Dozens of fifth graders kneeled on a cushion and wielded their brushes, making long and careful strokes with black ink over a thin parchment.
Though the students’ calligraphy looked like complex Chinese characters, their writing was easily legible because it was actually English.
Students from W.J. Bryan Elementary School, a museum magnet program in North Miami, visited the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum on Monday morning to learn the art of Square Word Calligraphy in a workshop with Chinese artist Xu Bing, whose exhibit, “Writing Between Heaven and Earth,” is on display until May 24.
Bing, who traveled from Beijing for the opening of his exhibition, taught the kids the basic rules of his own lexicography — which takes a word in English and, by placing the letters in a certain pattern, creates the appearance of a Chinese character.
“I tried to combine the two languages together. But it’s, in fact, English.” said Bing, who as a U.S. resident, has straddled both worlds and cultures.
The style is called square word because each letter is placed in a square-shaped pattern, so it is still legible from left to right, but it appears to be a symbol at a plain glance.
Inside one of the museum galleries that was set up and decorated like a traditional calligraphy classroom, each student had a desk, ink, brush and copybook with different letters and words faintly outlined for them. In each page of the book, the symbols became more complex and — quite like color by numbers — each small stroke was enumerated in the order it should be colored in.
Bing crouched over each station, helping every student get the hang of holding the brush and make the stroke patterns outlined for them.
Bing became famous in China and internationally during the 1980s with his landmark installation, “Book from the Sky,” which is on display in an adjacent gallery space at the museum, plus a few new pieces created specifically for the Frost’s exhibit. Hundreds of installments of characters filled the walls, along with handmade carvings, which took the artist four years to complete, and three giant scrolls hung from the ceiling.
At one point, Bing’s work was considered controversial in China, which caused him to move abroad to the U.S. He now splits his time between New York and Beijing, where he works as vice president of Beijing’s renowned Central Academy of Fine Arts.
Bing’s work has been displayed internationally in museums, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, the Louvre, the Joan Miro Foundation in Spain, the British Museum and the National Gallery of Prague.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Abena Robinson, W. J. Bryan’s lead museum magnet educator.
The Frost museum, run by Florida International University, is working out a partnership with W. J. Bryan, Robinson said, so kids from the elementary will have a certain number of field trips to the museum and participate in activities, like the calligraphy workshop, throughout the school year.
Other partners of the magnet school include HistoryMiami, Coral Gables Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami and the Bass Museum of Art.
“In just a few years, you’ll start to think about your university education,” FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg said as he spoke to the students before the workshop. “I am excited about the opportunities that you have now about the shape of things to come.”
If you go
▪ What: Square Word Calligraphy Workshops
▪ When: Saturday, Feb. 28; Saturday, March 14; Wednesday, March 25; Friday, March 27; Saturday, April 11; Saturday, April 25; Saturday, May 2.
▪ Time: Two on-hour sessions per day, starting at 10 a.m. and 11 a.m.
▪ Where: The Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum, 10975 SW 17th St.
▪ More information: www.thefrost.fiu.edu or call 305-348-2890.