Going onstage (www.esplanade.com).

Visual Arts

Insights: Joanne Lim

On expressing the power of words through calligraphy


Published: 5 May 2021

Time taken : ~10mins

Joanne Lim is drawn to the power of words and how they shape our thoughts. Modern calligraphy is one of the mediums she works with to visualise and express the varied forms words could take. Lim reflects on our modern-day relationship with the art of writing, the influence of her design background on her creative practice and why words matter.

Installation view of Words Create Worlds

Installation view of <i>Words Create Worlds</i>

You were one of several individuals who contributed to the revival of interest in modern calligraphy in Singapore a couple years ago. What is it about this field of practice and medium that drew you to it?

When I was a designer, I loved typography, particularly using fonts to give words a deeper meaning and personality.

My first encounter with calligraphy was with the tools: a nib, pen holder and a beautiful bottle of ink. Calligraphy is the art of drawing letters. I was very keen to find out more about this historically rich art form that existed before fonts and typography came about.

When I had the opportunity to take a calligraphy lesson, the tactile experience of creating crisp clean lines on paper captivated me, and still captivates me to this day. One of the reasons that keeps me in this field of practice is my belief in the creative power of words to transform. I see words as the content and calligraphy as the vehicle that make words tangible. 

Calligraphy and penmanship go hand in hand. In your practice, what have you observed about our modern-day relationship with the art of writing? Is there a place for the analogue in an age where text is created, exists and is viewed on digital platforms?

I noticed a difference in the generation that grew up with a background in penmanship and the younger generation today through the workshops I have conducted. Penmanship is not a part of the school curriculum today, thus making calligraphy a kind of novelty. The younger generation attend calligraphy workshops as a means of exploring something new which they never had the opportunity to do so growing up.

Learning how to write using a keypad has a different impact on our fine motor skills as compared to learning to write using pen and paper.  The keypad has trained us to have quick finger reflexes while using pen and ink develops patience. It also creates a more mindful attitude to savour the present.

Having too much of anything always causes an opposite response. The digital age is creating a hunger for the analogue and things that are tangible, that possess a sense of warmth. The rise of slow-living movements and the love for gardening among the younger generation show that we still innately connect with the tactile.

With technology and readily available texts and fonts, the contrast with the analogue becomes more apparent. Penmanship and calligraphy are now viewed more as an art form rather than something that is merely functional. To be able to do something with your hands that no machine or human can replicate gives us an intrinsic sense of worth. Perhaps this is what many people are searching for. 

You were trained as a graphic designer and honed your skills in the advertising arena. How does your background in these fields shape or impact your art?

I am thankful to have worked in a studio that exposed me to experimental production techniques which combined design and art. We had book projects that incorporated several handwork techniques, for example, deconstructing materials like crayons or fabric. It opened my world to the beauty of the material and the tactile. Although things could be mass produced or printed, we chose to take a different, more laborious route.

Subtle hints of my design background can be seen in the way I compose words in my works. Although most of them have an organic form, they are grounded in design principles of balance and rhythm. The principles of positive and negative space, layering and abstracting texts have a profound influence on my practice. 

Installation view (detail) of Words Create Worlds

Installation view (detail) of <i>Words Create Worlds</i>

Your practice revolves around words and expressing them in visual and tangible form. What got you interested in words as a subject matter? Could you give us insight into this process of translating something seemingly abstract into material form?

I experienced how words can come alive and the power they have to transform our thought life through bible scriptures and by meditating on words. Our thoughts make up our world.

My creative process is shaped by the way my brain processes information. As a visual learner, I see an image of what a word could look like whenever I hear a phrase or scripture. It could come in the form of cut-out shapes or an abstract expression with varied strokes. My mind becomes the playground for this process of interpretation and translation. I try my best to capture this essence in the work. 

Installation view (detail) of Words Create Worlds

Installation view (detail) of <i>Words Create Worlds</i>

Could you share more on the process of creating the works for "Words Create Worlds"? How was it different from the way you worked on your other projects?

I had been used to creating one-off pieces on a much smaller scale. This project stretched me to think more conceptually and to bring a narrative together. Working on larger-scale pieces was also something I had to grow into. I set aside time to solely work on this project, allowing myself to be fully immersed in the process. It was very rewarding to be able to dive deep and have that dedicated space to create.

Through the making of each work, I was personally experiencing the power of words and the ways they affect us when we allow them to dwell in our headspace. A single word can cause a ripple effect to our emotions. I got to live out both the positive and negative effects. For the works done on canvases, I listened to words on repeat and responded intuitively. I was surprised at how the words were affecting my emotions and output more than I had expected.

You have experimented with a variety of mediums. Is there one that particularly resonates with you or any that you would like to explore next?

Sumi ink is something I always go back to. I like its simplicity and versatility and how it works well with different tools and surfaces. It is predictable yet it offers so much room for exploration. It also gives a certain kind of weight to my works that I find very grounding.

I have been collecting photos of food plating for a while, which are like fine art pieces to me. I would love to use vibrant colours and textures of food as paint. Food as a medium would be very interesting!

Check out Lim’s exhibition Words Create Worlds at the Esplanade Community Wall from 16 Apr to 4 Jul 2021.

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