EXHIBITION LOOKS AT ‘LETTER AS ART’

Artwork for "The Letter as Art in the Digital Age."

THE ARTS gallery will host “The Letter as Art in the Digital Age” from Jan. 17 – Feb. 22. This exhibition features thematic paintings and visual arts inspired by letter writing, as well as digital pieces, letter excerpts featuring elaborate penmanship, antique writing desks, stamps, postcards, envelopes, fountain and dip pens, mailboxes and more.

The exhibition is curated by Dr. Dallie Clark, a humanities professor at Collin College and the college’s Lebrecht Endowed Chair for Scholarly and Civic Engagement. Cougar News asked Dr. Clark a little about the exhibition and about her infatuation with the handwritten letter*.

What do you love about handwritten letters?
For me, the very act of creating a handwritten letter potentially speaks of artistry and inner reflection, whether the missive is a simple thank you note or a long, passionate love letter.  From the moment we pick up a piece of stationery, choose a special pen, and begin thinking of our intended recipient, we have the chance, not only to share the normal occurrences of our everyday lives, but also the power to generate a legacy letter for our loved ones – or simply to offer appreciation, encouragement, friendship and love to those who need it.

A handwritten letter proclaims, “I am thinking of you as I write these lines!” Choosing to write a hand-penned letter allows us the opportunity to create a purposeful piece of artful communication via our own unique handwriting, whether that script includes glorious, refined penmanship, silly, quirky loops and lines, or child-scrawled alphabet letters.  It’s so human.  By choosing to compose a letter in our own one-of-a-kind handwriting, we can include lyrical lines, humorous anecdotes, poems and quotations; we can include sketches, enclose pressed botanicals, photos and other delightful ephemera.  Such a creation is something we can savor, touch, and, literally, hold close to our hearts.

And let’s not forget about the potential to enclose the letter in an aesthetically pleasing envelope with perfectly chosen stamps.  Stamp art is wondrous and unlimited!   I like to imagine my recipients opening their mailbox and perhaps even recognizing my handwriting and then being delighted by the unique stamps or sketches I had included on the envelope itself.  That creates a spirit of delicious anticipation about what is inside.

Letters and letter-writing materials from Dr. Dallie Clark's collection.

Letters and letter-writing materials from Dr. Dallie Clark’s collection.

When and how did you strike upon the idea for this project?
My father was in the Air Force, and since we moved around quite a bit, my mother was somewhat of a nomadic antique dealer, often picking up various paper ephemera at flea markets, estate sales, garage sales and such.  Many years ago, she gave me an old shoebox of letters she had found, and I guess her own curiosity and appreciation for the handwritten word stayed with me.  Years passed, and as I was pondering my dissertation topics at the University of Texas at Dallas, something clicked – at yet a garage sale!  Fortuitously, as I was wandering through a sale in my own neighborhood, I happened upon a vintage 1961 book published by Hallmark called The Spirit of the Letter in Painting, and I was hooked.  Inside, I beheld beautiful masterworks from centuries past featuring people reading or writing letters.  From then on, not only did I see art in letters themselves, it seemed that everywhere I looked, I saw examples of how letters had inspired other art forms as well.  Films, music, poetry, plays, novels, paintings, décor merchandise – all of it!  I began slowly accumulating not only old beautiful examples of penmanship in letters, but I also began collecting many other items inspired by letter writing such as sheet music, movie posters, pens and pen advertisements, postcards, stamps and vintage mailboxes.

Needless to say, I had my dissertation topic and have maintained my passion for it, even after completing my doctorate in 2012.  In one of the dissertation chapters, I specifically proposed an interactive exhibit to highlight how letters have inspired multiple art forms, and I’ve been fortunate that through an Endowed Chair position at Collin College, I’ve been able to plan and debut this in 2017 at “THE ARTS gallery” at the Spring Creek Campus.

Do you have a favorite example that you believe illustrates the art of handwritten letters?
Believe it or not, I don’t have a true favorite because I’m enamored with numerous letters because of their various artistic qualities – either the penmanship – or the poetic and powerful wording – or the enclosures – or a combination of these.  I will say though that being allowed to touch and read some of Jane Austen’s letters at the British Library was an over-the-top experience for me.  Additionally, the kind archival staff at Wheaton College allowed me to study some of C.S. Lewis’s long, long letters, complete with sketches, and they were breathtaking to behold.  I will add though that some of my husband’s family letters have also touched me deeply, and I plan to display several of them in the exhibition.  They weren’t written by anyone famous, yet they reflect many meaningful aspects of our humanity.  Just recently I found one my mother-in-law had written to her future husband – and inside she had enclosed a scented handkerchief and a poem.  So lovely to hold and read her writing.

Do you think that people see the inherent art in letter writing? Or is it something that people take for granted and only see if you present it to them as art?
Yes and no.  I do think that many of us do, but in today’s frenzied world, we don’t always take time to create a deeper, more inventive form of communication.  That said, even if we weren’t brought up writing and receiving letters, as many of my students have expressed in anonymous surveys, as human beings we love to see our own names handwritten beautifully – and it’s very special to open a mailbox and see that someone has taken time to hand pen a note, card, or letter to us versus whipping out a text.  I love my digital tools and would never want to lose them, but in the same vein, I don’t ever want to lose my ability to handwrite and loop, cross, and dot my letters to reveal my deepest loves, sorrows, hopes and dreams.  I told a friend at the National Archives office recently that “script makes me swoon,” and it does!

Do you believe your exhibition may inspire others to hand write more letters?
That’s the plan!  I hope after proceeding through the exhibit, visitors will want to ADD hand letter-writing to their communication choices.  I hope they will recognize that creating a letter is an opportunity to create a piece of art.   And I plan to offer them the materials to do so: pens, notecards, stationery, and maybe even stamps, to sit down and pen a letter before leaving the campus.

Do you think that we are losing something by moving to texts, e-mails and other, more ephemeral forms of communication?
I like to tell my students that this is not about “either or.”  I love digital technology and can’t imagine surviving in our present world without it.  I also teach online courses.  But there’s no reason why we can’t appreciate and nurture multiple forms of communication.  When I bring up this topic with my classes, my students have been amazingly open and excited about rekindling and/or discovering the art of the letter in their own lives.  I give them free stationery and envelopes, and we discuss whose lives would be enriched by receiving a letter from them.

How did you decide what to include in your exhibition? Please tell me about a few prominent pieces/pieces you believe people will love.
The collection of letters, artifacts, and in some cases, a few newly created props, has simply grown over time, and my game room isn’t big enough to hold all if it anymore!  I hope to designate sections to highlight the various art genres impacted and inspired by letters.  For instance, visitors will not only be able peruse some beautiful, artistic letters, but they’ll also be able to view short film clips about letters – or listen to music composed about letters.  They’ll be able to see paintings inspired by letters and a few student projects as well.  Additionally, the art of the stamp and other letter writing materials will also be on display.  THE ARTS gallery website is listing any special events associated with the exhibition.

THE ARTS gallery is located in Room room A-175 of Collin College’s Spring Creek Campus. For gallery hours or more information on the show and related events, please visit www.collin.edu/department/artsgallery/.

* Please note that some of the above answers have been also appeared in other promotional materials and magazine stories.

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