Magazine article Eye : The International Review of Graphic Design

To the Letter

Magazine article Eye : The International Review of Graphic Design

To the Letter

Article excerpt

Calligraphy, in the hands of artists like Carl Kurtz and Susan Skarsgård, can be abstract, gestural, conceptual, or simply beautiful. It is always surprising.

What does a calligrapher do in the 21st century? The role of scribe, writing out manuscripts, was long ago usurped by the printing press. The job of copying out documents for governments and business disappeared with the invention of the typewriter. Some eke out a living filling in diplomas, writing out invitations to social events and addressing envelopes. Others survive by doing custom lettering for advertising and design, a field that has been severely challenged in the past two decades by the increasing sophistication of digital type, especially OpenType fonts with their endless array of alternates, ligatures and contextual characters. And then there are those who see salvation in calligraphy being accepted as an art rather than a craft, who seek to gain for it the same level of acceptance in Western society that it has had for centuries in Asia.

The champions of calligraphy as art have suggested several models: abstract imagery in the manner of Jackson Pollock, gestural mark-making à la Franz Kline or Cy Twombly, or conceptual art rooted in language like the work of Ed Ruscha or Jenny Holzer. Two calligraphers whose work sometimes fits into one or more of these categories but often as not into none of them are Carl Kurtz and Susan Skarsgård.

Schooled on signs and scores

Kurtz, born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1942 but raised in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is the eldest son of a sign painter. From the age of nine he helped his father, learning the myriad aspects of the craft: gold-leafing on windows, pin-striping vehicles, laying out and scaling up work, and the subtleties of letterforms. 'I believe those early lessons with my father provided me with a certain amount of facility as well as a love of playing with letterforms,' he says. 'There is (or at least was) in the sign business a commitment to novelty; most clients wanted their business, or their message, to stand apart from others. Difference in imaging was an accepted norm.'

At the Kansas City Art Institute he studied graphic design under Rob Roy Kelly, even helping to retouch many of the images that ended up in Kelly's groundbreaking American Wood Type 1828-1900 (1969). Contrary to expectations, Kelly immersed Kurtz in the Swiss style of design, with an emphasis on Helvetica. Later, at Indiana University, Kurtz's primary influence was Henry Holmes Smith, who had taught at the New Bauhaus in Chicago in the 1940s. Calligraphy was not part of this Modernist MFA, so Kurtz taught himself, learning much from Hermann Zapf's Feder und Stichel (1949; published in English as Pen and Graver). Today, he teaches foundation studies (and occasionally calligraphy) at the Kansas Institute.

A former music student, Skarsgård was born in Detroit in 1954. Her interest in calligraphy developed from her study of Renaissance music. 'The manuscripts were incredibly interesting, sometimes more so than the music itself,' she recalls. 'I could really feel the presence of the human being that wrote this music down and [I found] the visual qualities of this writing to be compelling.'

Skarsgård taught herself calligraphy before travelling to Austria to study with Friedrich Neugebauer, author of the influential The Mystic Art of Written Forms (1981). She subsequently worked for lettering artist Jerry Campbell who, with Dick Isbell, operated one of the leading commercial art studios in Detroit. She has been working as a designer with General Motors since 1995, first in the corporate and brand identity department, and now in industrial design. …

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