In some traditions, it all begins with the Word. In keeping with the power of words, and with the relative rarity of the skill, many ancient cultures revered writing, and honored those who could write and read. Now we’re living through changes that find writing reduced to texting. For words we may substitute acronyms or emojis. Some lament the lack of penmanship training in school, but others say, “Who needs it?” Even keyboarding on a QWERTY typewriter is losing out to double-thumbing on a screen-ette.
And then there’s Laura Di Piazza. An artist with an MFA from Goddard College in Plainfield, Laura has bent her artistic interests and talents primarily towards calligraphy. The word means ‘beautiful writing,’ and that’s an exact description of what she mainly does.
“I was exposed to calligraphy purely by chance in seventh grade,” Laura says. “I was in an inner-city school in Brooklyn that offered an Italic calligraphy course for only one academic year. My teacher was very kind, patient and she provided me with plenty of guidance and encouragement to pursue calligraphy beyond her class.” Laura continued her interest in calligraphy, keeping it as a hobby into her twenties, while she engaged in the common post-college mix of jobs. In her case,i the mix included working in a sleep lab, and doing publicity for SAG (the Screen Actors Guild). “I offered calligraphy on the side,” she recalls cheerfully, “and it kept growing. After a while there was no time for a day job.”
She produced material for corporate events, weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and so forth. “That kept me very busy, but I cut back when I became a mother,” she says. Her daughter Alice was born in 2005, and her twins, Harry and Lucy, in 2007. The family moved to Norwich in 2008.
Teaching There and Here
In addition to producing calligraphy, Laura teaches classes and workshops. She’s spread her skills over a wide area in this way, though the classes are necessarily small. In the Upper Valley, she’s taught calligraphy at Dartmouth, Artistree, POST and AVA, and has given workshops in Europe, but mostly she teaches in New York, for Society of Scribes, commuting down for a weekend. She enjoys getting a fix of city life, but she likes returning to the Upper Valley. She says, “It’s very relaxed here. You don’t ever have to worry about crime, and the air is so clean! And here people aren’t as showy.” (We certainly don’t pretend to dress in a league with the New York art scene!) Laura herself radiates a winning combination of style and the hominess of a mom and of a special needs teacher, a calling she also pursues. Herself a mix of cultures – her father is an Italian-American from Brooklyn, and her mother is Eritrean – she blends the beauties of both races.
Taking Time, Creating Focus
“There’s a movement to ‘slow’ activities,” Laura points out. “People are so immersed in the fast-paced digital world, but they want a respite. There’s definitely a comeback to pen and ink.” Ironically, that digital world provides access to slow arts like calligraphy. “Lots of people are learning online,” she adds. “The internet has made this ancient art form popular. Video is very important. It’s helpful to see it being done.”
Modern calligraphers use an oblique penholder that enables them to set the nib at the appropriate angle for pointed pen calligraphy. Laura mostly letters copperplate, a flowing style characterized by thicker down-strokes (written with more pressure on the nib), and delicate fine hairlines elsewhere. The script offers great opportunities for decorative flourishes.
Exhibiting and Curating
Sometimes Laura’s calligraphy is part of a show by another artist. For example, in a recent exhibition called Office of Unreplied Emails – by international artist Camille Henrot, exhibited in Berlin, Germany, and Paris, France – Laura created calligraphic versions of the poetic and philosophical responses that Henrot designed as answers to alarmist fundraising emails.
Laura occasionally mounts a show of her own work, both calligraphic and abstract. Some of her paintings include words, and other pieces seem to convey information in an unknown script, as though they were maps or chip designs. She currently has an exhibition, Vox Somnium, at Northern Stage (through May 23). “My point,” she says, “is to showcase work that is not ordinary, that you could possibly see in a dream, and in a dream it would make sense.” In November and December of 2018, the Norwich Library will host a display of Laura’s calligraphic work.
Laura also curates exhibitions of other artists’ work. “I like someone’s work, so I say ‘Let’s show it somewhere.’ I kind of match-make artists with venues and media outlets, selecting works and how they’re displayed. It’s so much easier [for the artist] when someone else is doing this, or helping.” She has curated exhibitions at, for example, UVM and Vermont Law School.
Passing on the Gift
“My favorite show,” says Laura, “was the one I curated last spring at the Norwich Public Library. It was a display of work by elementary school students in Vermont and New Hampshire.” Students from as far as Lempster and Woodstock saw their work professionally displayed, thanks to a grant from the Byrne Foundation to help with framing costs. The opening reception didn’t need champagne to have plenty of fizz – and Laura knows from her own experience how taking a young person’s artistic efforts seriously can change lives.