The Painted Word cover
The Painted Word, Inspirational Calligraphy by Dave Wood, 1999, 94 pp., hardcover.

The Painted Word

by Cari Ferraro

When I recently came across a reference to kangaroo vellum on the Cyberscribes mailing list, I realized how much my awareness of Australia, or as it's affectionately called, Oz, has grown in the last few years, thanks to a greater influx of Australian movies and books, and of course the internet. But aside from a couple of books by Diana Hardy Wilson, my knowledge of calligraphy from The Land Down Under has been fairly slim.

The Painted Word, Inspirational Calligraphy by Dave Wood, goes a long way toward remedying my ignorance. Lavishly illustrated with nearly 100 color reproductions of his work, this self-published book shows a multitude of techniques in action from a very talented and prolific artist. An accomplished calligrapher (he was elected a Fellow of England's Society of Scribes and Illuminators in 1991), his training in fine arts in his native England, and his years as an art director in New Zealand, shine through in every piece.

The title (a nod to Donald Jackson's exhibit catalog Painting With Words) gives a true indication of what lies within. Every piece of work includes some sort of illustration, occasionally as a collaboration with another artist. These pieces are always graphically interesting, never static. A brighter palette seems to reflect the bright light of Australia. Though Dave draws on historic sources, his work has a decidedly modern feel. He works in a variety of lettering styles, sometimes employing peculiar majuscules which he refers to as "pre-Roman." Techniques range from embossed letters, gilding and resist to washes, cut paper letters and paper sculptures, a veritable multimedia. He shows a particular fondness for handmade paper, even incorporating elements of the paper, such as embedded eucalyptus leaves, into the final design. It seems that Australians, like Americans, feel more able to break the rules, and there are fresh and innovative treatments here. There are times when such a riot of lettering and pictorial styles overwhelms the viewer, but there is always a sense of exuberance and love of lettering.

Many calligraphers seem to be, if not exactly obsessed, then quite intent on certain texts and themes, and Dave is no exception. Many texts appear more than once, sometimes side by side in different treatments. Earth themes recur often, reflecting his love of his adopted landscape and its flora and fauna. The captions for each piece are a bit too interpretive, which perhaps appeals to a wider audience, but as a calligrapher I found myself wishing for more information about mediums and techniques. Belatedly I found the details I sought at the end of the book, in the Technical Details section, but it is bothersome to flip back and forth for this information. Sometimes the pictures are cropped in such a way that only a portion is shown, yet the caption doesn't say it is a detail. Dimensions, when finally found with the technical details, are still unintelligible to an American: 200 by 300 what? Centimeters? Millimeters? The arrangement of the pieces left me baffled in a few cases. For example different pages from a handmade book appeared in two separate places in the book, when it would have made more sense to show all the pages sequentially. Amazingly there is not a copyright date to be found anywhere in the book. And better proofreading would have been appreciated, unless Australian spelling is more idiosyncratic than I thought.

Though the price of the book is high, reflecting the cost of self-publishing and the fairly limited number of copies printed, the book is so full of interesting and fresh ideas that it would be a welcome addition to any calligrapher's bookshelf, especially one interested in exploring the addition of illustration and graphics to our art.

Review written in 1999