Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Accidental Calligrapher

I came to calligraphy by accident, sort of. It was offered as one of three electives (illustration, typography, calligraphy) at UGA in the graphic design department. Since I wasn't an illustrator, I took it. I was full of trepidation and Ken Williams, the instructor, did not make it better. He was quite stern, despite his hippy appearance. And I was intimidated by the fabulous work he did.

We were to fill up 12 legal size sheets of paper a day with italic writing, using a 1 1/2mm Brause nib, and black ink. It took at least four excruciating hours every day to do this, and I hated it. At the end of the quarter we could choose another hand to study and had to produce a final project in that hand. I think I chose 'Legend'. Our textbook was Jacqueline Svaren's Written Letters.

When the class was done (and I got an A or a B...can't remember) I gave a final shudder and resolved never to touch another calligraphy pen. THEN--a scant few quarters later, just long enough for the memory of the pain to fade, as in childbirth--Ken Williams (that's MR. Williams to me) said for the Cortona program this year (1987) they had a guy lined up to teach calligraphy whose work was amazing, "you really ought to study with this guy." Coincidentally, John was planning on going...and I really wanted to spend more time with John and get to know him better. My gracious mother paid for the trip as a graduation present and I went to Italy and studied under Steve Skaggs, and it turned out that I liked it. (I also got to spend a lot of time with John, and we eventually got married, but that's another story.)

Steve had an amusing study plan: he would teach us four hands in (somewhat) chronological order. We started with pen-made Roman Capitals (from about 100 AD), the most challenging hand. This went over really well with the rank beginners in the group! After two weeks we moved on to Humanistica, or Roman Bookhand, from about 1450 AD. Next came Italic (Cancelleresca, from about 1500 AD) and we ended with Rotunda (Italian Gothic) from the high middle ages: 1300s-1400s. I think he saved Rotunda for last as it is so much darn fun. Our class went of plenty of field trips and looked at many original old manuscripts and stone carvings. We even went to the Vatican library, and had the whole place to ourselves because it was the Vatican's summer break.

Meanwhile I could not believe the things Steve did! He wrote in color--lots of color! And it was bright! And he changed colors in the middle of a word or even a letter! I learned you don't always have to write just in straight lines! And it doesn't always have to make sense or be legible! Wow! I was blown away watching him work on large uncut pieces of paper, in front of us, so casual about it. Wow--you can do a project without freaking out first for weeks at a time, planning it, making sure it will be just right?! Without tons of tracing paper overlays? Endless tests on smaller pieces of paper to get the color right? What about perfection? What if it's not perfect? Aren't you worried? Steve was never worried. What a gift that man has for fearlessness.

(I also learned that until you can make letters and words without thinking about them there is not much point in trying the wild stuff. Well, for me it anyway.)

He said you just have to establish what the rules are in any given piece, and stick to them. I still have trouble with that: in any given piece I forget to establish any rules, or I change them as I go. It's always a grand free-for-all, and then I'm surprised that it didn't work out like I thought it might.

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