Brush and Reed Brings the Meditative Art of Calligraphy to Kingston | Chronogram Magazine

Brush and Reed Brings the Meditative Art of Calligraphy to Kingston

Jena Argenta never wanted to choose between art and the written word, so she immersed herself in both. “I grew up absolutely surrounded by art,” she says. “My father was a high-fire ceramicist and my mother was a sculptor. I was always pulled toward both form and meaning.” As it turned out, life was calling her to the intersection of the two: calligraphy.

After graduating Sarah Lawrence with a BA in post-colonial studies and fine art, Argenta had a variety of creative jobs, but calligraphy found her in the kitchen, where she was working as a Sufi chef. “Sufism came into my life when I was searching and it drew me—it’s people who believe in love,” she says. “So a woman came back from a trip to Istanbul and brought me a reed. I was trying to figure out how to use it, watching YouTube videos and getting nowhere." 
Finally a friend put her in touch with Elinor Aishah Holland, one of only five Americans to be certified in the rigorous Ottoman School of Thuluth and Nashk Arabic calligraphic scripts. “Becoming certified in calligraphy can take longer than becoming a doctor, and the attitude when you get certified is ‘now you can begin,’” she says. “I love that perspective."
In 2016, Argenta headed to Istanbul to further her craft. “I stayed in Kabatas and took the ferry to Üsküdar every day for a lesson, working with a senior student of Hassan Çelebi. There is a really beautiful relationship between teacher and student in many traditions of calligraphy; and I felt that welcome, even though we needed a translator to communicate beyond letter corrections. My studies coincided with the coup, so that welcome and hospitality felt even more pronounced to me.”

Arabic calligraphy, she says, inspires a meditative stillness. “It’s made up of a series of strokes, much like a martial art, and the tool you’re using is organic, so you have to trim it and dip into your ink frequently," she says. "Hours can pass like this. And because of the pace, something in your breath also naturally changes.”

After Turkey, she journeyed to China, traveling through Xi’an, Shanghai, and Dali. “I looked for calligraphy everywhere, and when I saw the Sini script—which is Arabic letter forms in the Chinese style—something clicked—-you can see in calligraphy not just the passage of time and practices passed hand to hand, but places cultures meet and talk to each other.”

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Elinor Aishah Holland demonstrates calligraphy during ArtWalk.
It’s that energy—a stillness where cultures converge, where form meets message and art meets martial art—that she makes available at Brush and Reed Fine Art Calligraphy Studio in Kingston, where she settled after “bouncing around the Hudson Valley a while,” she says. “I love the city, but I grew up on a dirt road in Colorado with sheep and chickens.”

Kingston’s Rondout district struck a nice balance, and the city’s creative zeitgeist felt right. “Art here is not just a thing that hangs on the wall,” she says. “There’s an integration between art and community work, an ongoing conversation between your vision and the community. It excites me. And the embrace from people has been beautiful.”

Brush and Reed now hosts four teaching artists: Argenta; her hoca (Arabic calligraphy teacher) Holland; Cuban-born artist, healer, and international entrepreneur Nini de la Torre, founder of Orquesta Cosmica, with whom Argenta presented a “sound and ink” experience at O+ Festival 2019; and calligrapher, illustrator, and author Barbara Bash, who brings her Buddhist sensibilities and nonviolent communication expertise to the table. 
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Artists Carole Kunstadt, Kat Howard, Jena Argenta and la Torre.
“It’s a very Hudson Valley collaboration—I love the way people who have been rooted here for years still reach out and connect,” Argenta says. “There is a beautiful, moving energy up here. And there is a similar spirit with calligraphers, with those who have a kind of listening in their work, a different sort of sensitivity and offering—one that’s part of a larger picture, not just for oneself."

Along with traditional calligraphy workshops and lectures focused on various global traditions and the places where they intersect, Brush and Reed emphasizes “imaginative practice, play, and extended vision on the nature and importance of communication itself.” It’s all of a piece, says Argenta—a way of being in the world. “Calligraphers are tied to sacred traditions—the poetry of it starts to work in you and the result is not just beautiful words but beautiful behavior,” she says. “Calligraphic arts are a lot like martial arts, and practicing stillness these days, in whatever form, is a needed, almost revolutionary act.”

Get Inking

On February 1, as part of Kingston’s First Saturdays programming, Brush and Reed will host “Love Is Round: Installation Of Light & Shadow” from 5:30 to 7pm, with an ink demonstration from 6 to 6:30pm. On February 29, an introduction to abstract calligraphy will be offered as part of the DRAW (Department of Regional Art Workers) Kingston.

And in February and March, Argenta will be offering her two-day workshop “All Who Dare: The Art of The Love Letter/ Explorations in Calligraphy & Writing." Participants begin in the sensory realm, with sound healing bowls, gentle stretch, free writing, and taste—a “savoring,” as Argenta puts it. Ink practice is then employed as an awareness tactic. The first love letter, Argenta explains, will be one you write to yourself, and in it you may read the unexpected. "The ink," she says, "to quote a teacher of Barbara's, doesn’t lie.”