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Ancient Herstory: The Making of The First Writing

The First Writing center spread

Merry was my way when I flew to England in the of summer of 2023 to see my artist book, The First Writing, in the “Alphabets Alive!” exhibit at Oxford University in the fabled Bodleian Library. In my long career of making fine letters and binding them in handmade books, such an honor never crossed my mind.

The Bodleian Library was familiar to me only from years of studying glossy reproductions of medieval illuminated manuscripts that frequently referenced this name as their source. These facsimiles were my models and my inspiration. Even if my creations wouldn’t look quite like this, perhaps they would feel like this when someone read them. Early on, that became my vision: to make prayer books as beautiful as these for my world.

The fulfillment of a dream I never knew I had first appeared as an email in November of 2021, generated by my website contact form. A gentleman by the name of Robert Bolick identified himself as being based in the UK and said he wanted to purchase my work, The First Writing, and perhaps also A Goddess Alphabet, if I were “willing to part with it.” He was preparing a 2023 exhibition for the Bodleian Library about alphabets and artist books, adding that his collection would be entered into the library’s permanent archive at the end of the show. He invited me to view his website, Books on Books. And that was it. Proper in every way, but brief.

I was deep in the creation of a book — not an artist book this time, but a novel. “Is it a scam?” I speculated in my journal. “It’s an intriguing idea. But don’t let myself be distracted by this right now. Go forth and write.”

Thank all the heavens I ignored my own bad advice and replied with curiosity: “Can you tell me a little more about yourself?” He replied with a link to his OrcID, an international identifier for scholars and researchers to use across institutions and archives. He was a fully professional collector. His website pages were filled with works by people I knew, some of them my teachers, and other calligraphers and book artists. Two months later, he purchased The First Writing through my dealer, Vicky Stewart at Vamp & Tramp Booksellers.

I didn’t feel quite such a fool after meeting some of the other artists last July at the reception who’d had a similar reaction to mine, having “no idea who this guy was” or feeling “not sure how much of my work I should let him have.” Having now met the man, I know he is the soul of courtesy. He agreed with my request to publish a photo of us together at the exhibit on my website, but nothing more about him than his name as curator, for the exhibit was “about the books, not myself.”

I had a few moments when I wished I had yielded more of my work to him, but the fact is, The First Writing was, for me, the best choice to represent my work in this exhibit. It was not an abecedary as most of the other books were, but considered the origin of writing without referring to an alphabet. It was the book from which all my other artist books flowed.

When I made The First Writing in 2004, I was not keeping a journal or any process notes. I hardly knew that I had a process for making books yet. Twenty years of hiring myself out as a jobbing scribe had expanded into making calligraphic fine art to put in frames. Membership in the local calligraphy guilds and the annual summer calligraphy conferences sharpened my skills and intensified my love of letters made beautifully. I had also become enchanted with Celtic design in illuminated manuscripts. The oldest Anglo-Saxon and Irish gospel books offered a visual feast of step patterns and spirals, knotwork and animals. The coils and interlace combined with the accompanying runic letters were speaking an older language of images, apart from the Latin scripture. Even the abundance of red dots seemed to hold secrets.

I Am the Soul of Nature

“I Am the Soul of Nature,” from a page in The Charge of the Goddess, 2003. The Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design used this image to represent their 2007 exhibit “Sacred Texts/Contemporary Forms” on the show’s poster.

I found a book by Sylvia Fein, First Drawings: Genesis of Visual Thinking, that put it all together for me. Its wealth of images from archeological sites around the globe, shown alongside forms I had seen emerging from the crayons of my own children, were geometric and abstract patterns that we shared with the first people to make marks, welling up from a vast universal memory. Meanders became labyrinths, and spirals became elaborate illuminations celebrating the divine word.

In 1997, I embarked on a calligraphy pilgrimage to the cradle of the craft. England and Ireland had museums and libraries full of the manuscripts I had seen only in books: the Lindisfarne Gospels at the British Library in London, the Book of Kells and Book of Durrow at Trinity College in Dublin. A private viewing of the Irene Wellington archive at The Holburne Museum in Bath was cherished time with a deeply admired artist’s process. In London a Sotheby’s auction let me see and hold some of the precious treasures for sale, just as if I could afford them.

Newgrange Symbols 2007. Photo by Karen Koshgarian

Newgrange symbols in the visitor’s center, 2007. Photo by Karen Koshgarian.

The old books were enthralling, but when I arrived at the 5000-year-old Neolithic passage grave at Newgrange, north of Dublin, something in me shifted. My beloved spirals and symbols surrounded me at every turn, and the visitor’s center had an extraordinary display of the incised marks separated from their rough stone backgrounds. The photos I brought home were my source material for the painting to come.

2006 Journal_Newgrange Symbols

Newgrange symbols, 2006 journal pages

The 2000 summer calligraphy conference, sponsored by the San Francisco Friends of Calligraphy, was pivotal for me in a couple of ways. My weeklong class with Ewan Clayton was called, “The Gift to Be Simple.” Aside from my class project of exploring what it would look like to inscribe strips of eucalyptus bark with pen, ink and color, the most profound lesson I took away with me was Ewan’s query to us: What is your calligraphy for?

The student work at the conference was also the first time I had seen paste paper used in a painterly way. This traditional bookbinder’s technique for making decorative endpaper mixes pigment with the same paste used for binding, relying on classic patterns that can be reliably reproduced. But now I saw the decoration of the paper interwoven with the lettering.

Over the next few summers I began to puddle around. After years of lining up paper, copying exemplars, careful preparation and aiming for perfection, I let the pigment fly. It was like finger painting for grownups.

Newgrange painting

Newgrange painting, 2003. Wheat paste, acrylic pigment and oil pastels on Arches Text Wove paper, 24-inches square, the background for The First Writing book pages.

I liked to work on our big plastic party tables in the shade of the carport with a garden hose nearby, often painting full sheets of my favorite paper, Arches Text Wove. First I drew symbols or words in black with waterproof oil pastel. Then I brought out the paste, made the night before and kept in the refrigerator. I tinted it with Twinrocker pigments for the highest color saturation, and added Golden acrylic matte medium to fix the paste so I could work in successive layers. Plopping down spoonfuls of paste, I used sponges to spread it across the paper. Old cut-up credit cards made wonderful calligraphic marks, scraping away the paste to reveal and conceal what lay beneath. The paste held the marks, so I could make words, patterns, or blocks for text to be added later. Working in layers opened an interesting conversation between figure and ground.

The Newgrange painting was one of my first pieces. I was bemused with the result but framed it anyway to look at for the next year. I didn’t know yet that I had made paper for a book.

Spelling Words 3 magical spelling rules

Spelling Words, 2008. Magical spelling rules page spread.

Another piece of the puzzle arrived with the invitation to participate in the first Book Arts Jam in 2002, sponsored by the Bay Area Book Artists. Soon after the fair I produced some easy miniature accordion books on my laser printer. I began to linger long moments over the pages of Letter Arts Review showing images of beautiful manuscript books, with texts written on plain or painted paper by calligraphers who were focusing on the complexity of the book form. I signed up for local classes in binding and book structures. The numerous blank books generated were useful as journals, but more than that, they became a springboard to contemplate a serious book. It felt like coming home to return to books, which I once wanted to write, and in which all the decorated manuscript pages I studied were originally bound.

During these years I was also gravitating toward accounts I heard of goddess gatherings. Dissatisfied with the religion of my fathers, I was looking for a more welcoming spiritual home. Instead of being told I was the source of all sin and death in the world, I yearned for a place where the mysteries of my life experiences could be celebrated instead of hidden. I was ripe for the women’s spirituality movement that flowered in the 1990s.

Charge of the Goddess trial 2003

Charge of the Goddess, 2003. Lettering and painting trials on paste paper.

At a women’s retreat in the Santa Cruz mountains at the turn of the millennium, I found a book called The Civilization of the Goddess, written by an archaeologist named Marija Gimbutas. Here were photographs and schematics of objects discovered in prehistoric digs: pottery lavishly decorated with spirals and meanders, or shaped like eggs, birds, or animals, and vast numbers of clay or bone figures with wide hips, vulvas, and breasts. These were found not in great temples but in hearth altars in the home. There was no evidence of spears, warriors, or fortifications in these Neolithic communities of Old Europe. Most interesting to me was the chapter called “The Sacred Script,” in which the author arranged a table of marks collected from these objects. These marks were not an alphabet, but they were clearly signs that meant something to their makers, dating from 5000–3500 BCE.

In a 2003 summer conference workshop I studied book page design with Suzanne Moore, a calligrapher and book artist whose work had captivated me. A pre-class suggestion to invent an alphabet took me back to those pages seen during my mountain retreat, and I began to sketch out an alphabet based on those marks. I called it a “goddess alphabet.” I made my initial draft of The First Writing in Suzanne’s class, using only her assigned five symbols as written about by Angeles Arrien: circle, spiral, cross, square and triangle. These we made in black ink with rustic wood tools, and I added a short poem of my own in small red majuscules.

First Draft First Writing 2003

First draft of The First Writing, 2003

I came home and considered writing the poem again in my goddess alphabet. Freeing the Newgrange painting I cut it into three strips, kept one flat for a smaller framed piece and folded the other two into accordion book pages. I wrote out the poem using my favorite opaque Naples yellow gouache, attached the pages to a couple of board covers and wrapped it all with a leather strap closure. This book has since gone into a private collection, but before I let it go, I scanned its pages and, using my new Epson 2200 fine art printer, reproduced my original book in an edition of 50, on the same Arches Text Wove paper I used to make the paste paper paintings. Many of these have since gone to live in library special collections around the United States and now also in England.

I had figured out what my calligraphy was for.

I brought my little book with me to the next summer conference to show to Suzanne. This time the inspiration flowed back to my teacher. As one of the artists for the Saint John’s Bible project, she took to heart the committee’s charge to “create images that no one has seen before.” Heeding the guideline to bring a feminine perspective to the texts about Sophia/Wisdom, she created an illumination that included two of the old goddess figurines Gimbutas had written about, nested within lush fruit, plant, and moon imagery, one showing the Old European script that had inspired my book. Though the language nearby still warned against “a woman’s wickedness,” the image told an older story, when clay shaped like a woman’s body was the surface on which marks were inscribed venerating the mystery and magic of life.

Medieval Charms_Black Wool

Five Medieval Childbirth Charms, 2013. Black wool grief ritual from an old Anglo-Saxon herbal.

As the years went on, I wanted to overcome my hesitancy when asked what The First Writing was about. Seeking to describe more fully the connection between writing and my intuition of its sacred source, I made more artist books: A Goddess Alphabet, Spelling Words, Alphabet Ancestors. Whether found in Ireland or unearthed in the digs of Old Europe, these Neolithic marks feel archetypal, standing in ancestral line behind our modern writing systems. Traces of them can be found in the pre-Hellenic signs of Linear A and B, the writing of the pre-Roman Etruscans, and the old runic scripts of Central Europe.

The writing of many cultures and religions has magical or sacred aspects. Ben Shahn explores it in his book The Alphabet of Creation, the story of the formation of the world through the Hebrew letters. Islamic calligraphers create beautiful calligraphy of the Qur’an as acts of worship. Asian calligraphy traditions of China and Japan are attended by ceremony and reverence. “Seed syllables,” characters of the Siddham script, are chanted by Buddhist monks to attain communion with the divine, and the copying of sutras is considered prayer. Is the Western tradition of sacred calligraphy preserved in the alphabet song sung by schoolchildren, as a vestige of the old Anglo-Saxon bards singing their stories?

Alphabet Ancestors Gradesnica Vessel R detail

Alphabet Ancestors, 2009. Gradesnica Vessel R detail. See Sacred Script for more about the artifact that inspired this page spread.

When I dedicated The First Writing to Marija Gimbutas in 2004, I was only faintly aware of the controversy surrounding her work. Her books roused some fierce scolding from the “academy,” though in every respect she was scrupulously in line with how male archeologists conjectured about their own work. Even her use of the word “goddess” in connection with these artifacts was not new, but nevertheless excited contempt and condescension. Regardless, in the half century since she began publishing her books, her ideas have found their way into the hearts and minds of people everywhere.

Why does it matter that the beginnings of our western civilization were peaceful, egalitarian societies built around a deep devotion to the natural world, the life-giving miracle of women and the men who lived in harmony with them? The entrenched narrative that we have always been a hostile, aggressive people committing terrorist acts against one another is fondly recounted by a culture that can’t see any other perspective.

Litanies for Mother Earth - her green lap

Litanies for Mother Earth, 2010. Her green lap page spread.

I often refer to The First Writing as “my little book.” It presents a humble idea, my way of saying that we might consider another story about the advent of writing, one that perhaps a woman is telling. I continue to be pleased to have honored the scholar who challenged and enlarged the origin stories of our human family. I like to fancy that my book is part of the conversation.

The First Writing - full book 7/20/23 Bodleian Library

The First Writing displayed in full at the Bodleian Library, July 2023

An early idea to use an enlargement of my Newgrange painting in the exhibit installation at the Bodleian Library was sidelined for lack of space. Still, I am profoundly honored that The First Writing was displayed as I always meant it to be: opened out entirely so that its ten pages can be seen all at once, conjuring the birth of writing on a cave wall.

My little book is big.


Other essays published here whose subjects are referred to as part of my journey:
“Celtic Design” – originally titled “Knotwork and Spirals and Beasties, Oh My!”
“Goddess in the Bible”
“Sacred Script-Ancient Marks from Old Europe”