Shotei Ibata-sensei: Moving Calligraphy into the 21st Century.

I have known master calligrapher and performance artist, Ibata Shotei for many years.  Fond memories include the times I acted as road manager and emcee for his performances at such places as Los Angeles County Museum of Art, San Francisco Asian Art Museum and the Seattle WOMAD Festival.  Calligraphy (Shodo) has long been considered the master art of Asia and all educated, cultured people have studied it.

Mr. Ibata

“In some ways it was extravagant to choose a career in calligraphy, since traditionally, only the wealthy had the luxury of such a choice,” says Ibata-sensei.  “We were not at all part of the upper class, but I wanted to have this kind of foundation and my father encouraged me. Of course, I needed to be practical.  Life in Japan in the 1950’s was a real struggle.  I had to be able to earn a living.  However, only by devoting sufficient time to calligraphy could I really develop to the point that I could bring forward something special.  After graduation I became a calligraphy instructor at Kyoto Women’s University.  This gave me time to focus on my career as a calligrapher while teaching in my field.”


During the early years of Ibata-san’s career, the art world in Japan was very insular and exclusive.  “It did not encourage people who had new ideas.  Though I had once belonged to an association of artists, I decided to go my own way.  I was considered a kind of lone wolf.”


Historically, calligraphy as practiced in Japan followed the traditional Chinese model as a path of personal cultivation, where practitioners perfected classic styles, with a minimum of personal creative expression.  However, during the 1950's and 60's, many western artists studied  calligraphy.  People such as Mark Tobey, Jackson Pollack, Franz Kline and Sam Francis were not only influenced by Asian calligraphy, but in turn helped to stimulate Japanese artists such as Ibata-san to infuse their work with personal, creative expression.  Thus, calligraphy became “art” in the western sense.  Ibata-san actually became friends with such artists as Sam Francis, who often visited his calligraphy studio in Kyoto.  Where Francis and others learned about monochromatic painting and negative space, Ibata-san expanded through experimentation and self-expression.


After a year as artist-in-residence at Portland’s Lewis and Clark College, Ibata-san created a form of performance art focusing on the beauty of movement in the act of painting.  Having a six foot long brush made-to-order, he began with a performance in London, painting a single character on 400 sq. feet of paper.  The performance won immediate attention from the press and was very well received.

Now, after 40 years he has completed hundreds of performances in a dozen countries, including the U.S., Australia and much of western Europe, and his work continues to move calligraphy deeper into the modern world of art.

In Collaboration with Photographer, Helen Hasenfeld

© Photos by Helen Hasenfeld