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In the new issue of “Reading in Emigration” we talked to Maya Lebedeva, a Belarusian calligrapher, because it is not only important to read good books, but also to write well. In this interview you will learn what is calligraphy and what are its styles? Can calligraphy be an art of protest? How to “strengthen the spirit” with the help of calligraphy?


– Why did you start calligraphy?

– Calligraphy unites meaning and image. It can be used to emphasise the invisible and I am attracted to it. Besides, it is a good meditative art practice.

– How long have you been doing calligraphy?

– Since 2011. The Lopukhins sisters introduced me to calligraphy and I fell in love with it.

– Is calligraphy more about literature or graphics?

– I think calligraphy in this context is more like a bridge. I am inspired by literature, quotes, people and their stories. It’s always a primary source – a phrase, a quote, a long piece of text. But when I write, I think very structurally and systematically, graphically. Calligraphy in general has taught me to think in this way – to look closely at details without losing the whole, to realise every movement, to slow down.

– Calligraphy is used as an art of protest – banners, posters, stretching?

– Yes, with the help of letters you can express your political position very clearly. I wrote all my posters on cardboard the night before the rallies. Here calligraphic beauty and precision are not important at all. The main thing is to be heard.

– What is your attitude to this, the use of calligraphy in protests? Are there any other examples of socially significant use of calligraphy in history?

– I consider calligraphy to be a chamber art, which is rather suitable for delicate people and aesthetes. I don’t want to lie here, I don’t think that how beautifully and correctly a letter is written in terms of historical handwriting will make any difference. When you have a few seconds to read, what matters is the readability and sharpness of the meaning of the poster itself, not how beautifully it’s written.

About examples from history. If we move away from the topic of the poster, the very existence of historical handwritings (English Italic, Spenserian, Italic, Roman Capital, Gothic, Fraktur, Batarda) is already a cultural phenomenon and a cultural code. And we ourselves, as viewers and participants in a cultural movement, either give it importance or we don’t. The Americans are very interesting to me in terms of care and love for calligraphy today. They invented their own historical handwriting, different from its European predecessors. It differs not only in the shapes of letters, but also in the way of writing. And the way they carefully preserve and develop it inspires me very much. If we return to the Belarusan context, we have our own semi-established cursive script, the distinctive feature of which is the long outgoing elements (in c, d, u, etc.). And by character it is calm, clear and quite well readable. It has its own unique character and for me it is very valuable and interesting.

– Do you teach calligraphy or is it just for yourself and for sale?

– I have been cooperating with Kaplanschool for five years, where I sell my course. I give private lessons, among other things. There have been different experiences with short masterclasses.

– Where can I see and buy your work?

– So far I only teach at the school and make orders that periodically fly in from friends or acquaintances. After my 20th year, I burned out a lot and am now looking for inspiration in new materials. My latest project is a sweater with the letters “bagna” embroidered with glass beads.

– What are the styles of calligraphy and what does calligraphy mean in general?

– I have told about styles above. What is called historical handwriting was formed for quite rational reasons. For example, the Angle I teach was formed because of the necessity of English and Dutch traders to understand each other. And when printing was invented and calligraphy lost its functional meaning, the era of calligraphy as art began. Now calligraphy can be abstract and unreadable, it can remain ornamental and even figurative. I recently got a tattoo with the numbers 16.08.2020 according to my sketch. You can recognize these numbers only if you try, and in general – it is an image in which the numbers are rather a reason to play. In general, I think it’s clear what we calligraphers are dealing with now – the search for an image with minimal means.

– What kind of things do you prefer to write, what exactly to work on: one word or complex text? What sizes are better to work with: small sheets with an abundance of text or huge banners with one colourful word?

– A long-time dream of mine is to paint a wall with variations of the Roman capitol. I once painted a small wall in a bar, a minimalist sketch. It was just kickass. In general, there’s a paradoxical relationship here: I write a lot so I can end up writing little but good. Ha-ha.

– You have four children. What’s it like in emigration with kids?

– Not easy, but I like it. I try to find a life balance.

– Do you tell your children about politics in Belarus? How do you present the move and the situation in the country?

– Of course. We took our children to big marches a couple of times, when they were still more or less safe and big columns were gathered. I think that what happened in Belarus in the year 2020 went beyond political games and directly raised the question of the value of human life. I still remember the moment when we came to Zhodzina “to the prison” in the first days of the protests and my children played next to the volunteers with some caterpillar. They played carefully, but left it on the asphalt. I began to explain to them that it was better not to do that, because it would be squashed, but it could still eat leaves and live. A middle-aged man passed by and heard this conversation. And there was a very important pause. He smiled, said something supportive. Every life is worth being handled with care. In those days the phrase hung in the air: “You can’t do that to people. You can’t do that to us”. So the children read it all and I don’t see the point in creating some other reality for them.

The move was explained by the fact that we are in danger in our country because of our choices and position.

– What do you think, will the children call themselves Belarusians, or is it unlikely?

– I asked them this question, because I am also curious. Yes, the older ones consider themselves Belarusians. It is not clear yet how it will be with the younger ones, but I do everything in my power to make them know who they are and where they come from.

– How important is it for a person to have good handwriting in your opinion? How does it reveal personality? After all, in ancient China calligraphy was practised as a separate compulsory discipline to “strengthen the spirit”?

– I think that ordinary handwriting reflects a person’s temperament and even his way of thinking. Calligraphy classes have definitely taught me not to despair and to move gradually, with small steps. Balance is very important in calligraphy. Not only the balance of black and white, not only what we see, but also the balance inside the writer. It is important not to fall into self-madness if you don’t succeed, but also not to exalt yourself when you succeed, because it is most likely an accident. Developing the skill requires a great deal of patience and persistence. Apparently, that’s what “fortifying the spirit” is all about.

P.S. On the photo are the works of Maya Lebedeva – you can order them via Instagram.