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Some Thoughts on Ornamented Writing

cursive (adj.) 1784, from French cursif (18c.), from Medieval Latin cursivus "running," from Latin cursus "a running," from past participle of currere "to run". The notion is of "written with a running hand" (without raising the pen)

I have very clear memories of learning to write “properly” as an elementary school child in the deep south. It was second grade, at my small flip-top desk, the long page of three parallel lines, two solid with one dashed line in between. For what felt like hours we would practice our letterforms, the round of a lowercase “a” just touching the center line, the arm of a lowercase “b” reaching out to hold the air. The challenge of joining letters together across a page to form words could only be tackled after each letter was perfected on its own. This was not the elevated practice of calligraphy; it was the expected hand of thank-you notes and recipe cards, in other words, useless in the minds of many in the room. While I greatly disliked being made to write thank-you notes as a child, I was charmed by the idea of being initiated into a type of special knowledge and by the sensation of pulling these loops across the page.

Cursive came into existence for practical reasons – it was faster to write with letters flowing one to the next, the tip not rising from the paper until a word was complete. Gradually over time, the use of cursive has come to be seen as unnecessary and even old-fashioned as technology developed from quill to pen, printing to computing, allowing us to type rapidly and produce copies with ease. Today it is no longer taught in many elementary schools, and certainly outlawed for submitted assignments. I, myself, had left it mostly in the past. It has been years since I wrote a letter in cursive to a friend despite frequent communication with many. But over the last two years, I have found myself returning to cursive for the more impractical purpose of making art.

Similarly, the technique of crosswriting has both practical and artistic applications. This practice of writing across the page as usual, then turning the paper ninety degrees and continuing to write was developed in letter composition to save on postage costs in the days before the ease and affordability of postage stamps. Crosswriting and margin writing also saved money on paper during times when resources were scarce and frequent communication was impossible, such as the American Civil War. Beyond these practical purposes, crosswriting has also been used as a form of magical writing, again across time and cultures. This method is employed in the crafting of petition papers, also called spell papers or prayer papers, and includes techniques such as writing without picking up the pen, writing directly on top of existing text, and crossing texts to link one idea, sentence, name, or phrase with another.

The fact that the final image can often resemble a tapestry, while not necessarily a conscious intention, is a very fitting result. The two ideas are woven together – their words and their meanings. Whether crossed or circled, the act and form of the composition matters. Starting from the inside and spiraling towards the edge of the page pushes an idea out and keeps it out. Spiraling in invites or invokes. An unbroken circle of text encloses and protects the ideas inside. The subsequent shapes formed on the page can communicate their foundational ideas at only a glance.

In this body of work, lines from a long poem I wrote become more intimately associated as they weave together and disappear into the resulting images. Repetition of phrases serves to both emphasize ideas and create visual patterning. The number of times a line repeats is both symbolic and aesthetic. This work involves a balance of chance and control; it was not possible to predict what would be formed with two joined lines. It was a process of allowance and discovery. As I worked, images rose up out of the layers of crossed and overlapped text and I emphasized them, giving the pieces even more of a three-dimensional quality. The text, while present in abundance, also effectively disappears.

Throughout human history, cultures everywhere have reduced ideas and text into concentrated visual symbols. Methods such as poetic calligrams, veves, circle writings, and sigils all take language and transform it into image. The practice of sigil writing is of particular interest to me. An idea is stated with force, reduced to core letters, then the letter forms are combined into an abstract image. Both of the constructions involved in this work, sigils and crosswritings, draw on with the psychology of will. An idea is expressed but obscured. This obfuscation does not erase it; it implants it in the mind where it can take root, grow, and impact behavior, allowing for needed changes to take place, and desires to manifest. In a way, even the communications of ordinary letter writing use words to convey desires, implant ideas, and persuade. Whether the message goes out on the pigeon’s leg, in satchel on horseback, in the USPS van, or torn and scattered into the wind, our ideas are alive in symbols on the page. As these pieces prove, it is not important that they be legible in any ordinary sense; they are still able to speak.

- Coleman Stevenson, 2017


Works Cited and Recommended Reading

Barton, David and Nigel Hall, eds. Letter writing as a social practice. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Pub., 1999.
Crown, Francis J. Jr., ed. Confederate postal history. Lawrence, MA: Quarterman Publications, Inc., 1976.
Decker, William M. Epistolary practices: Letter writing in America before telecommunications. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Golden, Catherine J. “The Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing.” The Victorian Web, 2010. Web. 1 Oct 2017. Team. “Mir ‘Ali Tabrizi.” Islamic Arts and Architecture, 2011. Web. 1 Oct 2017.
Marmion, Simon. Book of Hours. The Huntington Library, 2004.
Paperblanks. “Cross-Writing: When People Wrote Across the Page to Save Paper.” Endpaper, 2013. 1 Oct. 2017.
Roxas-Chua, Sam. Echolalia in Script:A Collection of Asemic Writing. Orison Books, 2017.
Scheele, Carl H. A short history of the mail service. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1970.
University Libraries. Essay: Wartime Letterwriting. University of Washington Digital Collections, 2017. Web. 1 Oct 2017.
Yronwode, Catherine. Paper in my Shoe. Lucky Mojo Curio Company, 2015.

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