“When I write, I am flying,” says Armenian calligrapher Ruben Malayan.
Pen poised on paper, eyes intent, he breathes as if aligning his body with his mind. When his hand graces the page, ink flies over paper in a dance of strokes and curves.Like choreography, there is rhythm and melody in the way he writes—as if the script were embodied in his person.
His words do not lie flat on the page. Instead, the letters appear alive, and the space between and around the letters feels charged. “Negative space,” he explains, “creates the air within which the letter lives and breathes.” To him, the written word is powerful because it is both image and text. The calligrapher’s art is to contemplate and create both form and meaning.
“When I write, I often make the words slightly difficult to read. I want the brain to wrestle with the form in order to understand the living shape of a word.”
Words like journey and freedom, never cease to fascinate him. Like mantras, he writes the words over and over again. For both writer and reader, their meaning is always in flux.
Malayan grew up in Armenia in a home full of art. His late father, the renowned painter Petros Malayan, taught at the State Institute of Fine Arts of Armenia.
“As a boy, I would look at my father’s art books every night before falling asleep,” he recalls. “I was fascinated by the prints of the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. His pictures were so lively, and the Japanese writing filled my imagination. I could not read it, but the symbols excited me. I have been captivated by letterforms ever since.”
Camera and interview: Albert Tong
Story and editing: Kaylie Connors
Music: The Secret Trio
Photos: Ruben Malayan
After studying fine arts and graphic arts in Yerevan, Malayan moved to Israel and began working as an art director in Tel Aviv. His work involved developing digital typography, yet Malayan often found himself writing by hand. All fonts, he explains, have calligraphic roots. “The experiment happens on paper.” He left the commercial world and began to teach himself calligraphy. In the absence of a tutor, once again, books became his teachers. He studied ancient illuminated manuscripts and scoured scholarly publications to teach himself the history of Armenian writing.
The earliest forms of Armenian calligraphy exist in illuminated Christian manuscripts. The alphabet, developed by linguist and ecclesiastical leader Mesrop Mashtots in 405 CE, allowed for both the recording and dissemination of theology to Armenians. A written language also protected Armenians against linguistic dominance in a region that, over centuries, fell to Byzantine, Persian, Ottoman, and Soviet rules.
Malayan is now one of two calligraphers left in Armenia. Last July, he demonstrated his artistry to an eager audience on the National Mall for the Armenia: Creating Home program at the Folklife Festival. For Armenian American visitors, his calligraphy seemed particularly meaningful. An Armenian American woman approached him to say, “These letters are sacred. And they’re ours.” Her comment, though seemingly minor, reflects Armenia’s emotional relationship with its script.
Yet his experience at the Folklife Festival does not reflect general attitudes toward calligraphy and penmanship, which Malayan finds distressing and tragic. He routinely faces misconceptions of calligraphy as nostalgic handwriting in period style and penmanship as a decorative yet ultimately superfluous skill. Letter culture, he says, is suffering.
Today, we type, tap, and swipe on keyboards and touchscreens. With smartphones and laptops, we send emails and texts, draft essays and reports. In the digital age, communicating messages and recording information has never been easier or faster. Typed letters all look the same—serif and sans serif. “Our writing is so impersonal. Now we all push the same buttons.” We still use letters, but we no longer create them.
“Handwriting is profoundly expressive,” Malayan urges. “Your handwriting is unique to you. Even a simple note that says, ‘Don’t forget the milk!’ will look different from person to person.”
Knowingly or unknowingly, we all make decisions on how to draw letters—from the size and spacing to the shape of a curve, or the speed with which we write. Our focus, posture, and breathing also affect our handwriting. Words penned by hand embody our individual traits, creating an almost intimate imprint of the self on the page. Malayan insists that handwritten words carry the writer’s emotion and energy—regardless of whether the text was penned yesterday or a thousand years ago.
“Writing is memory, both individual and collective,” he says. “When we write, we are intentionally making a record. We are putting down what matters to us—words we want to remember.” To him, written text is memory embodied and the act of writing expresses a will to remember. Early religious texts and current news stories alike are pieces of memory—expressions of lived experience. From the ancient world to the internet age, he believes all writing is connected. Although our tools and materials have changed, writing continues to record and shape our human story.
Throughout that story, certain changes have endangered calligraphy traditions. In addition to the digital shift, Malayan says that the widespread popularity of the ballpoint pen in the 1960s had a detrimental effect on calligraphic traditions. With a ballpoint, writing by hand required less skill than with a fountain pen. Regardless of the direction or orientation of the pen, the width of line remained consistent. The convenience was unparalleled and the ballpoint eventually became ubiquitous around the world. As a result, “we lost the plasticity and elasticity of lines, and many traditional scripts were no longer produced,” Malayan laments.
Now, sustaining the art of Armenian calligraphy requires considerable effort. Malayan believes the revival of letter culture will start in the classroom. In fact, he thinks children are unique in that they take the alphabet seriously. As kids learn to read and write, they examine the shapes of letters, learn the sounds they make, and practice drawing freeform symbols. Though penmanship has been increasingly phased out of formal education, schools provide an opportunity for revival. Malayan is currently developing a comprehensive first-of-its-kind primer to support those who wish to learn Armenian calligraphy. He plans to found a school where students can learn Armenian calligraphic traditions as well as experiment with letterforms.
Currently, Malayan is an adjunct lecturer at the American University in Yerevan. In his visual communications course, he teaches his students to generate and express visual ideas. His students are English majors with little to no background in the arts. Yet his curriculum, which draws from calligraphy and typography, is practice-based. Over the course of a semester, his students must learn formal composition—proportions, contrasts, and balance—to create works of their own.
“After developing technical skill comes the question of substance,” he says. Beautiful letters are not enough. An artist must have something to say. “If I have nothing significant to say, I will not write a word. We don’t need more visual pollution.”
For Malayan, advertising exemplifies visual pollution. Billboards, commercials, pop-ups, and flyers plaster our daily lives with consumerist messaging. “Ads are often sexy, funny, or visually appealing. Some use cheap tricks, others are well thought out campaigns. But the message is the always same: buy.”
Discourse and dialogue have little relevance in consumer culture. Malayan urges his students to consider visual messaging that contributes to a larger public conversation. For their final projects, he tasked them to create a poster that responded to the following question: what message is urgent for you to say to Armenia, to the world? This is Malayan’s call to action: to participate in visual culture not as consumers but as citizens.
During the protests of the recent nonviolent revolution, Malayan worked round the clock to create placards to fuel demonstrations and marches. He felt a sense of responsibility not only to reflect his personal opinions, but also to echo those of others. He observed and listened to the way political discontent played out in the public and private realm. “I wanted to capture what we all were feeling, what was on our minds,” he says.
In this way, his efforts were both anthropological and activist in nature. His work created a feedback loop, capturing the public sentiment and expressing it back on the street. Along with the compelling slogans, his posters featured eternal words like freedom and journey.
Maya Potter is a cultural sustainability project assistant at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. At the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, she worked with Ruben Malayan and other artisans in The Workshop to facilitate craft activities and classes for the public.