“Have I told you the story of how I did my calligraphy during the war in Iraq?” N. begins telling me his story of creativity and courage as we sit in a group, each drawing our own letters; some are conversing, while others are mesmerized and lost in their lines.
N. is one of my new friends I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know at the Social Calligraphy meet ups I have been gathering, in partnership with More Than a Roof (MTR). MTR does great work in providing housing and integration for low income residents in Vancouver, who are looking to get on their feet again.
“I was detained in custody. The guard left me alone… for 20 days no one came back. I didn’t know if they had forgotten me, or if anyone would come back,” he says. “Even though I didn’t have food or water, I didn’t try to escape.”
As I listened, watching N. draw his beautiful (and extremely complex) Persian calligraphy, I wondered how he obtained the supplies needed to write. “Finally a guard came back. I asked politely if I could go and get some food, visit my family and come back.” Amazingly because the guard recognized his integrity in “staying put” as he was told, the guard granted his request.
“I went across the street to a nearby restaurant. While I waited for my order, I saw some bamboo growing outside.” So what does a calligrapher do when he sees bamboo? Snatch some to fashion his own writing tool, of course! With just enough spare money, he bought some ink from a small shop. You know a true artist when you see him spend his last few funds on art supplies during a war!
N. is one of several who come to these social calligraphy meet ups, and bless me with the gift of their presence, creativity and stories of courage in adversity. Even R., who came unsure of himself, and left after the introductions, inspires me with his courage to take the scary step of showing up. Then there is C. who shares with me his beautiful sketchbook is full of raw and powerful art reflecting his healing journey, inviting me to go deeper in my own creativity and recovery. He shows great creativity and innovation in building structures from redeeming junk mail flyers.
I can’t believe this open door almost didn’t happen.
About a year and a half ago, I was first finding my legs on Instagram and exercising strength to establish “daily calligraphy muscles.” The goal of building my calligraphy into my daily rhythms grew out of advice from many artists and writers to build the discipline of your craft. This is a challenge for many creative folks, who would rather create on inspiration. For me, it was often feast or famine, where I would save up all my pent up energy for a special art day once or twice a year.
So I began to post sketches on Instagram, mostly of key ideas or thoughts I was currently percolating in hopes of integrating them into my heart and life habits. Unexpectedly, people I knew began to ask if they could buy some prints. Lee Anne, an old friend asked for this quote on gratitude.
When it came time to deliver it, we were both so busy. I was tempted to let the busyness sweep over me and choose the more convenient option to just snail mail it, but something in my heart tugged at me. My values of relationship and community niggled and whispered to me. So I met her for lunch, near her office where she works with MTR.
As we caught up, I told her about how Social Calligraphy workshops began, gathering to create calligraphy to empower people and give back to the community by raising money to support social change, like fighting human trafficking. I shared how ultimately I’d love to do workshops directly with women and children who are establishing a new life of freedom, and other marginalized communities because I believe in the healing power of creating art, especially in community.
Lee Anne immediately responded, “Why don’t you come and do a workshop with our folks?” Hello, wide open door!
Now, we are meeting more regularly, each time bringing old and new faces. For years I’ve wanted to find a way to love my marginalized neighbours in some way, but unsure how. I’m grateful for this opportunity that perfectly synergizes my passions into service and friendship. Something powerful, yet seemingly ordinary, happens when you sit side by side, sharing stories, and practicing strokes.
When you have courage to creatively show up every day, and pursue face to face connection instead of convenient-but-impersonal options, serendipitous things can happen.