Santa Barbara

The Dancing Brush: The Calligraphic Abstractions of Seyburn Zorthian

Red Black and Water #1 (2009) by Seyburn Zorthian, sumi and acrylic on paper, 22''x 30''

Japanese Accents: This series of articles showcases Southern California artists whose works integrate elements of Japanese art and design, yet speak boldly about our contemporary SoCal lives. Some are Japanese American; others have no blood connection with Japan but have discovered something Japanese that resonates with their artistic vision.

Seyburn Zorthian's calligraphic abstractions are dynamic visualizations of the energy created when cultures collide. Born to an Armenian father with Greek and Persian roots and a European-American mother, she grew up fascinated by Abstract Expressionism, jazz music, dance and Japanese calligraphy and blends all these elements into her abstract paintings. When I moved to Southern California 15 years ago, the Solvang-based painter was one of the first artists I met, and being of Persian/Scottish ethnicity and a lover of Japanese art, I was immediately drawn to her transcultural calligraphic abstractions. Zorthian may not understand the linguistic meaning of East Asian calligraphy, but she has a sound grasp of the profoundly expressive language and artistic potential of dynamic black brushstrokes on a white surface.

In East Asia, calligraphy is the most highly regarded of all art forms, the pinnacle of cultural, intellectual and spiritual expression. For centuries, nobles, scholars and priests in China, Japan and other nearby cultures have formed characters, words, phrases and poems in the brushstrokes most fitting to their message - rigid, square strokes for official edicts, delicate and cursive lines for love poetry, and bold, spontaneous strokes for words intended to spark spiritual enlightenment. In the cultures of East Asia, it is often said that the brush is an extension not only of the artist's arm but of the spirit, and that the strokes formed express the artist's very essence.

Laugh (1978) by Seyburn Zorthian, sumi ink on paper, 3' x 4'

Zorthian's spirit is abundantly apparent in Laugh (1978), an early monochromatic work that is typical of her large-scale paintings inspired by Japanese calligraphy. The painted form has no linguistic meaning, but in one bold, continuous brushstroke, she has guided the black ink up and around, twisting and turning with a quixotic rhythm to create an abstract form that could be "read" as a face laughing with a wide open mouth. The solid lines are strong and stable, while the ragged strokes, where the brush left the paper for just an instant, add dynamic motion. As with Asian calligraphic works, a powerful form is created in just a few seconds of focused spirit.

Like Asian calligraphy masters, Zorthian has spent years training for these few seconds of spontaneity. She developed an interest in art as a child watching her father, well known L.A. artist Jirayr Zorthian (1911-2004) as he worked and reading through his art magazines. She studied at the San Francisco Art Institute, the Chouinard Art Institute (now the California Institute of the Arts), where she earned her BFA, and as a young artist, she greatly admired American and European Abstract Expressionists of the 1940s and 1950s. A number of these artists drew inspiration from Japanese calligraphy, most notably Mark Tobey (1890-1976), who studied Zen calligraphy and philosophy and incorporated their strokes and spirituality into his works.

In 1974, following in Tobey's footsteps, Zorthian spent a year in Japan learning from Morita Shiryu (1912-1998), a Japanese calligraphy master who was a major force in Japan's avant-garde calligraphic movement. Although Morita believed that true calligraphy must express the meaning of the characters written, he hoped to make the art form accessible beyond Asia. As a result, his calligraphy was often so highly abstracted in form that the actual meaning of the words was only accessible through their titles. Under Morita's guidance, Zorthian learned to master Japanese brushes and control the gradations of sumi (black, carbon-based ink). "The most important lesson I brought back to my studio from my studies with Morita," she explains, "was to maintain an intense focus every instant of the act of 'writing' the stroke. Containing the energy and concentrating it into the present moment was of ultimate importance in conveying the consistency of emotional expression and soul."

Spiral Dancer (2008) by Seyburn Zorthian, acrylic and oil on gesso'ed paper, 60'' x 43''

Since her time in Japan, her calligraphic training has enabled her to fully express her emotions and soul while exploring abstract color compositions and studies of forms of the natural world. "The brush and ink are the perfect tools to convey both the inner and outer aspects of our lives," says Zorthian. "By internalizing music, thoughts, feelings or visual objects and holding a sense of the subject in my body, I can express these with the brushstroke on paper, canvas or linen." This is particularly apparent in her more recent works, especially her Ink Figures, which appear to dance to improvised jazz melodies. In Spiral Dancer (2008), a jagged black vertical figure - closely resembling the Chinese character for long life - is wrapped in a slender, curling brown line that seemingly spins the character round with the exhilaration of a whirling dervish caught mid-trance. Here, there is power in the paucity of strokes. In Voices (2003), groups of distinct strokes - heavy black dashes, slender black swirls, and wispy red lines - engage in a lively conversation. By grounding this dynamic composition with an area of earth-toned color beneath the lines (a technique borrowed from Italian Renaissance painting), and softening the surface with a wash of white pigment, she prevents the conversation from turning into cacophony.

Voices (2003) by Seyburn Zorthian, watercolor on paper, 10''x 14''

Recently, Zorthian took a break from the expressive Japanese sumi ink and brush in order to concentrate on the creation of abstract color compositions. In her newest paintings, she reunites the two elements of her work with increased vigor. In Red Green Study (2011) and Elemental Energy (2012), she integrates the expressive brushstrokes of calligraphy (but with acrylic paint and very large brushes) with color variations and other visual elements (with oil paint) to create the finished compositions. In these large-scale works richly textured and vibrant strokes emerge organically from pools of blended colors. The strokes do not describe words or even thoughts, and they cannot be read. Instead, their energy connects the emotions of the artist to the souls of others who inhabit our complex cultural landscape.

Red Green Study 2 (2011) by Seyburn Zorthian, acrylic and oil on canvas, 36'' x 36''

Elemental Energy (2012) by Seyburn Zorthian, acrylic and oil on canvas, 5' x 8'

Seyburn Zorthian has shown her work in the United States, France, China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. She lives in the mountains above Santa Barbara and maintains a studio at her family-owned Buttonwood Farm in Solvang, California, where she regularly shows her work. Her paintings can also be seen at

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Top image: Red Black and Water #1 (2009) by Seyburn Zorthian, sumi and acrylic on paper, 22''x 30''

About the Author

Originally from the UK, Meher McArthur is an independent Asian art historian, author and educator based in Los Angeles. She has two exhibitions currently touring the U.S.: "Folding Paper: The Infinite Possibilities of Origami" (th...
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