Last Thursday, Sept. 22, at 5:30 p.m. Greene Block + Studios held one of the first events at the new Center for Book and Print. Jan Owen, book artist and calligrapher, was at the center of the event, where she showed students, faculty, and others in attendance some of her artistic pieces. Though the event’s attendance was sadly sabotaged by the rainy weather of the day, the show went on regardless.
Living in Belfast, Maine, Owen has made a living out of the art of writing and its related aesthetics: she has made hand-lettered books and scrolls with a variety of pens and brushes, working in different styles of calligraphy, which she delightfully demonstrated to the audience as she grabbed an “automatic pen” and ink, writing sample fonts on a cardboard-size piece of paper.
On display were a few of Owen’s hand-made cards, which we later learned were made out of paper, what she called a “paste” of different materials, such as tree leaves, or flowers, a concept that explained the texture of the cards. They felt organic, rather than being simple designs printed onto the paper.
On another table stood a piece of cardboard displaying the different types of holiday cards that Jan Owen and Wes McNair made together. As Owen explained, McNair has asked her to use his poetry to make holiday cards, so she rewrote them into original fonts, spacing, and even drawings in accordance to the season or celebration. Copies of two of these cards were available for the audience to take home with them, which was a true gift.
One of the most impressive parts of the demonstration, though, was when Owen showed us two of the books she had made. Under the supervision of a rabbi from the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland, Owen was able to create a beautiful book called “Hannah’s Song,” honoring the poem originally written in Hebrew, and tracking it historically, from its origins to its current English version, from the Book of Samuel to Greece, to Rome, and beyond. There is even a version of the song written in binary code, highlighting its musical element, that the words themselves are like notes. There are pages where the fragments in different languages are written on top of each other, with the most recent version on top, and the first being very faint, giving the appearance of the passage of time. All of these versions are written in their own languages, with as authentic lettering as Jan was able to do – which was quite a lot (Owen jokes that she hopes she got the Hebrew parts right, considering the help she received at the Jewish Museum).
The second book she showed was called “Allegiance,” separated by syllables on the cover and with a painting of an American flag as a background. Both decisions hint at the contents of the book as an exploration of the American national identity. Inspired by the question of citizenship, Jan researched the process of naturalization and its laws across history: there is even a page with the full naturalization questionnaire written out. Another page includes the American flag, but with each stripe having a different skin tone, to represent America’s racial diversity. Though today the fine distinction between patriotism and nationalism is on many people’s minds, being an American citizen means something different to each person, and though Owen herself does not include the bulk of that conversation in this artwork, she mentions that this project allowed her to investigate the deep history of America, starting from the Declaration of Independence.
And though all of this was impressive, when Owen grabbed her automatic pen and ink and put them to paper, it was a different experience altogether. She wrote the history of calligraphy out with confidence, beginning with the Roman writing style and going through Uncial, Gothic, and Italic, writing slowly and steadily. It took only one stroke of the pen to go through every letter on the paper. She says that the work of a calligrapher is to find anything to write on and anything to write with, which she demonstrated by writing with pieces of wood, Q-tips, a bamboo pen, and small brushes. She made it look so simple, and when we were given the same materials for a workshop after the demonstration, we were all left confused about how to make our calligraphy look as good as the artist’s. Personally, I took a liking to the bamboo pen, but it does not mean my calligraphy is any good.
I was glad to hear from someone so deeply attached to their art, their process, and their outlook on the world.
The new Center for Book and Print is led by Colby College Libraries in collaboration with the Arts Office, which is free and open to the public, and found on the ground floor of Greene Block + Studios. It will continue to offer spaces for students, scholars, and artists to explore art, design, and history related to books on a monthly basis. Greene Block + Studios as a whole also offers concerts, festivals, readings, and Wednesday workshops for all ages and levels of experience.
~ Nico Flota Sanchez `25