As if mastering the art of penning beautiful script isn’t difficult enough, calligrapher and entrepreneur Ruth Tan has taken to bringing words to life by constructing original, movable calligraphy sculptures in her debut exhibition, Words Within, held at SPRMRKT from July to September 2016. The 10-piece installation with its pivoting words and secret messages—some cheeky, some thoughtful—was one of our most interactive exhibitions yet. We catch up with Ruth on her inspirations, studio life and everything else!
1) What inspired you to create Words Within?
I think language is a wonderful tool for us to express ourselves, and some words trigger associations that we have experienced in our lives. Words Within is an offshoot of that idea that words in themselves could and often do carry meaning in themselves for the speaker/writer and whoever she’s conversing with. It’s also something that fascinates me because I work with letterings and one day I was just wondering about how letters could be expressed as a physical machinery as opposed to just flat and two-dimensional, which is what I often do for weddings, corporate events and in workshops. This curiosity kept bugging me so I decided to marry the two—word associations and movable words—alongside funny quotes I’ve made up or heard before, to delight an audience.
2) It sounds like there’s a lot you’d like to express and which more than words can say, forgive the pun, is this something you feel about the English language?
Haha yes I think so. I don’t often know what to say because there is a lot going on in my head—it’s like taking too long to decide which food to buy at the canteen and in the meantime all the queues start to form and snake, so I just go with the easiest, shortest one. Because of the copious amount of things going on at one time—and I am pretty easily distracted—whatever I end up saying on the spot would often be a lesser (and probably less confusing!) version.
3) Why these 10 words and phrases?
I picked words that visitors could easily connect with! My two favourites are:
Expert—I talk to myself sometimes because I need expert advice
This is a tongue-in-cheek quote that refers to the need for us to listen to our own intuition. I don’t think others’ advice are always right or suitable for our context. We need wisdom to know when to listen to what, and when to trust our gut!
Dream—the distance between your dreams and reality is called action
Most of us dream of something bigger than ourselves… that’s a good thing. But even greater would be to put it into action. Don’t procrastinate till it is “perfect”. Get it rolling and keep at perfecting it!
4) You’ve chosen a really unique career to be in especially in Singapore—why calligraphy and what does being a calligrapher in Singapore/Asia mean to you?
I think this kinda fell into my lap! I was an analyst in civil service, then a secondary school teacher. I couldn’t continue teaching any more given the tug-o-war between the long hours and my family. It eventually became obvious that I have to give up a regular job. Not working was not a choice for me either; I am always curious and seeking out new adventures.
When blogshops were popular in the late 2000s, I decided to have a proper webstore and try my hand at online retail. We had a good run with many roadshows including with Takashimaya, and the now-defunct Borders bookstore, and even ran the first ever MT tape exhibition, craft workshops and retail in Japan with the venue sponsorship from National Library Board. When the opportunity struck for my own brick-and-mortar, I knew right away I wanted to include in the retail store a small corner for craft workshops. I have always been craftsy … lettering, sewing, painting and all that. So coupled with my experience in events, one thing led to another and before I knew it, the craft business expanded very quickly. That’s when my studio The Workroom was born.
I started off with barely a handful of instructors, all of whom had no experience in teaching, but were passionate about their art. Given my background in teaching, I found that I was in a good place to design and structure lessons better. It was a natural progression for me to dive headlong into teaching calligraphy and committing to commissioned work. I now work with a team of calligraphers, craftspeople and artists to teach students and provide art services to our private and corporate clients. It has been immensely satisfying ride so far and we have had opportunities to work for clients from all walks of life, from brides-to-be to celebrities and luxe brands.
As for being a calligrapher in Singapore and Asia… frankly I don’t think of it as extra special from other kinds of craft. There are other forms of art that are a lot more intricate and laborious and I really admire people who invest their lives in that. For me, calligraphy is both extremely gratifying and practical form of art. For one, I get to use my skills to add a special pizazz to special events and that’s really moving for me, to be able to contribute to and share a part in clients’ happy occasions. I always tell my students that calligraphy has also got to be practical. For most of our purposes, we really are learning calligraphy to communicate in a beautiful way to others. There is little point in being “beautiful” but illegible… for example, if we are writing placecards, and the guests cannot identify their names, can you imagine the confusion and discomfort? I enjoy typography, design and lettering, and I have learnt italic, copperplate and modern calligraphy. I would like to continue to share my knowledge and skills with new learners, and to share the beauty of writing with clients for their events’ needs.
5) Have you had any strange/interesting requests because of your skill as a calligrapher?
Not really, unless you count designing a lettering for a client’s tattoo as strange! It is the most unusual request to date, and I thoroughly enjoyed working on it. The client was superb to work with. She knew exactly what she wanted and communicated it very clearly so I could work in the right direction to process the exact thing she had in mind. Right now among the projects I’m working on, the most interesting one is to letter a Bible verse for Class 95FM DJ Jean Danker’s wedding. This will be printed on her aisle runner! I can’t wait to see the end result.
6) We understand you have also been holding calligraphy and other creative craft workshops for the past 6 years—who are your students and would you be able to describe what a class at The Workroom is like?
Most of our students at the studio are ladies in their 20s – 40s from all walks of life. Increasingly we also have expatriates and foreigners on holiday in Singapore! I’m always very grateful for everyone who take time off to learn from us… we know how precious weekends are! A typical class at the studio is very hands-on. The students usually go straight into the making/ crafting, and everyone on the team is more than eager to share all that they know, from history to where to get supplies and tips to make your art better. We make effort to sincerely sustain the community we build. I also now have two of my students now on the team, teaching their own students how to write lovely calligraphy. Class size varies depending on the craft… something that requires a lot of 1-1 coaching such as fine art botanical painting would be restricted to a very small size of 4 or 5 students, whereas modern calligraphy classes are often capped at 10 pax or so.
7) From your website, you’ve listed that you’ve worked with quite a number of big corporate clienteles such as Chanel, Dior & SK-II, would you be able to share some of the more exciting projects you’ve done with any of them?
Sure! For Chanel, the client was from the Fine Jewelry store in Takashimaya and the brief expanded from just live calligraphy service for their VIPs on the Valentine’s weekend, to coming up with original watercolour paintings of Chanel’s iconic representations such as the plume (feather) and the camillia (flower). VIPs then get to choose a famous quote by Chanel to be written on one side of the card, and to have her name (or the name of the recipient) on the side of the illustration.
More recently, I wrote for SK-II’s invites to their VIPs to the global launch of their Masterpiece Pitera collection — the most luxurious series of all. The launch was to be held in Tokyo and among the invites I was writing, there were those going out to big names around the world.
The two most unique calligraphy services I did were for IWC and Clarins. Writing placecards for guests was commonplace, but for IWC’s private luncheon for their VIPs, I wrote placecards for the beautiful, exquisite ladies’ watches. The styling was so on point with each watch displayed among flowers (and with my placecard) in a glass bell-jar. For Clarins’ trade and media event at Gardens By The Bay, I wrote patrons’ names on Tree Certificates —these are certificates to thank patrons for their support for their green project to plant trees in Northern Thailand. It was such a treat!
8) What would you consider to be your dream project?
It would be a dream come true if I would have the chance to work with Guo Pei Couture. Guo Pei is a Chinese high fashion designer and she makes the most beautiful couture pieces, based on traditional Chinese imperial court design. I really admire her beautiful pieces with stunning structure and texture and intricate embroidery. I wonder what it would be like to combine modern calligraphy or lettering on high fashion!
9) Coming back to art, what made you decide to showcase your debut exhibition at SPRMRKT?
SPRMRKT is extremely supportive of indie art and crafts. It is my pleasure to accept Sue-Shan’s invitation to create a series of lettering for the exhibition! As a commercial artist, we don’t always have the time or space to create for our personal projects… this exhibition gave me a great opportunity to do just that!
10) Who are some of your favourite artists or what are your favourite artistic periods?
My favourite artist is Claude Monet. When I had the opportunity to visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum last October, I was in awe standing before the original works. They were immense and breathtaking and so much more than I had imagined. I am particularly drawn to the French Impressionist paintings, and Monet’s works are always precious to me. There is a sense of freedom, tranquil and solace in his works. Impression, Sunrise (1872) and the earlier Water Lilies are my favourites.
11) What’s next on your art calendar—are you exhibiting anywhere else after SPRMRKT? If no, why not?
I am currently working on returning to library@orchard for the 2nd run of ‘Calligraphy Travels’. As with 2016’s exhibition, the contributors for 2017 will be calligraphers from Singapore, and I hope we will delight patrons with a gorgeous display of letters in different calligraphy scripts!
12) Any final thoughts you’d like to share about your debut exhibition Words Within?
I hope everyone enjoys checking out the hidden quotes/messages within!
Missed the exhibition? Get in touch with us (firstname.lastname@example.org) to take a closer look!
For more information about Ruth, her team and their creations, step into The Workroom.
Bloom – Plant yourself where you may bloom.
Shine – One day the people who didn’t believe in you are going to tell everyone how they met you.
Bae—Be mine always.
Expert—I talk to myself sometimes because I need expert advice.
Laoban—Don’t let this face fool you. I roll like a boss.
Artist—I am an Artist. Sleeping is an art.
Dessert—Dessert is not an option. It’s why I started eating in the first place.
Dream—The distance between your dreams and reality is called action.
Shoes—Roses are red, violets are blue | You can keep the flowers, I’d rather have shoes.
Certainty—Nothing is certain except death and taxes. And laundry.