And re-Formed Characters

A Collaboration between Liza Dalby and Marcia Donahue

The Hanging Scroll

A hanging scroll (kakejiku) is artwork pasted onto paper or silk attached to wooden rods, hung with a cord. A scroll is an ancient East Asian way of displaying, protecting, and storing art. Scrolls usually contain decorative watercolor images or black calligraphic marks. This exhibit explores ways of engaging with the latter.

Calligraphy scrolls can be read as text provided the viewer knows the language—but also can be seen as graphic art. The great variety of styles of writing characters used in both Chinese and Japanese is sometimes difficult for even native speakers to decipher. Yet the visual interest of the calligraphy still arrests the eye.

How can non-readers approach and appreciate such scrolls? Deciphering calligraphy for its meaning is hugely satisfying. At the same time, the surface pattern of the brushstrokes, the thing an innocent eye relates to, has interest and beauty on its own. Post-WWII avant-garde Japanese artists sought to emphasize this in abstract calligraphic works where the powerful visual impact of the brushwork was in fact the point.

Scrolls are multilayered, containing social, artistic, literary, and philosophi-cal elements. A scroll hanging in the alcove of a home makes a statement about its owner’s beliefs, values, education, and taste. We have

Black Marks

And re-Formed Characters

discovered that it is possible to play with them imaginatively too—adding yet another layer to these written voices.

The printed scrolls in this collection are digitally created and printed with colorfast, heat-cured latex ink on weft-insert polyester woven fabric, then mounted on wooden rods with lacquered, ceramic, or polymer finials. They are flame, UV, and water-resistant. Because of their design, these single-layer prints may be taken for actual, layered paper-and-silk hanging scrolls. In fact they are much more durable, not subject to the vicissitudes of humidity, UV sunlight, wrinkling, and foxing that often beset traditional scrolls. While the patterns, colors, and background images I use to frame the central artwork are often startlingly novel, I always adhere to the shape, balance and structural design of traditional scrolls.

~Liza Dalby

The Innocent Eye

This part of the exhibit combines original calligraphy with digitally manipulated versions as seen by Marcia Donahue, an artist with an “innocent eye,” who does not read Chinese or Japanese script. Rather than treating the scroll as text, she sees it as shapes, creating images that grow out of the forms. Donahue’s creations were then digitally colored and printed in the form of a classic hanging scroll by Liza Dalby, a scholar of Japanese culture trained in the craft of scroll mounting.


The printed scrolls in this section feature photographs of asphalt repair lines, known by bikers as “tarsnakes,” on the surface of streets in Berkeley. Suggesting abstract brush strokes, they are framed like calligraphy in a digitally designed hanging scroll format. The inverse of the innocent eye, their random patterns suggest deeper meanings.

Odds and Ensos

An ensō, or Zen circle, is a favorite subject of Japanese calligraphers. A symbol of Buddhist enlightenment, ensōs are sometimes drawn closed but more often open, with a well-defined start and finish. Here, digitally produced ensō circles  include found objects as well as images manipulated into circular form and mounted as hanging scrolls.

Through these simple forms we appreciate that anything can be worth contemplating when framed in the format of a hanging scroll.

Another inverse—a scroll can be remounted on rocks, or reconfigured by bull kelp.