Calligraphers still going against type
The black ink on DeAnn Singh’s fingertips is almost indelible. It’s an occupational hazard, and she’s slightly self-conscious about it as she sits down at her desk. Today she is titling the pages of a scrapbook that belongs to Barbra Streisand.
Singh is a calligrapher and modest enough to be flattered by the assignment. Scrapbooks, wedding invitations, even thank-you notes are staples of the trade, but occasionally she’ll land a job that’s more ambitious.
When a Hollywood director wanted a letter to appear as if it had been written by Queen Victoria, she took the call. When a television producer asked for a book to look as if it had belonged to witches, she was hired. When Ventura County officials needed a masthead to adorn a declaration for civic achievement, they turned to her.
Singh has been practicing her craft for more than 30 years and is fluent in nearly 20 formal lettering styles. Keyboards and keypads may dictate the terms of the written word, but Singh’s hand lettering is a reminder that words are not just a means of communication, items of sheer utility, but personal expressions of beauty and persuasion.
“Calligraphy is an art; typing isn’t,” she says. “When you see letters that have been handwritten, you make a connection that doesn’t occur with type. Hand lettering leads to a broader, richer relationship to language.”
But in a world bent upon frugality and speed, calligraphy is becoming a marginalized skill, more hobby than profession.
Lettering styles that look hand-drawn can be downloaded off the Internet. Budget constraints have led the city and county of Los Angeles to employ fewer artists skilled in calligraphy — targeted as an unnecessary taxpayer expense — and computers now produce portions of proclamations.
The calligraphy class that Singh taught for 25 years at the Beverly Hills Adult School was recently eliminated for lack of funding, and in April the Indiana Department of Education issued a memo emphasizing “keyboarding skills” over cursive writing for third-graders. Many calligraphers credit early writing lessons for inspiring their interest in letters.
The erosion of their trade has left some calligraphers eager to take hammers to word processors.
“Computers have corrupted everything,” says calligrapher Thomas Ingmire of San Francisco. “The loss of handwriting is the tragic and, to my mind, the logical consequence of the computer.”
If calligraphy is frivolous, says Etchie Mura, a retired graphic artist with the county of Los Angeles, then so is art and, in the case of the civic proclamations, so are expressions of gratitude.
“It’s sad,” Mura says, “that people have to defend the fact that society wants to preserve graciousness, art and the humanities.”
Singh, 56, heads into the studio of her tiny Mar Vista home. Rooney the Pomeranian yips at her heels. Medieval monks had their rooms for writing: alcoves in the cloistered walkways of their monasteries. Singh has hers, a converted bedroom overlooking the backyard.
She opens the door to let the breeze through. Her husband, Ray, watches the grandchildren bouncing on a trampoline. Shouts and laughter can be heard over the guitar music she’s cued. To be in Singh’s company when she writes is to fall under the spell of the alphabet, the straight, circular and intersecting lines whose interplay becomes shapes and whose shapes become words.
Calligraphy — “beautiful writing” — employs a variety of lettering styles that are distinguished by a combination of thick and thin pen strokes and ornamentation. Beauty, in the eyes of calligraphers, lies in the proportions of letters and their arrangement on the page.
Some styles — Roman, Uncial, Carolingian, Gothic — date to the Middle Ages and earlier. Others, like Nueland and Legende, emerged in the last 100 years. Each follows a strict set of aesthetic principles. Roman capitals, for instance, calls for the A to be three-quarters as wide as it is tall, the B to be half as wide as it is tall and the C seven-eighths as wide as it is tall.
Designer and graphic artist Milton Glaser sees the writing as a performance. “The best calligraphy comes gracefully, without thought,” he says. “It is like dancing. It is governed by rhythm and intervals.”
As a child in Utah, Singh always doodled letters and traced the cursive type in advertisements like Cadillac’s. She shared the best handwriting prize in first grade with Joey Hewitt, and after college, decorated cakes and wrote produce signs for Safeway.
In 1977, she moved to California and got married. Two years later, she took her first calligraphy class in the adult education program at Venice High School. It was a time when homespun arts like macrame and ceramics, spinoffs of the hippie aesthetic, were thriving.
At night, after her children had gone to bed, she practiced her letters, losing track of time as she tried to get the curve of the italic lowercase A just right. She spent a year mastering a 10th century script and then applying it to a version of “The Ugly Ducking,” which she illustrated.
“For the first time in my life, letters became a part of me,” she says. She began teaching, and for three years in the late 1980s she made scrolls for the county.
She started to get work from Hollywood: For the 1996 occult-horror-slasher movie, “Sometimes They Come Back… Again,” she created the devil’s diary.
“Devil-worship movies,” she says, “are good for calligraphers.”
She was asked to make the title page for “The Book of Shadows” in “Charmed.” For “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” she researched and mastered the handwriting of George Washington, Queen Victoria, John Wilkes Booth, James Garfield, Grover Cleveland, Harry Truman and Calvin Coolidge.
When the producers of “Mad Men” needed a note in cursive and a signature from Don Draper, they turned to Singh. “Something masculine and from the 1950s” was the request, though they eventually decided that the missive be typed.
She calls her business Designing Letters and blogs about her classes and lessons. She makes about $25,000 a year, income that’s supplemented by her husband’s retirement pension.
Singh rolls her chair up to the slanted desk. On her left is a taboret for inks and watercolors; on her right are the cabinets for paper and finished work; and behind her is a tool chest packed with knives, rulers, markers, brushes, pens, acrylics, scissors and pencils.
Ask her about computers, and she’ll tell the story of Steve Jobs.
Before the founding of Apple and the development of the Macintosh, Jobs dropped out of Reed College and studied calligraphy with artist Lloyd Reynolds. If he hadn’t taken that class, he has said, personal computers might not have come with a variety of fonts.
Today there are hundreds of thousands of downloadable fonts, some as easily pirated as music. A few have been created to resemble calligraphy with slight imperfections.
Calligraphy’s lack of perfection is precisely its appeal, says graphic designer Jill Bell, who works with both hand lettering and fonts.
“When you use a font, you lose the spontaneity,” Bell says. “Letters lose their life. They look stiff and more formal.”
The reason, Bell explains, is that when fonts are designed, each character — or glyph — is constructed inside a modular box, a framework that provides the designer with guidelines for spacing and proportions.
“Each letter has to conform and sit on a line,” she says. “Each has a ceiling and a wall around it.”
Calligraphy, even at its most formal, has more freedom, and just as LPs sound different than CDs, it offers a more raw and visceral experience of the written word than a computer can.
One of Singh’s recent projects is a rendition of the poem “The Dance,” the story of the massacre of Armenian women nearly 100 years ago. In these pages, which she created for herself, the text, done in italic and Roman, is angled against a wash of red, black and orange.
The lettering owes its authority to what the monks began nearly 1,500 years ago, but Singh’s interpretation — at times legible, at times not — belongs to the 21st century.
Singh opens the leather-bound book with “Barbra” embossed in gold on the cover and brushes the pages to get a feel for their texture. She puts a drop of distilled water on a small disc of gold paint, fills a basin with tap water for keeping her pens and brushes clean, and begins writing.
The lettering is Carolingian, the style that emerged in the 9th century at a time when the written word in Europe had grown nearly illegible. Her pen — a 2-millimeter Brause — moves with uncommon grace.
As she writes, she pictures the letters that lie ahead, so her hand has to trace only what she has already seen in her mind.
“It’s like basketball,” she says, referring to players at the free-throw line. “When your hand does what you brain asks, well….” She pauses, not certain at first how to finish. “It just feels right.”
After years of practice, she has memorized the muscle movements for each letter. Some take special dexterity; the letter S is especially tricky. It requires knowing where to start and stop the stroke, how to draw the reverse curve and express the letter’s inherent sensuality.
The pen scratches the surface of the paper, and soon she’s found her rhythm, printing each heading — “The Tonight Show,” “A Star is Born,” “The Way We Were” — with effortless consistency.
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