Gary April Gems – The Calligraphy Issue
I developed early-on, a great curiosity about Calligraphy. I think my curiosity was inspired by the beautifully illuminated texts we read from in Sunday school. I didn’t know it was called calligraphy.. I just thought it was just really cool writing.
Indeed, pouring over the illuminated texts during bible class captivated my imagination and seemed to be a precursor to my later love of art. I would daydream to the drone of my teacher’s voice and travel back to early monasteries to imagine what it would have been like to spend hours scribing these books, letter by letter then crafting them with gold and silver leaf to last for centuries.
I would wonder for hours at how, without erasers and white-out, those monks would correct an error. I was sure, even working in the realm of the divine, that errors were made. To use a biblical term, I was smitten.
With all this focus on the medium and not the message, I confess to having missed a good deal of my lessons. As a consequence, I would have flunked my pre-confirmation interview had it not been for pivoting the discussion from naming the sacraments to extolling the beauty and significance of the illuminated texts. This was a precursor to my later life as a business owner. You gotta know when to pivot, know when to exit.
I managed a passing grade and was able to keep my date with the Bishop.
I can’t say I missed going to Sunday school, but I did miss taking those fantastic flights of fancy on those magical beautiful illuminated books.
It turned out I wasn’t done with calligraphy. Fast forward to my early twenties and my first apartment. Just after moving in, I had noticed that all the names on the letterboxes were done in a beautiful, italic script. One mailbox, in particular, had an extra line that read “La Société des calligraphes de Montréal“. Kismet, right?
I made a point of meeting this neighbour who conveniently lived right across the hall. It turned out that she was a founding member of this organization and that it was she who generously (and being a perfectionist) offered to write everyone’s name on the mailboxes. After hearing of my Sunday school infatuation with Illuminated Texts, she convinced me to attend a meeting. It was deja-vu all over again as I fell in love once more with calligraphy.
I began taking lessons with her. She would say that Calligraphy was 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, and she was right. It was particularly challenging for me as I was drawn, not to the lettering itself, but by its potential for artistic expression. It was the art of calligraphy that had me under its spell.
I spent years taking classes and perfecting my cursive, italic, gothic, and other scripts.
I soon became an active member of the society eventually moving on to become editor of its newsletter. This meant that I was networking with members and editors across North America. This experience proved invaluable in enriching my knowledge and technique.
This all happened in the late seventies, early eighties. What also was happening was the introduction of personal computers which would cast a long shadow over the cursive landscape.
Soon the ubiquitous presence of home and office computers and the vast array of fonts they offered would deal a fatal blow to typewriters and make handwriting letters appear archaic.
Digital can’t replace personal.
A handwriting expert will tell you that everybody’s handwriting style is different. A handwriting analyst will add that it also exposes the writer’s personality.
Reading a handwritten letter by someone special, especially, if that person is no longer with you is a very intimate action. As you follow the lines and curves of the letters, you are reliving the moment they were written on the paper.
We had no videos of my mom, only photos when she passed away. So, we had no record of her voice. More than handwriting, a voice is very particular to an individual. She wasn’t a letter-writer but she did have a substantial library of handwritten recipes which I inherited. While I transposed them to a digital format for safe-keeping and preservation, I always pull out her original handwritten recipes when I want to cook. I imagine the moment she put them to paper and can feel her presence in the kitchen with me.
What’s the future for cursive and calligraphy?
I feel sad at the loss of cursive writing instruction in schools. Learning cursive writing, like the multiplication table and other courses we thought were useless as students, teaches us patience, perseverance, manual and mental dexterity. It seems the process is as important as the goal.
I’m happy to report that Calligraphy societies still exist and calligraphy art has developed a strong community of amateurs. Graphic artists keep the skill and art alive and wedding invitations keep them busy.
It seems with every advance, there is some push-back. Take streaming music and the returning popularity of vinyl records for example. Life is not a zero-sum game.
Life is rarely “this or that”; it’s usually “this and that”.
As the world grows increasingly digital, storied art forms like penmanship are quickly dying out. Old masters pass away, leaving behind a gaping void. Enter Jake Weidmann, the youngest “Master Penman” in the United States by three generations. Weidmann’s work shows an attention to minute detail that only comes through years and years of practice. His finished pieces — which fuse calligraphy and fine art — remind us that handwriting can be beautiful.
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In case you missed last month’s Gems, you can check it out here: Gary’s Stories and Quote Gems for March – The Teddy Bear Issue