Piece for Kalligraphia

Here’s the piece I entered in the Kalligraphia show currently on show at the San Francisco Public Library. It’s small—just 4×6 inches. Written with a ballpoint pen. It shows up bigger here than it is actual size. Click to enlarge even more.

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Air force symbols: student work

My summer Design Procedures class just ended at Pratt. In summer, the class meets twice a week, and the class size is small, so it feels very different from the regular term. The assignments are the same, however.

One of my favorite assignments is an exercise for learning the basics of creating vector-based art. The students have to draw air force symbols, both contemporary and historical. (Above: United Arab Emirates, Angola, Germany 1916-17, and Canada). They base their renderings on photo reference files, some of which are not perfect—by design. Having to interpret a less-than-accurate drawing and make it into a geometrically precise rendering is part of the exercise. The beauty of these air force symbols is that they are based on very simple geometries. There’s no fudge factor here. We do renderings of about 25 different symbols, starting with the simple roundel of the RAF, and progressing to more complex designs.

The Iron Cross is the trickiest. You have to construct large concentric circles outside the figure, then copy these and get all your alignments perfectly right.

We use the Pathfinder function to slice and splice parts of these basic figures together to make the basic forms, then copy and rotate the these to achieve the final rendering.

After we’ve worked with these relatively simple symbols, the students have to make a rendering of a DC-3 airplane and apply gradients to suggest the play of light on a three-dimensional metal object.

Then I ask them to create a symbol for the Brooklyn Air Force, apply it to their DC-3, and create a poster. Thomas Colligan came up with a nice poster for his final effort:

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The rhetoric of cardboard

This was originally written as my next editor’s letter for Letter Arts Review. I decided not to use it in LAR, but nothing should go to waste…

No matter what one’s political opinion of the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is undeniable that the demonstrations have had an impact on the way Americans talk about the state of the country and our economy. The term “the 99%” has entered our collective vocabulary, and for the first time since the Great Depression many Americans have actually begun to question the role of capitalism in shaping our financial affairs. Whether this success reflects wise strategy on the part of the Occupiers, or simply the fact that they have tapped into a widely shared spirit of discontent, there is no doubt that the visual spectacle of the protests has created a powerful populist image that millions of people have responded to.

Some of the most striking visuals of the Occupy movement have been among the most humble: hand-made signs made of recycled cardboard boxes.

I am guessing that he choice of the cardboard box was not entirely intentional. There were some simple reasons why it was adopted at the earliest protests. For one thing, the New York City Police Department forbids the use of sticks to support protest signs—sticks could be used as weapons against the cops’ batons. Early on in the protest, the NYPD began enforcing the no-stick rule, so the signs had to be held directly in the hands of the protesters. Another factor in the choice of cardboard may simply have been practical. As the encampment at Zuccotti Park took shape, sympathizers from around the country began ordering food for the Occupiers from local pizzerias, providing not only sustenance, but a ready source of used pizza boxes that could be transformed into signs.

Whatever the causes for the choice, the simple cardboard sign has become a fixture at Occupy events. As a way of projecting the goals of the movement, the choice is pitch-perfect. No material could better communicate Occupy’s message that the 99% have been dispossessed. Corrugated cardboard is cheap, ubiquitous, and disposable. It used by the homeless for bedding and shelter. We use it up and toss it away.

The contrast between these populist signs and the slick products of commercial design could not be more obvious. These cheap handmade messages are worlds away from the carefully crafted, mass-produced images of traditional political campaigns. One protester was photographed in Boston in October carrying a placard that read, “I can’t afford my own politician, so I made this sign.” The message is perfectly echoed by its medium. It’s not low budget. It’s no budget. And in its humility, it expresses clearly the idea that our politics are controlled by the image-makers, the media, and the plutocrats who manage them, while ordinary people struggle to have a voice.

That’s the rhetoric of cardboard. It’s a defiant statement by people who feel they’ve been dispossessed and excluded. But it’s also hopeful. As one protester’s sign read in October: “My cardboard can beat your billboard.”

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We made the New York Times

The World Encyclopedia of Calligraphy was reviewed today in the New York Times Book Review by Steven Heller: “There is more to writing in tongues than meets the eye, and the authors explain the origins and nuances of writing in, say, Indic scripts or Cyrillic majuscules and minuscules in a voice that is thoroughly accessible and enjoyable.”

Here’s the link.

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Student work

This past term I taught calligraphy at Pratt. Calligraphy is an elective for Juniors and Seniors. The final project is to make an installation out in the environment and photograph it.

Jack Liakas cut the words “as seen on tv” out of black foam core and mounted it on a screen in Manhattan. The letters dance with color as the message on the screen changes.

James Winner used a quotation by Nelson Mandela. He photographed this on his roof, with a distant view of Manhattan—the hill he wants to climb.

I think the challenge of teaching calligraphy in an art school is to tie it into the broader practices of art, typography, and graphic design. Broadly speaking, I want to simply introduce students to the practice of making letters by hand. But I also want them to learn some of the history of our letterforms, and see how our writing system was shaped by the pen before it became relatively fixed when printing took over from the hand. And I want students to make connections between calligraphy and typography, as well as think about how letterform, text, and composition can make an artistic statement.

This term I was forcefully reminded how our culture has changed. Twenty years ago, when I was teaching calligraphy at the New School in Manhattan, it was enough to hand out an exemplar and set the students to writing. Learning styles (and attention spans) were different then, and students would be challenged to master the use of the tool. They would practice and enjoy the struggle of learning to make each stroke correctly and begin developing rhythm.

The computer and the internet have changed all that. For one thing, back then, it was hard to find visual reference—the exemplar I handed out was often the only sample my students would see. Now, of course, while I’m lecturing, students will look up images on their phones. So there’s a vast amount of visual input.

Rather than lament this, I feel the need to ride with the new sensibility. I designed the course as a broad “taster” of calligraphy styles and techniques. So while we spent most of the term on a humanist roman script, I also introduced different tools and techniques. Instead of going into depth with one script and developing strong muscle memory and rhythm, we explored some of the range of calligraphic practice.

I will probably revamp the course entirely the next time I teach it; I felt torn this time between my old approach and the new.

But I was pleased with the final projects (the three here are just a selection).

The piece to the left is by Sabrina Sanberg.

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Drawings in progress

Two drawings in progress in the studio. These were exhibited at the National Arts Club in November.

Title: In the City  Year: 2011
Dimensions:  W26 x H20 inches
Tools: soft pencils, kneaded rubber eraser
Paper: Rives BFK
The text, which describes happenings around me in the city, is written in boustrophedon style—an ancient technique in which each line of text is written in the opposite direction, like an ox plowing a field.

Title: Paesanos
Dimensions:  W20 x H26 inches
Tools: soft pencils, kneaded rubber eraser
Paper: Rives BFK
Many of the people in my life grew up in foreign countries. And because I am interested in different alphabets and writing systems, I like playing with writing their names in their native scripts.

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The World Encyclopedia of Calligraphy!

My new book—compiled and edited with Holly Cohen—has finally been printed. Holly and I received our advance copies about a week ago. It should be in the bookstores by Christmas, and you can already pre-order through John Neal Bookseller and through Barnes & Noble or Amazon.

The book is the World Encyclopedia of Calligraphy. It’s a compendium of calligraphy from all around the globe. The book is intended as a guide to actually writing the major world scripts, so the heart of the book is a series of exemplars by experts in each script. We cover Roman scripts, Greek and Cyrillic, Hebrew, Arabic, Indic scripts, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, just to name some of the most important samples. The book also explains the use of quills, brushes, reeds, and metal pens, and gives some historical background to each of the traditions described.

This was a monumental undertaking—five years in the making. Holly and I are grateful to all the many artists who contributed their work. Seeing it in print has been amazing—big, colorful photographs, beautifully reproduced. And large-scale exemplars with stroke order and direction and details of letter construction. Lots of examples of finished work, both contemporary and historical, give a rich portrait of how calligraphy can be used.

Here are some sample spreads from the book:

From the Roman chapter, a sample of Carolingian.

From the Greek and Cyrillic chapter, a study of Cyrillic uncials.

From the chapter on Indic scripts, two historical manuscripts with a study of the Brahmi script that gave rise to writing systems from the Himalayas to Southeast Asia.

From the chapter on the Edged Pen, diagrams illustrating pen angle and a vintage box of pens.

From the chapter on the East Asian Brush, a step-by-step photo essay showing the complexities of making simple strokes with a brush.

In the Chinese chapter, Jim Zhang supplied a series of samples that show how ten representative characters are written in different styles.

This is just a taster. It’s tempting to show more! Holy and I are very grateful to our editor at Sterling Books, Barbara Berger, who shepherded this project through the many stages of production.

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A practice of gift exchange

An ongoing project: a simple box used to exchange gifts. I’ve been exchanging this and several other boxes with a small community of friends—some are artists, some are not. The premise is straightforward. A gift of no great monetary value is placed in the box, wrapped in tissue. On the tissue the giver has written an observation of something he or she has witnessed. The box is then sealed with two strips of paper on which additional observations have been written. Once the gift is given, the receiver repeats the process, and gives a new gift using the same box, adding new observations. As the box makes its rounds within the community, the number of texts collected grows, and the value of the box grows as well.

The gifts exchanges thus far have been very simple—pomegranates, chestnuts, tea, small samples of skin cream. Enjoyable things, but of no great cost. The value is established in the exchange itself.

My friend Zoran wrapped his gift for me in a sheet torn from a Serbian newspaper. On it he had written a cryptic text in Serbian. Each phrases has a word that connects in a chain to the next phrase. This is the translation: Christopher is a thought collector.  Thought is the strongest weapon. A weapon is for offense or defense. Defense can be against a friend or an enemy. A friend is a person who thinks about you when they fall asleep. A dream is a road to reality. Reality is sweet on your forehead [Serbian: face]. A face is the reflection of the soul. The soul is conscious [it thinks].

Below, some of my tissue wrappers with observations. The rubber stamps were made from photographs taken in the city.

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Letter Arts Review 25:3

Letter Arts Review 25:3 came out this summer. The cover artist was Yukimi Annand.

My editor’s letter, entitled, “The Sepia-Toned Trap,” deals with the problem of the calligraphy ghetto—how readily the word “calligraphy” conjures up something musty and historical, when in fact many calligraphers and lettering artists are fully engaged with modern graphic design and the practices of contemporary art.

The features include a long essay on contemporary Japanese seal carving by Christine Flint-Sato, an article by Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord about making books with kids using formats from all around the world, an exploration of levels of meaning in letter-based art by Steven Skaggs, and an interview with Wissam Shawkat by Elinor Holland.

The seal carving article is full of detailed pictures showing each stage in the design and cutting of seals.

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Mystery ephemera

I came across this piece of ephemera at Argosy Bookstore in New York. On the side, one person has written in Italian—the sheet seems to have been picked up on a trip to Paris in 1828. The text at the bottom in French says something to effect that No one in the future will believe this writing has been made by hand. I’m still trying to make out all the words. The stencil text seems to be a prayer for the restored Bourbon monarch, perhaps Charles X. It’s 87 x 125 mm—the stencil is incredibly fine.

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Bookbinding from my pending calligraphy book

These drawings illustrate the manuscript book chapter of my soon-to-be released book, Calligraphy Studio. They show a simple single-section presentation binding.

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Lettering

Going through old files, I came across this program cover I made over ten years ago. It owes a debt to Lyonel Feininger’s 1919 woodcut of a cathedral that illustrated the first Bauhaus manifesto.

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Letter Arts Review Annual 2011

It’s crunch time at LAR. The deadline for entries for the 2011 Annual Juried Issue is Friday the 19th of August. There’s been a slow trickle of entries coming in for the last six weeks. Now comes the flood. I’m keeping my head above water—just.

Here’s the behind-the scenes view— when each package arrives, I open it, check the entry forms, note how many entries were included, and check the back of each image to make sure it has been marked with the correct code. Then I cut the entry forms down to a standard size and staple together forms when someone has put in one than more piece. These are then piled into several categories; I keep one pile for the artists I have to contact to confirm their entry has been received; a second pile for entry forms to be processed for payment; and finally a third pile for all the forms that have been processed. This last pile is alphabetized. The forms move up from pile to pile until everything has been set in order. (You can see the entry forms at the top left).

In the meantime, the print-outs of all the works creates a growing pile of its own (bottom left). As of today, the pile is about five inches high.

A lot of people decorate their envelopes, so I save my favorites. The envelope at left comes from Germany. Once we get to the stage of laying out the magazine, after the judges have made their selection, I usually scan some of the best envelopes and use them at the front of the issue, with the juror’s comments. Some of the envelopes are casual and fun; others are little works of art.

So far, entries have come in from all over the USA, England, Scotland, Norway, Japan, Belgium, Sweden, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Australia, Argentina, and Switzerland.

Each package has its own personality. Some are monstrous Frankenstein affairs, cobbled together with recycled cardboard and masses of packing tape. Others are wrapped as carefully as Christmas gifts. The Japanese have an extraordinary fondness for plastic—often each piece entered is in its own clear plastic sleeve. I love the tiny Japanese staples, which are half the length of American ones, and do the job just as efficiently. (Resources  wasted in plastic are saved in metal!).

It’s amusing to see so many visual iterations of my name on the envelopes.

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Brush experiments

Just a few off-cuts here from a current project. I’m doing hand-lettering for a feature article in an upcoming issue of Letter Arts Review.

One of the perverse choices I’ve made with LAR is to set the whole magazine in a single typeface at a single size. That applies even to the headings. I allow myself to set the type in different colors (usually just black and red), and use romans, italics, and small caps. These variations express the hierarchies of heading/text/caption. I also have to compose the page carefully to reinforce those hierarchies.

The one place where I break my rule is in the headlines for feature articles. I have often set these in other typefaces at large sizes. But I’ve always felt the headlines worked best when they were custom-lettered, either mechanically with the computer, or by hand.

Considering this recently, I decided to make a new rule: every feature article will have a custom-made heading; I’m swearing off using any existing typeface other than our house style, Dolly.

This means, of course, that I have three choices: I can ask the author of the article to render the heading (which many writers, being lettering artists themselves, will probably be happy to do); I can commission the heading (problematic with a small budget); or I can do it myself.

These off-cuts are from one of the latter. The lettering will be composed with a photograph of the Blue Ridge Mountains; the article, by Laurie Doctor, is about a workshop she gave at Cheerio in North Carolina.

I started with a Japanese fountain-pen style brush. My first experiments were a little too controlled:

As I worked, I got looser; I wanted the rough, brushy quality to show, and be less tight. A string of letter a‘s:

The version below is loose and playful (this is just the first part of the headline). I feel I’m channeling Joan Miró—

It’s still a work in progress… some letters will be replaced; and the whole thing isn’t finished until it is composed with the photo.

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The end is here

An end-sign is a small symbol that appears at the end of an article in a magazine that indicates to the reader the article has come to a close. In Letter Arts Review, I have been using a simple bullet point, slightly larger than the main text, as an end-sign. But I’ve wanted for some time to have a unique end-sign for the publication.

I think some years ago LAR had its own end-sign—I seem to remember a tiny LAR monogram in a circle in older issues. But that was before I took over as editor, and the old end-sign was lost in the transition.

The best end-signs are simple but distinctive. You should be able to spot one quickly when leafing through the magazine, but it shouldn’t be so loud that it calls attention to itself. One of my favorites is the small yellow rectangle National Geographic uses.

I made some sketches in my notebook.

I tried out a bunch of ideas… a small inky hand-print?… a gestural brush mark?… a splatter of ink?… a nib? I wanted to do something that would relate to the letter arts. I thought perhaps the nib could actually be a photograph, rather than a typographic symbol, but that violated my sense that an end-sign has to be self-effacing. The ink spots and brush marks struck me as a bit too complex for a symbol that would have to be quite small.

I even considered simply using the word explicit in red, as in a medieval manuscript, where the text would often be marked at the beginning with the word incipit (here begins…), and at the end with explicit (here ends…). Though I was tickled by this idea, I had to admit it was pretty damn obscure, and, of course, the word explicit means something quite different in English.

Another digression was the idea of exploring calligraphic notarial marks. In late medieval and early Renaissance documents, a notary would often have a unique pen-made symbol that would be written at the end of a legal document. This symbol made it impossible for a later forger to add to the text. Each notary had his own device, and they could be quite decorative. But no, no, no—too elaborate, too arcane.

I settled on making a small diamond-shaped mark, with small ticks at each end—the kind of mark an edged pen would make naturally. It would have just enough spring in its step not to be a cold geometric diamond. Here is the result, with some sample text:

Letter Arts Review is set in Dolly Roman, a typeface from a digital foundry in the Netherlands called Underware. I set the whole magazine in 9pt type on 12pt leading. My new symbol would have to marry with Dolly successfully, as well as work at that small size.

I scanned my best sketch and imported it into Illustrator. The shape was drawn in vector. Interestingly, I wasn’t tempted to do a preliminary version with an edged pen—it seemed to me that the best forms would be made by drawing them.

Above, a lower-case a set in Dolly, with the symbol. The red lines indicate the baseline and x-height. As I worked on the weight of the small extensions on the right and left, I tried to match—not slavishly—the weight of the thin parts of the typeface. In my first versions, the symbol was almost the same height as the small letters, only breaking the lines slightly top and bottom. But in test settings, it became clear this was too small. So I enlarged the symbol so it stood distinctly above the x-height line.

The new LAR end-sign will make its debut in issue 25:4.

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