Calligraphy in the Forest, Outdoor Calligraphy Installations, on View at Adkins Arboretum

Adkins Arboretum Calligraphy in the Forest (353 x 400)Calligraphy isn’t something you’d expect to find in a forest, but through January 31, scrolls brushed with texts in both Chinese and English wind through the woods at Adkins Arboretum.

Three years ago, it occurred to Kit-Keung Kan, a landscape painter and calligrapher, that the spidery marks of his Chinese characters painted on rice paper look a lot like bare twigs and branches. Thinking he’d like to pursue the idea, he contacted two artist friends, Howard and Mary McCoy, to invite them to work with him on some collaborative art.

The McCoys, who live near Centreville, have been using small trees and other natural found materials since the 1980s to create sculptural installations. Focusing on environmental themes, their outdoor works have been seen in the Adkins Arboretum forest every other summer since 1999.

“We had no idea how it was going to work to put Kit’s calligraphy together with our trees,” Howard McCoy said, remembering his reaction when Kan first approached the couple about working together.

Kan, now a retired physicist, as well as a lifelong artist, studied traditional painting and calligraphy with Chinese masters beginning in 1958 before moving to the U.S. in 1968 to earn his Ph.D. in physics. The McCoys, who both graduated with degrees in art, have pursued a very different path in the relatively new genre of installation art.

Nonetheless, the three artists found their ideas clicked. Since their first work session in Kan’s studio at his home in Bethesda, they have exhibited their collaborative work in several galleries in the Washington area, but this is the first time they’ve brought their calligraphy installations outdoors.

You don’t see “Creek and Path” when you first enter the Arboretum’s forest and walk across a long wooden bridge. But underneath, lengths of fabric drape from the bridge’s beams and reflect in the water below. Look closer and you’ll see a poem painted there. Written in English by Mary McCoy, it describes the Arboretum’s curving creek, Blockston Branch, and the path that loosely follows it through the woods. The text is available to read in full in the Arboretum Visitor’s Center.

Kan also wrote a poem, “Winter Morning,” inscribed in both Chinese and English on four vertical scrolls that turn gently in the breeze between the trees. In another installation, “Tao Flags,” the first chapter of the Tao De Ching appears in both languages. Over 100 small squares of cloth are tied around river birch trees so that the loose cloth mimics the peeling bark of the trees.

“Journey of Qin,” a traditional Chinese poem by the third-century poet, Ji Kang, describes the process of creating a musical instrument from specially selected trees, and then playing it for the first time. Kan brushed this long poem, which focuses on living in harmony with nature, onto 135 feet of fabric that the three artists wound in and out around the trees.

When the artists installed the calligraphy in late October, the forest was full of autumn color. Now, they are eager to see how the calligraphy will look against the bare branches of winter trees after the leaves have fallen.

This show is part of Adkins Arboretum’s ongoing exhibition series of work on natural themes by regional artists, sponsored in part by Caroline County Council of Arts. It is on view through January 31 in the Arboretum forest located at 12610 Eveland Road near Tuckahoe State Park in Ridgely. Contact the Arboretum at 410-634-2847, ext. 0 or for gallery hours.

Adkins Arboretum is a 400-acre native garden and preserve at the headwaters of the Tuckahoe Creek in Caroline County. Open year round, the Arboretum offers educational programs for all ages about nature and gardening. Through its Campaign to Build a Green Legacy, the Arboretum will build a new LEED-certified Arboretum Center and entranceway to broaden educational offerings and research initiatives promoting best practices in conservation and land stewardship. For additional information about Arboretum programs, visit or call 410-634-2847, ext. 0.