Category Archives: teaching calligraphy

“When This You See, Remember Me…”

In an antique store in Woodruff, Wisconsin, I came across a little album of autographs.  It had a well-worn velvet cover, and its contents told me that it was the property of Emelia Daw (nee Buchert), who received it in 1890 at the age of 15 years.  The last signature is in 1930, when Mrs. Daw (as she is addressed in the later  salutations) would have been 55 years old… the same age I am now.

All of the signers wrote “Dear Emelia (or Mrs. Daw)”, followed by a formulaic inscription.  Her “friend and teacher”, Marguerite Hill, wrote:

“Premeditate your speeches, words once flown

Are in the hearer’s power and not your own.”

On May 19th, 1898, Otto Brandt wrote, with creative spelling:  “Dear Emilie, If you love me as I love you know knife can cut our love in to.”

The pages are signed “Your Friend”, “Your brother”, “From Your Dear Melda” (her daughter, who signed twice).  The earliest signers wrote in German, so I can’t vouch for the contents, but I think it’s safe to assume they followed the convention of the day and wrote well-used tropes.  One of my favorite pages is from Emilia’s sister, who wrote in 1897:

“Sister Emelia,

The time is swiftly passing by,

When we must bid adieu,

We know not when we meet again,

So these lines I leave with you.”

In the corner margin, she wrote:  “Remember the pantry jokes”.  Salt in the sugar bowl?  What mischief did they cook up?!

I brought the album to the Chicago Botanic Garden, where I am teaching a class in calligraphy.  My students were fascinated with the beauty of the penmanship.  The writers used quill-shaped pens dipped in ink bottles, similar to the ones we use in class.  As the years went along, the writing became less formal, resembling Palmer cursive hand-writing.  One imagines that the manner of dress and speech also became less formal, as these German immigrants adjusted to their life in America and things became more modern.  Today, we can compose and publish with no pen, no paper, and no pants on.

They had names like Alma, Anna, Elsie, Hermann, Otto, Hazel.  They came from Wisconsin towns called Bancroft, Ellington, Hortonville, Greenville, Washburn, Appleton, Watertown and Stevens Point.  I think Emelia came from Hortonville, which made me laugh, because Hortonville was always my family’s synonym for “Nowhere” after our car broke down there on a family road-trip.

Emelia cherished this little album for at least 40 years.  As her friends married, she went back to their autograph page and inscribed it with their wedding date (e.g., Henry Riesenweber,  Ellington, March 11, 1891; married 13 Oct., 1901.)

Each of the inscriptions, with its ornate calligraphy or pencilled scrawl, conjure up a personality.  One can almost hear their voices.  As a person who embraces the fluidity and ease of technology, I find that calligraphy brings a slow pace and tactile quality to writing that is all but lost today.  In the careful forming of letters, the scratch of pen on paper, the  setting-up of ink between two scored lines from a metal pen, the content of the inscription (whether it be a saccharin couplet in an autograph book or a literary quotation) becomes a separate concern.  For Emelia’s friends, their inscription showed their devotion; writing was their gift.

I am learning Copperplate, a very formal and difficult style of calligraphy.  Here is my practice piece:

It humbles me that Marguerite Hill, Emelia’s “friend and teacher”, wrote better than I do, and she wrote that way ALL THE TIME.

Teaching Text-ers Calligraphy

note from Annie, who participated in my calligraphy workshop at Stevenson High School

It is interesting teaching calligraphy to high-school students who mostly type.  Most people of a certain age remember the green hand-writing charts that ran around the top of the chalk-boards (another anachronism!) in our grade-school classrooms.  I am told that the systematic teaching of cursive hand-writing is being phased out of schools.

Calligraphy is related to the part of the brain that draws.  Interestingly, it isn’t the same as the part that controls writing.  So, when I teach calligraphy, I always encourage my students, pointing out that, while my own hand-writing is nothing to brag about, I am able to do calligraphy.

Palmer Method of Cursive Handwriting

I’ve been teaching calligraphy to kids since the mid-90’s, and it seems that, the less they write by hand, the more fascinated they are with calligraphy.  They watch with rapt attention as I demonstrate how to use a chisel-shaped brush or pen, how the tool makes the thick and thin parts by itself, where to begin the strokes for the letters, how to figure out the proper height.  For an hour or so, the classroom is silent as they dip their pen into a bottle of ink, shake off the excess drops onto scratch paper, prime the pen with a few strokes, and hold their breath to write until the ink runs out and they have to repeat the process.  It’s meditative, repetitive, mesmerizing.  I tell them that calligraphy itself is not a particularly creative art form, it’s more of a discipline.  It trains the hand and the brain.  It allows the hand to draw and paint with more mastery, control, confidence.  Calligraphic letters can provide a framework and structure for a riotous explosion of creative expression.

I specialize in illuminated marriage contracts.  I guess that probably makes me the queen of obsolescence:  writing by hand, illuminated manuscripts, not to mention marriage.  The pen I use is the same one I learned on in high school (Speedball handle and nib, C-4 for Hebrew), but I have learned a great deal about painting since I was a kid and now I decorate my manuscripts with egg-tempera paint instead of what we used to call “magic markers”.

I am increasingly fascinated with hand-written text.  We see less and less of it, and when we see someone’s hand-writing, it’s almost like catching a glimpse of an intimate scene through an open door on a busy street.  It’s a glimpse into the personality of the writer.  The Owing Project, my exploration of owing and debt which will be exhibited at ARC Gallery this summer (July 21- Aug. 14) and at The Art Center, Highland Park in April of 2011, has collected many slips of paper with anonymous hand-written answers to personal questions about what people owe, how they feel about it, what they feel they owe the world, and what the world owes them.  The little papers are fraught with emotion, which is conveyed in the handwriting of the author.