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Present-day calligraphers venture beyond traditional script into expressive art

Different strokes for different folks

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Local lettering artist and font designer Cecelia Harris may be a newbie to conference directing, but not to her industry. She's clear about one thing regarding The Summit at Colorado Springs weeklong event.

"Probably whatever [people] think of when they think of calligraphy is wrong. Or at least it's — that's maybe not a good way to say it — it's incomplete," she asserts. "Because I know most people think of wedding invitations, pretty writing, maybe pithy little sayings, that they see somewhere at Cracker Barrel on a card.

"And it's just so much more exciting than that."

Out of the stack of conference posters and cards sitting on the chair next to her, Harris pulls an example by faculty member Yves Leterme (who will give an open-to-the-public talk Wednesday night; see "Stop, look, listen," here).

The Belgian artist used gesso, ink, paint and mechanical pencil to construct this piece. In pale grey, seemingly etched across a modern marbled and spotted design of bright yellow, blue and hints of green, scrawled and tight uppercase words share a quote by Austrian psychiatrist Alfred Adler: "It is easier to fight for one's principles than to live up to them."

"This just happens to be an original piece," Harris explains. "It does have calligraphic lettering ... but some of it isn't lettering at all, but calligraphic marks. To me it's a very fascinating kind of way to use words and think about how you want to use words and how they might come together with what else you do to make a statement."

A bunch of characters

Nearly 300 people will gather at Colorado College from July 21 to 28 for the 32nd annual international event, sponsored this year by the local 40-member Summit Scribes guild (summitscribes.org). It's the first time it's been held in Colorado, and possibly the last, since it hits a new locale each year; previous sites have been in Minnesota, California and Vancouver Island, Canada. Of the 23 instructors on the roster, four are flying over from Europe, and registrants are coming from as far as Japan, England and South America.

"The great thing about the calligraphic community is that it's pretty small," Harris says. "So when we have these conferences we have the best ... all leaders in the field."

Leaders such as former Texan Brody Neuensschwander, who now lives in Belgium and is known for his live-action film calligraphy with English director Peter Greenaway, in addition to more recent Arabic/Islamic and Chinese/Japanese calligraphy projects; and North Carolinian John Stevens, about whom Harris says, "I think if you asked someone who knew, 'Who are the best five calligraphers in the world?' he would be on there. But he has a very commercial career as well." Disney, Rolling Stone and HBO are just a few of the big names who have commissioned Stevens' work.

"I would say that all of the faculty that are coming do make their living as calligraphers, whether it be ... a bread-and-butter business where they're still doing certificates or whatever ... or teaching or just plain artists," says Harris. "One of the faculty, Denis Brown, he's from Ireland and right now he's collaborating with a Chinese calligrapher and they're making these just gigantic, wall-sized installations. He's laid 24-karat gold sheets on this entire thing, and lettering on top of it."

Surface texture

Five of the faculty hail from Colorado — "one of the perks of putting on the conference," says Harris. "It'll be great to introduce all these people to their work."

Colorado Springs' Pat Musick is one. The fine calligrapher will teach a workshop on enamel lettering, a process of fusing glass to metal at 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Former Springs' resident Renee Jorgenson, who now lives in Denver, is a botanical artist whose workshop will focus on storybook illumination.

Jake Weidmann, of Denver, is a master penman who will share his talents for flourishing and ornamentation.

"He's a kid," Harris, 55, says with a laugh. "I can say that, because I don't think he's yet 30. He might be 27, 28. Really fascinating guy who does what you maybe think is an old-fashioned kind of copperplate. What people think of, the thins and thicks and all the little twirls ... He does some old-school things, but then one of the things he does is T-shirt design.

I saw this one had a tank, and instead of the rolling part where the tank was, it had all this swirly calligraphy, so some edginess."

Durango-area Louise Grunewald's class is called "Letter From the Sun." Harris explains that Grunewald will teach her students to do printmaking with plates exposed to the sun. "And what better place to do sun exposure!" Harris exclaims, then pauses. "Hopefully."

The fifth Colorado-based artist is Boulder's Jill Berry.

"I wouldn't say I'm the most well-known of the calligraphers," Berry says. "There's some very big names coming. I'm a small fish in a very large pond."

And yet, that doesn't mean she's not making waves in her own way.

Simply illuminating

Berry, 56, got her start, as she says, a bit unconventionally.

"I was an interior design major in school, and then I did graphic design, and I used to be an artist for the Yellow Pages, actually," she explains. "Back before computers, I hand-drew Yellow Page ads. ... I had to copy fonts. So that's really the genesis of when I started learning to work with letters and trying to make them into something other than my own handwriting."

She's been fully immersed now in calligraphy for 14 years, though it was about a decade ago that she moved into the area of her workshop topic, "An Intimate Atlas." As a long-time journaler and lover of maps, Berry realized she could blend the two with her lettering work.

"There's a lot of typography, there's a lot of calligraphy on old maps," she explains. "There's a lot of drawing and painting, and imagery, and stories. They all tell stories. And I thought, this is — aside from the artist's book which does the same thing in a three-dimensional form — this was a way to tell stories and to experiment and explore in all these ways that I loved.

"The more I read, the more I realized they were far more art than science from the very beginning. Every map is just the story that that mapmaker chose to tell you. So very often, they're not true at all scientifically, which is why mistakes were made in exploration. ... The more I got into it, the more I thought this is really great and meaty stuff."

Beyond land maps, though, Berry discovered an Eastern tradition of mapmaking based on the human body. Hand maps have been used in palm reading. Full-body maps in acupuncture. Others, such as those of the heart and soul, can be used, as she describes, as "tools of self-discovery." It's the focus of Personal Geographies: Explorations in Mixed-Media Mapmaking, the book she published in 2011, as well as the class she'll be teaching at the conference.

"The people who have signed up for it are very brave. ... This is pretty out of the box."

Or maybe all of the attendees are really just artists at heart.

"Especially in today's world, when very few people are doing anything with their hands, there's obviously a backlash against that," Harris says. "My daughter and some of her friends are knitting and creating and even wanting to get into lettering. And just the proliferation of hand-lettered fonts, I find very interesting. They're purposely bad, you know what I mean?

"I've spent a lot of time trying to make my fonts look really, really good," she continues, "but now they want them to look like they came out of someone's hand, instead of out of a computer. And I think that calligraphy has that feel, because no matter how good of a calligrapher you become, if you look at a body of work, it has something that communicates to someone that it was not done by a computer. And I think that's worth pursuing."

kakens@csindy.com

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