Setting the kanji free: A calligrapher walks the line between tradition and the abstract

by Katherine Whatley

Contributing Writer

Soufu Honda wants the characters she writes to “express themselves.” The Hokkaido-born artist and calligrapher bends traditional writing techniques to her own vision of the letters and words she writes, which results in dynamic pieces of art.

Honda is an energetic addition to the world of shodō (calligraphy), which is a bastion of staid tradition and circumscribed rules — though some artists, the renowned Toko Shinoda among them, have been able to push the envelope by moving into more abstract territory. While she acknowledges the importance of such experimentation, Honda refrains from venturing too far into the abstract herself by giving the kanji primacy in her work, which is distinct enough to help her stand out from the norm.

It’s not too surprising to learn, then, that for the past 10 years Honda has worked independently of any shodō ryuha (school of calligraphy), doing work on commission.

Honda’s upcoming exhibition, “Characters — Kaihou” at the America-Bashi Gallery in Tokyo’s Ebisu neighborhood, seeks to unleash the spirit of the kanji. The English part of the title, “characters,” refers to both the kanji and their personalities. The Japanese word, “kaihō,” translates as “emancipation” in English. Thus Honda wants to channel the personalities and feelings that she thinks all kanji characters have and allow them “the freedom to run about.”

The event will feature work that Honda makes with her hands, as opposed to a brush. Her creation process involves mixing charcoal, sand and other materials in buckets to create a textured ink (sumi). Then, after covering her skin with Vaseline so the sumi doesn’t cause permanent stains, she dips her hands into the buckets, grabs a handful of ink, gets close to the ground and swipes and stabs at her paper canvas. She uses her entire body to express the feeling of the kanji, a process that verges on the theatrical.

“I didn’t become interested in kanji until the non-Japanese staff at the English school I used to work at (10 years ago) began asking me about the meanings and origins of the ones they were studying,” Honda says, crediting this international influence in formulating her artistic focus. “Though I studied calligraphy at university, I didn’t become really passionate about shodō until then.”

When I ask Honda whether her work has international appeal, given that she deals exclusively in the Japanese language, she tells me: “I think all characters have their own expressions, the Roman alphabet does as well. Maybe my work will encourage people to rethink their own language.”

Whether or not you can read each character in the exhibition is beside the point. The vitality and vision of their expression, and that of the artist, explodes off the white walls of the gallery in a universally understandable way.

Soufu Honda’s exhibit entitled “Characters — Kaihou” will take place from Aug. 2 to 6 at the America-Bashi Gallery in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo (11 a.m.- 7 p.m., till 4 p.m. on Aug. 6). For more information, visit www.mojikara.com.