Dear friend, please write.

Johannes Vermeer, "A Lady Writing a Letter, With Her Maid" c.1670. image courtesy of national
Johannes Vermeer, “A Lady Writing a Letter, With Her Maid” c.1670. image courtesy of national

I could spend hours in The Morgan Library perusing the hand written manuscripts, letters, and diaries. I imagine the contemplative hours before the writer put pen in hand. I imagine the many drafts started and discarded. I imagine what transpired in the writer’s mind while waiting for the letter to be delivered and a reply to return. I wonder if the writer would be bothered by what held an intention as an intimate correspondence posthumously became public. The Isabelle Gardner Museum and The Peabody Essex Museum also have notable collections of hand written documents. Looking through them I find myself drawn to penmanship styles, the intimacy of the hand written word, and the scribbled unedited drafts. I began to ponder the value and importance of saving one’s notes, drafts, and letters of correspondence. I wondered what might remain recorded from our current time since too much of our correspondence is digital and electronically transmitted and often deleted. Will there be a big gap of lost history? Then I also began to think about the multitude of contemporary artists whose content is writing, for example: William Powhida’s humorous, satirical paintings and ink drawings mocking and ridiculing the art world. In the form of torn out school notebook paper he transcribes letters and lists, akin to a distracted student doodling during class. These paintings and drawings, in the guise of spontaneous scribbling with crossed out words and writing in the margins, appear as cathartic, mind-purging thoughts. Yet, they take hours for the artist to contemplate, draft, and compose. The text critiques the system in which Powhida is immersed while congruently he seems to question the importance of his own art making. By choice, or not, his use of somewhat sloppy block print conjures contemporary youth who text more often than write. Is the art of cursive writing disappearing?

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Jennifer Holzer’s texts are written on electric signs and projections, printed on paper, engraved in granite sarcophagi and on marble floors, cast onto silver and bronze plaques, or as shown here, engraved on sandstone benches. Through her form she solidifies words, casting their importance and permanence.

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Annie Voight enlarges and transcribes letters into sculptural drawings by meticulously cutting them into a lace-like form. Her art records the almost lost art of hand written letters. These letters recall a sense of intimacy and delicacy like those discovered in the Morgan Library, Isabelle Stewart Gardner Museum, and the Peabody Essex Museum.

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Are they trying to record the art and importance of the written word as it slowly becomes obsolete? Something we, in our digital culture, consider quaint. In Metropolitan, the movie by Whit Stillman, Tommy and Serena discuss their old love letters:

Tommy: …When I was home at Christmas I went through a packet of your old letters.

Serena: You saved my letters? (She says with a tinge of repulsed astonishment.)

Tommy: Of course. I save all the personal letters I get. Don’t you? (He says with complete surprise that anyone wouldn’t save such treasures.)

Serena: No.

Tommy: You mean you threw away all the letters I wrote you?

Serena: I threw away nearly everything. I don’t want to go through life with mail I got when I was sixteen. (Many people today whose social life is attached to facebook could maybe think about this.)

Tommy: I’m surprised. Someone goes to the trouble of writing you a real letter. I save that. (He says with emphasis.) People don’t write many personal letters anymore.

Serena: People in boarding school do. (Again, referring to an immaturity associated with the old letters.)

Tommy: What is someone who wrote you became famous? Those letters wrote could be the only record of what they were thinking at that time – crucial for their biographers.

Serena: Anyone who writes me who expects to become famous should keep carbon copies.

Authenticity and character are commonly deciphered from penmenship. If we rely on printed and copied digital texts, how will we know its authenticity; for example, one could change or delete a word from an email or digital document. Also, your cell phone or computer can be hacked into enabling someone to fraudulently send a message posed as if sent from you. And, even though on the computer you can make a choice of font, this doesn’t tell a person’s character as can be revealed from written script. I love the art of penmanship.  Some writing small, in all lower case and very precise, while other styles are decorative and loopy, and more are almost sloppily ineligible. Yet, more than this, I love considering someone sitting on a sofa or at a desk, carefully choosing the perfect piece of stationary or card and taking pen in hand and mindfully writing their thoughts. I then think of the time lapse between when these words were written and when the recipient reads them. Yes, I am a Luddite. But, don’t we all cherish and treasure going to our mailbox and finding a stamped envelope sealed with love, something other than junk mail or bills? This is far more precious than hearing “You’ve got mail.”


My nostalgia for a hand written letter is expressed so poignantly in this song by Nick Cave

*Feature Image: August Macke, Stadie zu einem Portrait seiner Frau, 1913.

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