Internet started, and thus helped expose my work to a wider audience. I have exhibited but it hasn’t been a major focus.”

There is one thing which he refuses to do. “One thing that I have turned down is the designs for tattoos, of which I receive a large number of requests. “I asked a rabbi and he said no. It’s halakhically problematic.”

According to Pludwinski, the art of calligraphy has undergone a major decline in recent years. This is mainly because cheaper alternatives exist, such as photo offset.

Nevertheless people are still looking for new fonts, especially in Hebrew, which lacks the wide range of fonts that English has. Pludwinski is dismayed, however, at the way that these new fonts are produced.

“It is important to know how letters are formed. What makes an aleph an aleph. Many people are just playing with the letters without knowing where they come from. All the great typographers – such as Itamar David, the creator of the David font in Hebrew – or the English greats such as Herman Zap – were also calligraphers – they knew their roots. Perhaps, paradoxically, at the end of the book I suggest that people digitize their calligraphy. In Judaica you are dealing with art, it ought to have letters that have been drawn and designed by artists.”

“I produced the book because there hasn’t been a book of Hebrew lettering recently.

I felt there was a need to put out a comprehensive book of Hebrew letters, which had quality and showed the range of fonts available – a book that connected Hebrew’s rich writing tradition to the digital age. I wanted the book to show the potential of Hebrew calligraphy.”

“There are so many good books on Chinese and Arabic calligraphy, I felt that Hebrew needed a big comprehensive book that was lacking. I try to show that in Hebrew today the line between fine art and calligraphy has been blurred, for better or worse. I’d like more people to know about that.”

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