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Calligraphy Crush: John Stevens (and Three Cheers for Cheerio)

Calligraphy Teaching

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For years, I have heard whispers of a place where calligraphers go.  A retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina where the view is spectacular, the people amazingly kind, and the meals magnificent.  It has all sounded far too good to be true, but I desperately hoped I would be able to experience this for myself someday when the stars aligned.  Well, when I heard that John Stevens would be teaching this fall, I took it upon myself to shove those stars into alignment.  And I'm so grateful I did.

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If you're knee-deep in the calligraphy world, you know about John Stevens.  Indeed, the metaphor up there is no mistake given that his talents seem like they fell straight from heaven.  There is, in fact, photographic evidence of a fellow student kneeling, hands in prayer, in front of the altar of John Stevens' work.  You can't not feel that reverie when you see the expert letterforms full of life and movement, the effortless flourishing, the perfect composition, the surprises that stretch and upend the definitions of what "calligraphy" is.  But all of this I knew, to some degree, from my first semester of calligraphy when Cheryl Jacobsen showed us slides of professional calligraphers' work.  You don't need to see it happen to believe that this man can walk on water.

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What I didn't know was what to expect of his teaching.  And it was here that I was even more blown away.  The class was ostensibly about Roman caps, and we worked on these day and night, first in pencil, then with a pointed brush, then with a flat brush, and finally with a broad-edged pen.  We ran the gamut from sans serif caps to the Trajanic brush caps.  And happily, I feel more freedom and familiarity with these forms than I ever have as a calligrapher.  But there was a lot of other stuff hiding between those lines.  John was sensitive to and extremely articulate about abstract aspects of art that are difficult to put into words.  He didn't want to teach a letter A.  He didn't want us to use and follow a ductus, which is the standard way calligraphy is taught.  When you use a ductus, he said, what you know is how to make a letter at that exact height with that exact weight.  But do you know how to make it bolder?  Lighter?  Italicize it?  Make it move?  You can't learn those things by painstakingly copying a ductus.  You need to learn basic forms and then understand how and when to employ variation to add the life and movement to your lettering that can allow calligraphy to sing in ways that typography never can.

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John also emphasized how important it is to problem solve with one's own brain and eye.  I was having trouble, for instance, figuring out how to do a Neuland 'S' with a brush.  The rest of the alphabet was starting to click, but I couldn't for the life of me make an 'S' that I felt good about.  While he certainly was willing to show me some possible solutions, what he later said really struck me:  he loves it when students facing lettering dilemmas come to a solution on their own.  He doesn't have THE answer.  Why?  Because there is no one answer.  There are many, and part of developing one's own personality and style is trying different things and figuring out what works best for your own eye.  It's a wonderfully liberating attitude. Here's another thing I loved:  John said that with every new project he works on, he doesn't feel confident.  We were all more than a little surprised to hear this.  Surely anyone that talented would just know that he could figure out whatever needed to be figured out. "Why would I?" he asked.  He's never seen that problem before.  He doesn't know what he's going to do or what's going to happen any more than any of us do when we face a new project.  Any new creative process necessarily involves the unknown.  And, by extension, some fear.  I've been working hard to accept fear as an important part of the creative process for a while now, so there's something reaffirming about hearing a seasoned professional say so matter-of-factly that experience doesn't eliminate that emotional dimension of the process. Perhaps it just becomes more familiar in time.

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Clearly, I liked the class.  And John was largely to thank.  But!  Oh my stars, the other students in the class were so amazing, so fun, so inspirational.  There was a trio of students from Belgium -- Jurgen, An, and Veerle -- who were all phenomenal.  These are some of Jurgen's beautiful caps.

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While the Trajanic brush caps were perhaps the most difficult of all the things we attempted, An made them look totally easy, topping off a gorgeous page with some vibrant brush cursive.

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And I traveled with my dear friend Cheryl Dyer, who is a freelance calligrapher and lettering artist in Omaha.  She is magically able to create beautiful, harmonious compositions spontaneously.

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Joyce Teta is one of the visionaries behind Camp Cheerio's calligraphy retreats.  These sensitive and delicate caps take my breath away.

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There were many others, too, whose work I regretfully didn't get photos of.  But here are a few samples of the caps I worked on throughout the week.

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My daughter, Eliza, opened her first fortune cookie the other day, which said:  "You will find treasure in the place you least expected." Upon reading, she began snooping around the kitchen -- peering into drawers, peeking above the counter.  Smart girl for knowing fortune sometimes needs a little boost.  I was thinking about Cheerio in light of this; there's so much treasure around us to be found, and often we know exactly where to look for it.  But it is so easy to let opportunities bypass us for one of a thousand reasons.  It's too expensive.  Too difficult to arrange.  We're too busy.  Etc., etc.  I'm glad that, like Eliza, I was compelled under these circumstances to give those stars a little push, because here's what happened:  I had a brush with greatness, and there is starlight on my hands and stardust in my hair.

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  • Cheryl on

    You beautifully synthesized this week, Laura!

  • Genevieve on

    Laura,
    What a wonderful summary of our amazing week with john! Thank you so much for putting it into words!

  • mon celis on

    beste jurgen, dat heb je mooi gezegd! het moet indrukwekkend geweest zijn….

  • Ana Gonzalez on

    Beautifully written…glad I was able to share the experience with you. Hugs, Ana

  • Laura on

    Cheryl! I wish you could have been with us, too. That’s the one thing that could have made the week even better. I miss you, too (imagine an emoticon heart here).



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