Creative: Strengthen Your Spirit
Pen to Paper
The difference between tapping a keyboard and feeling the flow of a pen on paper is akin to the sporadic beat of an uncertain drum compared to the harmonic swirl of a great waltz. Both can lead to a creative experience, but the flow of a pen on paper has a way of preserving thoughts and framing creative direction. There’s something to be said about the connection our brain makes with the movement of our hand attached to the pen gliding across the paper. Calligraphy takes the pen to paper routine beyond the formation of mere words to an artful design and a fruitful exercise in creative energy that can beautifully influence other endeavors in your everyday life.
The Smithsonian Magazine published an article after Steve Jobs passed away in 2011 as a tribute to his artistry. One reason for his exquisite sense of design came from the study of calligraphy that he pursued as a young student at Reed College.
Here is more on that story which may inspire you to pursue a little calligraphy of your own to strengthen your creative spirit:
Steve Jobs, who died October 5 after resigning in August as CEO of Apple, the company he co-founded, had many talents. But what set him apart from other computer wizards was his artistic sense. He continually used the word “taste” in explaining what was ready to be manufactured at Apple, and what wasn’t ready yet—what he had to reject. The Apple computer, the iPhone, the iPad and the iPod are all strikingly beautiful objects; the clarity of their visual design matches the way they function. It’s clear that Steve Jobs was an artist and that his artistry worked at many levels: it was a visual sensitivity that extended outward to a way of thinking about how things worked and how different variables could interact with each other in a pleasing harmony. Where did this ability come from? Jobs gave some credit for his success to a seemingly unlikely source—a course on calligraphy that he took as an undergraduate at Reed College, a course established by a maverick professor named Lloyd Reynolds.
[...] Learning to write well, for Reynolds, was a key to achieving a mystical, spiritual harmony with the universe as well as to attaining such social goals as ending poverty and racism and achieving world peace. As the graphic designer Michael McPherson, who studied with him, recalls: “He’d jump from Michelangelo to William Blake to Zen Buddhism effortlessly, and it all made sense.” In essence, Reynolds was encouraging his students to think about what’s good and significant and why, in a way that cut across the traditional boundaries between academic fields: to learn to exercise good taste. It was a mode of thinking that would profoundly influence Jobs, who provided us with an interesting definition of taste: “Taste is trying to expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then trying to bring those things into what you are doing.”
But Reynolds’ very successes—huge student attendance, teaching and art awards, even a television show—also attracted enemies, who viewed all this hoopla as proof that what he was doing wasn’t academically rigorous. Each year he had to do battle for the survival of his class against an ever-growing coalition of enemies. Reynolds bowed out when his wife became terminally ill. To continue his legacy he chose a singularly spiritual figure, a former Trappist monk and monastery scribe, Father Robert Palladino, under whose benevolent care calligraphy remained the most popular elective offering at Reed. But Palladino, who had spent much of his life under a vow of silence, had no grasp of how to handle faculty politics and faculty arguments. In 1984, six years after Reynolds’ death, the art department pulled the plug on the calligraphy class, ostensibly because it didn’t fit with the new mission of focusing entirely on “modern art.”
Though seemingly irrational, this pattern of faculty politics is familiar to anyone who has worked in a university. It comes from a love of following the regulations, and inventing new regulations if old ones aren’t already in place, to make teaching tidy, measurable and predictable. The philosopher Plato, who viewed artists as dangerous renegades, wanted to banish them from his ideal Republic, and real artists seem to always exist with the threat of banishment hovering over them—or worse. When the course on calligraphy was eliminated, Reed College was diminished. “There was never another course quite like that,” one of Reynolds’ former students, Georgianna Greenwood, has commented.
Jobs entered Reed in 1972 and dropped out after six months. But he continued to audit classes for another year, while sleeping on the floor of friends’ rooms, collecting Coke bottles for survival money and getting free meals at the local Hare Krishna temple. The most inspiring classes were calligraphy. As Jobs recalled in his 2005 Stanford commencement address:
“Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. … I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.”
[...] Significantly, Jobs always thought of himself not as a manager but as a leader—an artistic visionary. After the fashion of a great artist, Jobs ultimately based his decisions not on the recommendations of committees or focus groups but on his own intuition—often on factors not easily expressed or analyzed in words. Perhaps most important, at some level, his mastery of visual skills was transposed to another level as well. Visual harmony became a sort of metaphor for what happens when everything works well together: when at a glance we can instantly understand a large field of variables, and see that everything coordinates with everything else and they all work together with a unified purpose.
In short, through mastering calligraphy, Jobs learned to think like an artist. It became the skill that separated him from other computer geniuses and business leaders. It enabled him to move out ahead of the pack, to build out of almost nothing one of the world’s largest corporations and to revolutionize modern life. We usually think of art as essentially a recreational activity: as something that stands apart from the serious business of life. But art does matter. When all is said and done, it’s the thing that makes it possible to have a world that holds together and is beautiful and makes sense.
Genius can never be reduced to a single trick. But let’s take note of the fact that one of the keys to Jobs’ success, to all that he achieved, is that, years ago, at the outset of his amazing career, he took a controversial and inspiring art class.
Do you enjoy reading PONDER? If so, then please consider becoming a regular monthly sponsor. Your contribution from as little as $5 will help cover the cost of publication and the time it takes to research and write every issue. PONDER accepts no advertising.