If you’ve ever held an old handwritten letter in your hands, you know there is something special about the experience.

The swoop of cursive lettering, depending on penmanship, can either illuminate or obscure the words. The paper might feel brittle with age or give off a scent of perfume. The author may have done little drawings, either illustrative or just to add a touch of whimsy for the reader to enjoy. Those things all add up to a sensory experience that some worry is slowly dying away.

With the rise of almost instantaneous communication in the form of e-mail, text messaging, Twitter, SnapChat and other messaging services, it is becoming increasingly rare for people to communicate via handwritten letters.

Cross-hatch letter writing

Humanities Professor Dallie Clark’s collection includes many examples of letter writing and correspondence accoutrements through time. Above is an example of “cross-hatch” writing, which allowed the writer to get the maximum use out of a page. (At top) Clark’s office features many examples of letter-inspired art. Clark was named the Lebrecht Endowed Chair for Scholarly and Civic Engagement in August.

Acquainting a new generation with the beauty of handwritten communication is certainly one of the reasons behind Humanities Professor Dallie Clark’s “The Letter as Art in the Digital Age,” a multi-discipline, multimedia project, currently in planning, made possible in part by the Lebrecht Endowed Chair for Scholarly and Civic Engagement. Dr. Clark was named as chair in August.  The proposed exhibit represents an outgrowth from her 2012 doctoral dissertation at the University of Texas at Dallas.  “My UTD professors, as well as my colleagues at Collin College, were very supportive as I conceived of and wrote about this exhibit,” she said.

Although the concept will continue to evolve as the project proceeds, “The Letter as Art in the Digital Age” will consist of a mobile art exhibition and short documentary film showcasing various aesthetic aspects of the handwritten letter.  Having already collected and framed many samples and artifacts, Dr. Clark will continue building the collection over the next year.

Although obvious ties to history, literature and art are integral to the project, she also hopes to draw on the benefits of letter writing from an interdisciplinary, scientific and neurological perspective.  Her idea is not to deny the obvious advantages of digital correspondence, but rather to show that handwritten missives can be integrated into modern life as beautifully and beneficially as any other form of communication.

“I want to create an exhibit and short documentary that will remind us of the cultural heritage and beauty of  letters as well as an appreciation for their artistic aesthetic; I also hope to reignite an excitement to create them again,” Dr. Clark said. “Just because we are now so technologically entrenched doesn’t mean we can’t stop to learn how to create a piece of art imbued with meaning and depth.”

To that end, the eventual exhibit will highlight the aesthetic elements of the letter, a look at how the letter has changed in terms of material and cultural practices, and how powerfully letters have inspired other peripheral art forms such as film, music and visual art.  Additionally, the exhibit will include newly created student and community art submissions illustrating that influence, thoughts on the future of letter writing, and a writing station for patrons to practice the art.

Dr. Clark will use the time afforded her by the Lebrecht Endowed Chair position to continue developing the idea, but one of the possibilities she has floated includes speaking to people whose worlds have been altered by the receipt of a letter.

“There are some extraordinary stories I plan to feature in the documentary accompanying this exhibit,” she said, “especially about people in the elderly population who can attest to how letters have shaped their lives.  Even in the modern day, countless stories exist about how letters have changed lives and shaped the world.”

Dr. Clark will be seeking community partners to help bring the project to fruition, both as subjects to interview and as artists to contribute. For more information on the project and how you can be a part of it, contact Dr. Clark at dclark@collin.edu.