The spiritual art of calligraphy

Philip Ellis Foster's work on view in Newfane

NEWFANE — Most of us are content to maintain one profession in a lifetime. Not Philip Ellis Foster. His eclectic background has run the gamut from art historian and teacher with a Ph.D. from Yale University, to a degree in economics from the University of Michigan, a law degree from Columbia, and now, with multiple art studies behind him, an artist. He gets bored easily — and that's a good thing. That boredom led him to his latest endeavor as an artist, the fruit of which is on view through the month of June. His exhibit, "Northern Exposure" is at the Crowell Gallery in the Moore Free Library in Newfane.

He is a New York City resident, but his connection to Vermont leads to Middletown Springs, just north of Manchester, where he spends every Christmas with a college roommate. It is their tradition to collect free magazines to start the winter fire. While crumpling up pages he spotted an advertisement for Crowell Gallery and the idea of exhibiting there stuck with him. He contacted Bobbe Ragouzeos, President of the Board of Trustees for the library and after patiently waiting for an opening in the gallery's schedule, his ink on paper artwork is now on view here in southern Vermont.

He began painting 10 years ago. Foster said, "I kind of like to do things that I don't know anything about. I wanted to do something different. I saw a brochure for calligraphy classes in upstate New York with Barbara Bash and it looked interesting." He found the brochure on a Thursday and was in class that weekend. He started out by making his own brushes with hair and bamboo sticks — practicing first with water, then progressing to ink on paper. There he learned the method of Buddhist calligraphy which is not about characters in writing but is about designs that stand for heaven and earth (depicted in black ink), and humanity (depicted in red ink). To accomplish this art form the mind must be open.

He loved it.

To continue his new-found love he signed up for weekly sessions with a Japanese calligrapher. For four years he learned three of the different scripts in Japanese calligraphy by copying repeatedly to get it down. Once again, boredom set in and he started making imaginary characters, drawing from his earlier training.

Now itching to do his artwork with a freer form, he found a class called Advanced Studio with Maurizio Pellegrin, of the School at the National Academy Museum and School. Most of the art on display is from those classes. The three main walls at the gallery contain art forms that he is most interested in, a method that he came upon accidentally. To protect the tables from his zealous strokes that went off the edges, he placed newsprint underneath the 12-inch square paper base(approximately) he used for his art. When he pulled his finished artwork off of the newsprint it left behind something wonderful. A square hole on the newsprint surrounded by design. This became the basis for the art on those three main walls.

Foster described them as experiential walls. They are meant to be viewed in a meditative state. Foster has provided the following viewing instructions on how to look at the art:

"Welcome to my exhibition. This is an experiential art show. Your participation is most cordially requested!

So please look around. Take your time. Find a large painting you like. Pull up a chair. Look at the painting.

First, while looking at the painting, notice how your body feels. You can try an imaginary body scan, from head to toe. Notice what you find. If you sense tension somewhere, just let it go, relax.

Now continue to look at the painting. Notice now what you are feeling. Observe how you are feeling at the moment. Take your time. Your feelings may change, come and go. Let them.

And when you are ready, still looking at the painting, begin to notice your thoughts. Let your thoughts come and go. See where they lead you. No hurry, just being there, a witness to your own thoughts. Take as long as you like.

With time everything may settle down, and you may find yourself in a state of equanimity, just abiding, just being there, in the present, looking at a painting. No cares, no worries, just being there in the moment.

I hope you will find this experience enjoyable, interesting, and maybe even informative. Feel free to write your comments in the guest book. And thank you for participating!"

The gallery provides a bench to sit on to contemplate among other things, Heart Sutra teaching "form is emptiness, emptiness is form."

Foster is very interested in reading the comments visitors write in the guest book.

The fourth wall is very different from the other three, done on rice paper in Japanese Calligraphy, to enjoy as you wish.

He named his exhibit "Northern Exposure" because this is the first time he has shown his work north of New York City. He said in retrospect he would now call it "Mandalas and Others." Whatever the name, it is a spiritual experience to view.

The Crowell Gallery is located at the Moore Free Library, 23 West St., Newfane. The gallery is open during library hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday 1 to 5 p.m.; Thursday 2 to 7 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Cicely M. Eastman may be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 261



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