Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Ken Williams


When I do a Google search for 'Ken Williams' together with 'calligraphy,' I get a bunch of references to a british comedian who died a few years ago. My teacher Ken Williams is obscure. Despite the high level of calligraphic excellence he achieved and maintained he has remained reclusive to the larger calligraphic community.

Ken does the most beautiful spindly italic. He is also known for his excellent copperplate. I once filched a piece from a trashcan in a classroom, a poster-size rough for the magnificent centennial diploma for UGA. It lives in my flat files along with Doyal's poster. Ken was big on retouching work; he relied heavily on the stat camera before computers. He could make anything perfect.

Ken earned his MFA at the University of Georgia in graphic design and then taught at East Tennessee University for ten years, where he also did design work for the gallery. He said it was easier to draw letters than to order typesetting. Thus he came to calligraphy from necessity (he says laziness), and he is largely self-taught. I think he had one calligraphy class as an undergrad at UGA with Vince Biboll (I may have this name completely wrong!), who was 'Mr. Graphic Design' at UGA in the '50's and '60's. (When Ken returned to teach at UGA he discontinued the MFA program immediately. It was underutilized, and the few students enrolled simply took the same classes as undergrads, but they did a little more work.)

He did a lot of work for ad agencies in Atlanta while teaching, and continues to do work for Yale University Press. For many years he went to Cortona to teach on the studies abroad program. Soon he began hanging out at the marble quarry in Arezzo, and took up letter carving. In Athens (Georgia) he carved letters on the marble pavement in a plaza next to the courthouse. (I can't think what they commemorate--it may be a Vietnam memorial--find out!) It is amazing to think how many people walk over them every day without a thought as to the labor involved. He taught a stone carving workshop for the guild in Atlanta once (about 1988). We each carved one letter on a piece of slate. (whatever happened to mine? purged in a move, most likely. don't know where my chisel is either.)

He told me that in all the years he taught calligraphy, Joey Hannaford and I are the only students who kept with it. This is probably because it was such a tough class, and he did not focus on the 'fun' aspects of calligraphy, although he did bring books to class to inspire us. He also taught from the standpoint of 'learning calligraphy will make you a better typographer.' (Or perhaps that's what he said the prevailing attitude was before calligraphy 'took off' in the '70's.)

This must be his second year of retirement from the university. He spends his time riding his bicycle and parachuting, among other things. I talked to him for a long time on the phone in early December; he invited me to visit his attic studio and peruse his considerable library. I really need to take him up on that offer. I also want to take a picture of the lovely lettering he did for the State Botanical Garden of Georgia sign.

I write all this to preserve this bit of history for myself! I love tracing calligraphic roots, too. Must pick Ken's brain more when I see him...

4 comments:

Mac said...

That is some beautiful work. Really amazing the amount of effort he must have put forth in his lifetime to perfect that skill. And to think it has been rendered nearly obsolete by digital typesetting. It is sad really.I didn't have the guts to take his calligraphy class. What I remember about Mr. William's is the opera music he always had blaring in his office after hours. He is a cool guy.

Bruce S said...

Ken has never received the recognition he deserves. Even if students haven't kept up with creating calligraphy, Ken's influence is evident in how we see letters. Because of him (and Ron Arnholm), I know good from bad lettering and typography. I had the good fortune of graduating in UGA's bicentennial class, for which Ken designed a special diploma — we're the only ones who have it! And it is breathtaking. As for his classical music, most of the time it was great, but when he started playing the gregorian chants...

Hey, I'll have to look you up when I'm in G'ville—my parents live there.

Margaret said...

Hi Bruce,
I'm sorry I missed your comment; I've been out of touch for a while. Do look me up--I must have been at UGA when you were there...

Bennett said...

Wow! It is so nice to see your post about this - I am Ken's son and I was very moved to find your post about him. I was looking around online for examples of his work to show a friend that hasn't seen it before - no kidding he is rather obscure online! Thank you so much - really made me happy to read your post.
Bennett Williams