A re-posting: A master Japanese calligrapher in North Texas may seem like a fish out of water. But KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports that Chaco Terada has found her own style here — as well as a little piece of Japan. The Crow Collection of Asian Art currently has a small retrospective of Terada’s works, Word Spirit, along with David Gibson’s photos of the Kasuga Grand Shrine in Japan — so we decided to re-post this story from two years ago.
- KERA radio story:
Chaco Terada sits at a low table in a simple, spare, Japanese-style room of tatami mats and sliding paper doors. It’s a studio behind photographer David Gibson’s house in Dallas, and it looks out on a lush, quiet garden, a Japanese refuge of bamboo and stone and a pond filled with large, slow-moving koi .
It’s easy to forget this is Texas. Terada comes here to meditate — which means to meditate and practice calligraphy. She lays out the ‘four treasures’ of Japanese writing: water, paper, sticks of ink and the flat stone used to mix the ink with water.
Just doing this, she says, just practicing brushstrokes can make her happy. Chaco says, “How the brush move, or my finger move, or the color. . . . I love those.”
Many children in Japan are taught calligraphy beginning with the ancient, blocky Chinese symbols and then eventually the more fluid, Japanese style or kana. But Terada says, when she was born in Toyama, Japan, she was born into calligraphy. Her father, Soseki Terada, is a master calligrapher there — a マスターの書家, teaching classes of 50 students at a time.
“I started when I was about three years old,” Chaco says. “Even I didn’t know how to sit the Japanese way. So I sat on my mother’s lap, just to play with a brush.”
It wasn’t until she was a young adult, visiting other countries through cultural exchange programs like Up with People, that Terada turned to calligraphy as a way of conveying something of herself to foreigners and connecting to home. Terada’s first husband brought her to Dallas in 1992. She’s taught classes in area schools and has demonstrated calligraphy at the Crow Collection of Asian Art — after she learned English as a second language at El Centro and Richland College.
“As I study English,” Chaco says, “I also did a lot of ex – experiment? – with calligraphy or even I did more like a sculpture.”
Terada’s work has appeared on book covers. Her writing and photos have been shown in galleries in Santa Fe and North Texas. Her work is currently on display at the Joel Cooner Gallery in Dallas. Cooner recalls seeing Terada’s work four years ago when she was creating bold, dashed-off, iconic pieces, often of a single word or symbol.
“Then I saw on the side,” Cooner recalls, “a series of paintings on silk, which were smaller, more delicate. I liked her work mainly because it wasn’t like any other calligraphy I saw.”
That’s because it’s no longer conventional Japanese calligraphy. Terada is using the traditions she was taught, but now she creates swirling, dreamy collages.
She starts with a photo. An assistant uses a computer to manipulate and blur the image and then print it on silk. Terada adds a second layer of silk and a third. On these, she uses her brushes and inks. Sometimes, so she doesn’t create a recognizable word, she pivots the silk sideways or upside-down.
The resulting paintings look immediate but refined or playful. They can recall some of the works of the abstract expressionists — but they’re like abstract expressionism imbued with a Japanese sense of restraint and elegance. They can be soft yet sudden, as if something rapid were glimpsed through a veil.
“A lot of calligrapher wants to show the big power splash, it’s just really masculine,” Chaco says. “But somehow, I feel the beauty of shade or mist or something you don’t really see clearly. This is a feeling. It’s a movement of energy.”
In fact, there is something literally hidden about some of her paintings. Terada contemplates the original photo until she distills what it means to her into a single word or phrase — like “mirror” or “forest” or time.” In the past, she used to write that word or phrase on the reverse of her paintings. Cooner reports that he deliberately has these works framed with a little window on the back to keep what he calls “the poem” visible.
But now her process is different: “And then, when the silk ready, I kind of sit and then just look. And then — let that word go.”
In short, this is calligraphy beyond words. Terada has a separate series of photos in which she creates images of light through rice paper or folded origami paper, paper that’s been written on. But again, no words are clearly visible (above right). Calligraphy was created to say something — beautifully. Terada uses calligraphic techniques to say something beautiful — hidden, fleeting, barely seen.
Her father might not approve, Terada admits. But she doesn’t regret extending the traditions that he began teaching her more than 40 years ago.
“I think it’s pleasure to find your stroke or your way of expression,” she says. “So I think this is what any artist supposed to do.”