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Thursday, 21 February 2019 07:43 am

Gentle teacher conveys the exacting art of calligraphy

74817-50554-1[1]It is not as easy as it looks. You must sit correctly, hold the brush properly and think about positive and negative spaces. It’s the fine art of calligraphy, says Tasha Black as she talks with Akiko Crowther.

Sitting in Nelson’s Yu Yu Japanese Calligraphy Gallery and School, three women discuss the difficulties of learning the ancient art of calligraphy.

They are students of Akiko Crowther (above), New Zealand’s only grandmaster calligrapher who is in Wellington recently to teach her discipline at the Japanese Embassy.

Akiko’s students range in age and ability from barely able to write their own name to being well into the latter years of their life.

Using the soft, horsehair brushes of calligraphy, it has taken student Stephanie Alderson two years just to get control. There is no room for mistakes. It has to be perfect.

akiko and tim

CREATIVE PARTNERS: Tim and Akiko. IMAGE: Yu Yu Gallery

“The line,” says Akiko, who pauses to let the seriousness of it sink in, “is alive'”.

She wanders the room, admiring the work of her students. Their calligraphy doesn’t yet reflect their dedication. It has taken 50 years for Akiko to perfect her craft.

Her husband, Tim, who runs the gallery with Akiko, pops out of the office carrying a tray with a teapot and cups for everyone.

Round wire-rimmed glasses, flared jeans and a black jacket. He looks like John Lennon. Born in England, he is Akiko’s creative partner. Their artworks are a fusion of his painting and her calligraphy.

The gallery’s interior is white and the concrete ceiling beams have been painted black to emulate a Japanese farmhouse. The name, Yu Yu, means calm, gentle, peaceful and eternal.


EARLY WORK: Akiko's first calligraphy aged five.

Akiko wraps up her class for the day, but her students linger, laughing and chatting with her.

Slowly they drift out and Akiko takes off her apron, revealing a delicate silk kimono, which she says must be sent to Japan for drycleaning.

Born in Tottori, in south- west Japan, Akiko was five years old when her great-uncle began teaching her Japanese calligraphy and her first work hangs in the gallery today.

She continued studying calligraphy until university, and shortly after her studies she married and started a family.

The marriage did not last and Akiko talks about the difficulties of getting a divorce in traditional Japan. Her mother disapproved, but Akiko is not one to follow the convenional Japanese lifestyle.

I ask Akiko how she met Tim and she leans into the office, asking Tim to explain and he dutifully joins us to recount his story of being lost on a small fishing island off Hong Kong. He came to an intersection, he says, and “something told me to turn left instead of right. And there she was, standing outside a tea shop.”

Tim goes back to to the office, no doubt to make more tea. When he’s out of earshot Akiko says: “He changed my life completely.” She blushes and raises her fan to cover the smile which involuntarily creeps higher.

They moved to Prague and opened the first Yu Yu gallery.

Akiko spent 14 hours designing the gallery sign, making 300 versions in the process.


YU YU: Calm, gentle, peaceful and eternal.

Tim says he sometimes finds her working at three o’clock in the morning. If she has a commission she will work on until she is happy with it and it’s done.

A holiday to New Zealand evolved into a permanent move. On one condition: If Akiko had a bad feeling about New Zealand they would go home. The bad feeling never came.

They roadtripped their way around the country and settled on Nelson. Not too big and not too small, Nelson is a hub for artists – just what they were looking for.

Tim and Akiko began selling their work at the Saturday market and before long people began asking if Akiko would teach them calligraphy. 

A year-and-a-half later they opened the Nelson Yu Yu gallery, and now Akiko teaches nearly 30 students. 

She hopes to train the first New Zealand master calligrapher and is well on her way there.


IN COMBINATION: Tim and Akiko's artwork. IMAGE: Yu Yu Gallery

Three students so far have been awarded the highest-honour award – tokusen – the first time such an honour has gone to a non-Japanese.

One of the three, 10-year-old Yousif Cahusac de Caux, had lessons from Akiko in Nelson before his family moved to London. Yousif did not want to give up his lessons.  

So every Friday night, in his pyjamas, he sits in a big office chair in his London home and has a lesson with Akiko via Skype.

Akiko has a way of connecting with people and students from around the world remain in touch with her through Facebook.

A big dog wanders in from the office. Buyu has a white fleece and a wagging tail. He is an Akita, a rare breed considered a national treasure in Japan.

Buyu sits at Akiko’s feet, and Akiko buries her face into his fleece.
“It’s a very unusual life I have, but I am so happy,” says Akiko, looking up.

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  1. Thank you very much Tasha this is a beautiful and interesting sztory, especially me and really meant a lot to my father. Hope you find one who was lost long ago.
    Hugs from Budapest

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