Calligraphy: Letters Composed by Writers Who Care about Art and Style

Article excerpt

Believe it or not, calligraphy - the art of beautiful writing - is "flourishing" in the computer age.

But be careful how you use the word "flourish." Longtime professionals such as Rose Folsom define flourish as a sweeping gesture that is like a hand dancing on paper. Technically, she says, a swooping stroke down - what amateurs would call a flourish - is a "swash."

Calligraphy itself she calls "disciplined freedom." Like ice-skating, in which she also excels, it keeps its practitioners always on edge.

"Every time you put a mark on paper, you put yourself on line," calligrapher and letter-design expert Julian Waters said in a video portrayal of his work some years ago. "It's so direct and full of risk."

Welcome to the world of letter-perfect perfectionists whose reputations rest on their ability to draw words, and sometimes single letters, in visually arresting ways.

They are artists whose primary tools are pens and brushes, as well as instruments of their own devising. Rather than lie down and play dead in the age of electronic communication, many have found ways of integrating ancient calligraphic forms - individually applied, often anonymously - with modern electronic methods.

The hand, they feel, wins out every time. Experienced practitioners claim to be able to distinguish one another's style at a glance, based on the shape of letters and tiny variations of line indistinguishable to an amateur's eye.

"It's the human spirit that is communicated," Mrs. Folsom attests. "You can tell a person is nervous or hesitant."

Computers, they say, are good for scanning and preliminary spacing or when rapid reproduction is required.

In addition to commissions for work by hand, studios such as Inkwell Inc. on Ninth Street NW use a calligraphic machine for commercial work. The studio was begun by Washington National Cathedral's calligrapher, Louise Megginson, and two others, but much of her time these days is spent on the Book of Remembrance - a record of donors to Cathedral projects totaling 85 volumes to date.

Another ambitious calligraphic project on view locally is the triple panel of donor names inscribed by Mrs. Folsom for Holton Arms School - 900 names that took her several weeks to complete. It was an expensive undertaking since she normally charges $50 an hour, the high end in the calligrapher's trade.

She is employed regularly on a free-lance basis by the National Gallery of Art for its many celebratory fetes, which may require as many as eight hand-inscribed items.

Most awards and certificates that local businesses and public agencies request from calligraphic experts are done in italic, while the Remembrance books are done in what is known as foundation hand. That style was first used in 10th-century England and was reintroduced around 1905 by Edward Johnson, who is credited with modernizing calligraphy as a member of the English arts movement. He helped make popular a broad nib, as opposed to a pointed pen, which lightened and brightened the range of styles.

Like surgeons, professional calligraphers take years to acquire basic skills before their individual styles emerge. Then, too, there are as many different approaches as there are writing styles or typefaces.

"It [the mark on paper] happens in the mind first, then comes out in a burst of energy," says Mr. Waters, 40, whose Gaithersburg studio walls are filled with articles about pingpong, his favorite hobby, and whose lawn is cut in what he calls a vaguely calligraphic pattern.

British born, he came to this country at the age of 14 when his father became the head of conservation for the Library of Congress. His mother, Sheila Waters, a world-renowned calligrapher who lives in Pennsylvania, is credited with renewing interest in the field locally in the early 1970s. …