Featured Calligrapher

Aoi Yamaguchi

July 2018

We met Japanese calligrapher Aoi Yamaguchi at -ing creatives in early 2018 and were truly mesmerized by her work. We caught up with her after the conference to find out more about how she works with such traditional techniques in the digital world; her aim to bridge cultures through calligraphy, and her time at Zuiho Shodo School.

What are some of your earliest creative memories and what lead you into calligraphy ?

I grew up in small towns in the countryside of Hokkaido, surrounded by beautiful nature. I started to read and write around age 3. I loved drawing, writing stories, crafts, anything to do with paper, paints, pencils and pens, glue, playing piano, using my hands. I loved exploring the woods, hiking in the mountains, walking into the river, playing with snow. While exploring, I’d come up with stories with my discoveries, and write them down in notebooks at home. Around 5 - 6 years old, I made a series of picture books with my illustrations and my little fantasy stories; about this bear exploring the forest, flying on the cloud, traveling around the world. I remember bringing the book I made to the calligraphy school and showing it to Master Sato. My childhood dream was to become a novel writer.

When did you fall in love with calligraphy and how did you get started?

I started to study Japanese calligraphy (shodo in Japanese) when I was six years old; my mother took me to the calligraphy school - Zuiho Shodo School - taught by a couple Master Zuiho Sato and Kato Sato in a small town in Hokkaido. I was fascinated with my master’s calligraphy - so beautiful, elegant, and perfectly balanced. I wanted to be able to write like them. I watched them write very closely, and tried to perfect my brush skills. That was the first time when I picked up the calligraphy brush, and I practiced under Master Sato through the program organized by International Japanese Calligraphy Association for about 13 years until I graduated from high school. I received honorable awards, and the Title of Master Student Calligrapher when I was 14. But until I met Master Masazumi Kobayashi, a calligraphy teacher in high school, calligraphy was only something I was good at and enjoyed practicing. Master Kobayashi was a very free-spirited calligrapher, who taught us to show our personality through our writing - that was when I began to write my own words as calligraphy art. I picked some words from my notebooks filled with my poetry and prose to write as calligraphy artworks - and it all made sense and felt so natural for me. For the first time, it was beyond mastering the traditional forms - Calligraphy is a poetic visual expression, and it was the combination of everything I love. It was an enlightening moment - I thought, “calligraphy could be a form of self-expression!”

I moved to the U.S. for college, and I started to explore my artistic expression through Japanese calligraphy.

Give us the elevator pitch on what you do.

Hi, my name is Aoi Yamaguchi, I’m a Japanese calligrapher. I create, perform, and teach the art of Japanese calligraphy. Through calligraphy, I’m on a life-long journey to seek who I am, with an ambition to bridge cultures between Japan and the foreign countries. I’ve been working on series of conceptual calligraphy artworks; I also do commissions both for personal collections and businesses. With this tiny body, I do conceptual large-scale live calligraphy performances internationally — yes, on huge paper with huge brushes — in collaboration with sound, dance, film, fashion, digital art. I’m also a passionate teacher, designing and teaching Japanese calligraphy workshops, giving lectures internationally.

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“Who you are defines what you do.” Think about what only you can do, and no one else can.

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Any passion projects/collabs you would like to share?

One of my recent passion collaboration projects is titled “書韻 (shoinn)” - it is a conceptual, collaborative and improvised performance, in which Japanese calligraphy, e-textiles, and sound art come together. 書韻 (sho-inn) means “resonance of calligraphy” in Japanese; the project’s concept is to explore artistic communication between the performative calligraphy painting and sound art and to transform it into a multi-sensory experience bridged by e-textile technology. A Tokyo-based sound artist, Corey Fuller, and Berlin-based e-textile artist, Mika Satomi and I developed this performance project in France in 2016.

Mika created a costume with embedded sensors that translate my physical movements performing large-scale calligraphy painting into light and sound. Corey composed the soundscape with the acoustic piano and a modular synthesizer system, which receives signals from the sensors on my brush and my body as the improvisational performance progress. As a calligrapher, it’s amazing to see and listen to my own “breathing” transformed into pulsation of light and sound, and the rhythm of my “writing” is creating music that resonates in the space. At the end of the performance, you can see the trace of this journey on the paper. I’d like to continue developing this concept, visit more cities to perform and share these precious moments with you.

What role does digital design play in your studio in 2018, and how do you apply traditional graphic design skills in a digital age?

Living in the digital age, I, even more, embrace the traditional form of Japanese calligraphy, using calligraphy brushes made of animal hair, painting with Sumi ink on gasen-shi paper. This unique quality of brush strokes and Sumi ink effect on handmade paper cannot be recreated digitally, so I always work on paper for the originals. For both my work and client work, I create digital images of originals for various usages; logos, packaging design, advertisements, online marketing, publications, etc. I also love collaborating with photographers, videographers, digital media artists and studios for personal projects and commissions. I worked on calligraphy for live visuals for concerts, film titles, immersive interactive digital art installations - I love seeing calligraphy in three dimensions.

What advice would you give students starting out?

“Who you are defines what you do.” Think about what only you can do, and no one else can. Follow your passion, love what you do, and share it with the world. It takes dedication and perseverance to master the skill (in any industry), but the key is not to give up and to make many mistakes so that you can learn from it. I truly believe that passions go beyond borders and cultural boundaries… and you have to enjoy the process. It will create happy ripples around you, and you can connect with others in unexpected ways that may surprise yourself.

Website: aoiyamaguchi.com

Instagram: @aoi_gm

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