Perfect penmanship

In this slapdash age of email and texting, 150 people gathered at Red Deer College this week to learn the painstaking art of hand lettering.

Calligraphy instructor Sheila Waters of Fairfield

Calligraphy instructor Sheila Waters of Fairfield

In this slapdash age of email and texting, 150 people gathered at Red Deer College this week to learn the painstaking art of hand lettering.

The calligraphy conference, hosted by the Lettering Arts Guild of Red Deer, attracted attendees from as far as The Netherlands, as well as the U.S. and every province from British Columbia to Quebec.

So why, in this informal Facebook era, is there a desire to learn such a throwback and disciplined skill?

Instructor Diane von Arx from Minneapolis said, “A computer is only as good as the person driving it. If you don’t have a sense of design, letter-spacing or basic typography, you won’t be successful” at creating any composition.

“And the more people use computers, the more there’s a swing in the other way,” added von Arx, who believes many people like the tactile aspect of working with calligraphy tools, such as nibs, brushes or ruling pens.

“There’s something about seeing wet ink come out of a pen — it’s an absolutely wonderful experience! You have made a mark that cannot be made by anyone else — an original mark that can express how you feel about a text.”

The one-time graphic artist, who helped design General Mills Trix, Count Chocula and Frankenberry cereal boxes, took her lettering work out of the commercial realm to a more artistic level.

Some of her more elaborate techniques, which might be applied to wedding invitations, recognition certificates, or even framed artworks, were being passed on to students through classes in italic variations and flourishing.

“I’ve always been passionate about lettering — it’s a very versatile skill,” said von Arx, who likes the balance between creativity and discipline needed to pull off a spectacularly graceful letter, whether it’s done in traditional or more contemporary techniques.

The lettering arts go back to ancient Greece, where the word calligraphy was first derived from the words “beautiful letters,” said Roxanne Fairbrother, who’s co-chairing the conference with Karen Jackson.

While the skill is still associated with hand-printed Bibles and medieval manuscripts, Fairbrother said the art of calligraphy has since branched off in many different directions, including some brand-new styles that are being invented by participants in the conference. “There are thousands of different variations.”

Sandra Bellanger of Red Deer joined the local lettering arts guild after moving here from Saskatchewan as a way to learn a new craft and make new friends. “I’m a real beginner. I just enjoy it — it’s a challenge and it’s relaxing to do,” said Bellanger, who intends to apply the skill to her hobby of scrapbooking.

Other people create greeting cards with hand-printed lettering, incorporate it into home decor or even printed clothing, said Fairbrother. “Anything that’s handmade is still treasured. It’s special.”

Mike Kecseg, a calligraphy instructor from Chicago, is one of the few men involved in the craft. But for Kecseg, it’s more like a full-time job. “I do a lot of corporate logos and stuff for non-profits, wedding envelopes, place cards. . . .”

Keceg believes more men would get into calligraphy — if they could figure out a way to make money at it.