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By Charles Lehman

For the Sentinel

When a small set of poems by 'Goldie' (William Penn), a local poet who enjoys spending time at St. Francis Dining Hall, were passed around a group of oil-painting friends working at the far end of the St. Francis Dining Hall, there was genuine appreciation for his heart-felt writing; but there was also clear interest in the way they were presented - in calligraphy on handmade paper. The work was done as a gift to celebrate and encourage the author. But it was also bait by a calligraphy teacher wearing his heart on his sleeve. An offhand offer of a weekly calligraphy class open to all comers at the St. Francis Dining Hall Art Program quickly drew about six enthusiastic students, including two staff members, at the beginning of July. Now, about halfway through the scheduled sessions, the staff members have been called away by their duties, but four dedicated regulars, along with a changing crowd of observers, have persisted through the one-hour classes, and beautiful writing is beginning to blossom on their pages.

Each class session lasts about one hour and is busy with the details of tools, techniques, and letter designs. Everyone already knows how to write, so the number, sequence, and direction of letter strokes are relatively simple to adjust to. But it is the wonderful thick and thin patterns of crisp letter strokes that create the visual richness, and the beauty of learning the traditional craft of calligraphy is the simplicity of letting the tool, the broad-edged nib, do the work of patterning for you. Then it becomes a matter of light touch with a 'thirsty' pen making well-defined stokes and placing them just so.

If asked, the artists will tell you that making artwork of any kind, but especially calligraphy, requires stretching personal abilities. At first, it is difficult to do things well while getting acquainted with a new tool dipped in ink, which tends to flow awfully fast. Eventually the newness wears away, and attention is given to sensitively made safe letter strokes. Results then become more than satisfactory; they become even beautiful. Recently, as the instructor moved from one student to the next at the table to give criticism, he referred to a letter shape produced by a student as 'elegant.' There was absolute silence at the table. Everyone had stopped work and looked up. The student, a young lady, sat motionless looking down at her work. 'Nothing in my life has ever been 'elegant,'' she said quietly. Without further discussion, everyone resumed work, and the criticism continued from one student to the next. Everyone at the table, however, had caught the message - each person is a special kind of artist with potential to create beauty in simple ways. Refined gracefulness is routinely recognized in the work of each of the students, and there is a hunger for more 'elegance' that may eventually be discovered in other aspects of their lives and serve as a basis for self-esteem. That is why art is important - the value of the results are negotiable in living.

The calligraphy class and independent artwork by several other artists who gather each day at the St. Francis Dining Hall is not an accident or the result of some gadfly impulse. The momentum has been growing over the past few years, ever since the administration of the dining hall obtained a small grant of $1,000 for art materials for 'clients.' The materials for oil painting and watercolors were passed out without benefit of instruction. People started painting, and now they don't want to stop. Donations of art materials have supplemented the supply of what was first given. Two deceased artists' studios were given recently by their families to support the art program, and the quantity of work produced increased immediately. Unframed oil paintings placed for critical acclaim line the stage and side wall area of the dining room. Artists' styles differ, and it is easy to identify the work of informal leaders of the program as well as several new beginners. Word of sales is passed over coffee as news of a miracle, and a quiet competition grows among the painters. What more is needed? Donations of art equipment and materials are always welcome and would be picked up on a phone call the dining hall office, but additional offers of formal instruction in any medium, for example, leather craft or watercolors, would expand the number of folks helped. If you have time and want to help by offering to teach a workshop or a series of classes, call (503) 234-2028.

The writer is a Portland Catholic, a calligrapher and an author.