The fingernail as an artist’s tool $14.50

letter arts review 27:4 . The fingernail as an artist’s tool . Calligraphy written with water in the parks of China
An interview with Russian painter and calligrapher Vitaly Shapovalov . An exploration of Sacred Geometry by Ann Hechle
Detail from the seventh of the seven sorrows of the virgin mary . Brody Neuenschwander
Letter Arts Review
The editor’s letter: The beauty of the graveyard
Volume 27 Number 4
Autumn 2013
Cover artist: Brody Neuenschwander
Briefly noted: A new inscription at Yale University
By Nicholas Benson
Nakha chitra: Fingernail art
By Holly Cohen
A disappearing act
By Robin Sutton Anders
Vitaly Shapovalov
Interview by Christopher Calderhead
Translation by Marija Zutić
Figures of speech:
A journal of Sacred Geometry
By Ann Hechle
Vitaly Shapovalov
Watercolor on paper
See the article beginning on page 32.
Letter Arts Review 27:4
nakha / fingernail
Christopher Calderhead
and Holly Cohen go on an
expedition to meet the artist
detailed embossed artwork
using only his fingernail.
Suhas Tavkar, who makes
chitra / art
Above: A work by Suhas
Tavkar’s father, Anant
Opposite: Works by
Suhas Tavkar. The top
piece renders his last
name in a flourished
Devanagari script. The
bottom piece is the word
“peace” in Armenian.
By Holly Cohen . I met Christopher on a train
station platform in Jamaica, New York, where
we hopped a quick train out to Bellerose. The
sun was shining over a crisp fall day and we were
off to meet Suhas Tavkar, a fingernail artist.
Fingernail art is the embossing, or “drawing,” of
images on paper, where the embossing tool is the
artist’s actual fingernail. Paper and fingernails are
the only materials needed. Suhas had contacted
us after reading the Indian chapter in our book,
The World Encyclopedia of Calligraphy. He
sent us images of his fine, detailed work, which
includes embossed calligraphy, figurative art, and
abstract designs, all created with his fingernails.
Christopher and I have been on many
such outings together, exploring pockets of
neighborhoods in New York previously unknown
to us, invited into communities by artists of
many ethnicities. We have spent afternoons at a
Sri Lankan Buddhist Monastery in Queens, eaten
dinner in Manhattan’s Koreatown with a Korean
calligrapher (a most gracious host), and once met
with a Burmese artist who shared his experiences
as a dissident university student in Burma.
We were excited to be on a new cross-cultural
We walked from the Bellerose station through
a suburban Indian neighborhood of neat, tidy
houses, often identical in design. Many had
colorful flowers and manicured lawns. We
continued on to Suhas’ address, where he was
waiting for us in front of his home. A handsome
man dressed casually in jeans, Suhas looks
younger than his seventy years. He welcomed us
with hearty handshakes, a big smile, and led us
directly down to his basement.
We sat down on beige leather sofas in the den
just outside his basement studio.
“My father told me there are many types
of artists in this world, but if you draw with
your fingernail, your art can be seen by a blind
person,” Suhas told us shortly after we arrived.
Fingernail art, or nakha chitra, according to
Suhas, is one of the world’s oldest and rarest of all
art forms. In Sanskrit, nakha means fingernail and
chitra means art. Suhas believes it dates back at
least to the fifth century, when fingernail drawing
was referred to in a play by playwright Kalidasa,
The Recognition of Shakuntala. The character
Shakuntala is found writing a letter to her lover
on a lotus leaf, inscribing it with her fingernail.
Nakha chitra was passed down through
numerous generations in the Tavkar family.
Suhas was taught by his father, and Suhas taught
his three children. To ensure its survival, he
teaches children at various branches of the New
York Public Library.
Above the doorway to Suhas’ studio is a
cuckoo clock. Inside, a bronze dancing Shiva
decorates one wall. There is a drafting table, and
books, a glue pot, mugs filled with pens, pencils,
and embossing tools fill the shelves.
Letter Arts Review 27:4
Above: François
Chastanet's book,
Ground Calligraphy in
All the images in this
article were provided
by Chastanet. Those
that come from his book
are marked with this
Opposite: A man writes
a large character with
water on the pavement
of a Chinese park.
By Robin Sutton Anders . In his recently published
book, Ground Calligraphy in China, French
architect and graphic designer François
Chastanet unlocks the cultural phenomenon
of dishu—the Chinese art of lettering in public
spaces. Rather than writing with traditional pen
and ink, dishu artists rely on tall, handmade
brushes as their instrument and water as their
medium. And instead of a graceful movement
of the wrist and fingertips, a dishu artist’s whole
body performs a dance as it sweeps through the
lettering strokes, the brush held at attention,
parallel to the body, feet sidestepping in ballroom
fashion. Here, Chastanet shares his experience
with the art of ground writing and reveals the
impact of its ephemeral quality on artists and
their passersby.
How did you first learn about dishu?
I actually learned about dishu through lowquality tourists’ videos on YouTube, shootings
dating from the early 2000s. Previously, I was
only aware of specific large-scale calligraphic
displays in China, like dazibao [large character
poster] walls or propaganda posters.
Why did this art form pique your interest?
After writing two publications addressing the
unexpected evolution of Latin letters in urban
graffiti contexts, I wanted to work on a similar
massive urban writing phenomenon. The study
of Asia and China then imposed itself quite
naturally. Unlike the Pixação phenomenon in São
Paulo and Cholo writing in Los Angeles that are
vandal practices, dishu is a largely recognized,
appreciated, and socially respected public graffiti
In an urban context, the ability to write both
vertically and horizontally in Chinese visual
language based on symbols that represent an
idea and/or word was powerful. This different
relation to space and the ephemeral nature of
dishu inscriptions seemed to constitute a very
rich photographic playground. The homemade
writing tools’ design process also seemed very
interesting; it became a photographic work on its
What are Chinese lettering artists attempting to
communicate through dishu?
Usually, these artists aren’t trying to
communicate a particular message. Dishu is
more of an introspective monologue, wherein
the process of writing is more important than the
sign produced. Most of the time, practitioners are
not inclined to clearly explain their intentions.
Letter Arts Review 27:4
Vitaly Shapovalov
Виталий Шаповалов
In August this year, I received a spate of e-mails from readers about a Russian calligrapher, Vialty Shapovalov.
Did I know him? Would I like to write an article about him? I searched him out on the Internet and was very
impressed by his work. I asked a friend, Marija Zutić, who speaks fluent Russian, to act as my interpreter. We
contacted Shapovalov, and he agreed to do an interview by e-mail. The interview we reproduce here has been
translated from the Russian by Marija, and it has been edited. In some places, Shapovalov's longer answers have
been paraphrased. I am delighted to present the work of this talented Russian watercolor artist and calligrapher,
who deserves to be widely known. —the editor
All the images in this
article are executed in
watercolor on paper.
On this page and
opposite: Two images
from the series 33
Alphabet Calligraphic
Initials, which explores
the letters of the
Russian alphabet. The
image opposite is a
quotation from Niels
Bohr describing how a
horseshoe may bring one
good luck.
Where do you work? Can you describe your
studio or working space?
I live in a multifamily building, in an apartment
that has three rooms. One room is for me. It is
a small room with one window and that is my
workspace. What’s the nature of your work? In other words,
do you have clients who commission your works,
or do you paint and make calligraphy on your
own and then exhibit and sell it? Is your work
intended for reproduction, or are your paintings
and calligraphy original artworks, meant to be
seen in person?
All of my [calligraphic] work I do exclusively for
myself. I come up with the theme, and I decide
on a form, that is, how it will look, because
sometimes I do a series of works with the same
theme. For example, my last [series] is comprised
of 33 works. This job lasted exactly two years.
Sometimes I get paid to do some work. Most
often, these are portraits. But mostly I’m working
for myself based on my interests and inspiration.
I never get bored working for myself. It turns out
that only I myself can determine how and what I
should do. That is why I can display my work in
an art shop or gallery.
In an earlier e-mail, you said you live in the
provinces. Where exactly do you live? Do you feel
isolated not being in a major city?
Yes. I live in a Russian province. My city is
called Rostov-on-Don (Rostov-na-Donu). This
is the beginning of the North Caucasus region
in Russia. Rostov-on-Don is not a small town,
Letter Arts Review 27:4
F I G U R E S O F S P E E C H : A journal on Sacred Geometry
By Ann Hechle . This journal was originally a
commission for one of three exhibitions put on
by the Edward Johnston Foundation. When Ewan
Clayton first spoke to me about the commission
in 1999, he suggested that the work might be
about the creative process, as he knew that I was
interested in the subject. I chose to investigate
this in book form, it being the most flexible,
and the first three sections were completed
quite quickly and formed part of the exhibition
in 2000. However, as I had become fascinated
with the subject, I decided to continue the work,
which has been carried out spasmodically for
over a decade subsequently.
Most books are written when the author has
completed studying the subject matter, so that
the book is the record of her findings, which
she then wishes to publish to a wider audience.
This journal was the opposite. I knew hardly
anything about the subject of Sacred Geometry
when I started, and the journal reflects that; it
looks quite patchy and disconnected. This did
not worry me as I knew that this was a personal
journey, and though the book would be held in a
public collection, it would not be published. This
gave me a great sense of freedom, as I felt I could
wander through ideas as they came up, page by
page, without having to stick to a logical thread.
Letter Arts Review 27:4
And the book would end either when I ran out of
paper or I died!
There is one great advantage in knowing
nothing—it is that when, out of the mass of
information gathered, you repeatedly stub
your toe on something, you know it must
be significant. This freshness of approach is
important, because recognition of a significant
connection can bring together quite different
and surprising elements, whereas learning in a
more formal way tends to box information into
separate categories. Also, I had my eye not only
on the subject of Sacred Geometry but also on
another more personal quest to do with design in
calligraphy, and art in general.
contemplating calligraphy today
But I need to go back a bit, and explain why
I chose the subject of Sacred Geometry to
investigate the creative process and to make the
journal. This journey had started some years
previously, prompted by the recognition that I
needed to rethink my teaching practice in light
of the way that calligraphy has changed in the
last decade or so. I began to realize that in certain
circumstances the traditional methods of looking
at letterforms and their contexts seemed no
longer entirely viable.
The images in this
article, unless otherwise
noted, are taken from
Ann Hechle’s manuscript
book exploring Sacred
Opposite: Page 14 of the
Following pages: A
spread exploring the
relationship of musical
intervals and their
relation to Sacred
Geometry. These are
pages 38 and 39 of the