Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Past

Christmas chalk graffiti in the family room
The photos are a little impressionistic, just like our memories of last night:  twenty-four places set for family and friends...
The Gold Table
The Red Table
The Holly Table
...good food, good wine, good cheer...hugs and happy conversation...enthusiastic singing of carols...saying "farewell" to guests as they drift off into the frosty night...

...and before sleep, a few quiet moments to reflect upon these very special people in our lives, and on what it means to celebrate this beautiful season with them.  May the spirit of Christmas stay with you all year long!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Among Friends

Last summer at the wonderful Liesbet Boudens class sponsored by the Friends of Calligraphy in San Francisco, I was lucky enough to once again share a table with the inimitable Ruth Korch.  As usual we had w-a-a-ay too much fun, and toward the end of the workshop, our esteemed FOC President Meredith Klein approached us about collaborating on the cover and alphabetical headings for the new membership directory, specifically in a Boudens-inspired style.  I'm much too busy preparing for Open Studios, said Ruth; I'm much too busy getting the school ready to open, I said;  then, Okay, we surprised ourselves by saying.

Ruth, always full of ideas, immediately started making thumbnail sketches and drawing a few stylized letters.  Within a week or so she had come up with a complete, gorgeous, quirky and fun alphabet, part of which is shown here:

© Ruth Korch 2011

With such a great starting point, it only took about a hundred drafts (instead of the usual two hundred) for me to put together the titles.  I love that the cover is hot, hot pink!  On the title page it's black & white and a little smaller:

Even without the privacy blur, Ruth's letters practically dance right off the page!

Thank you, FOC, for giving us the opportunity to work together on a very special project!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

My Brush with Greatness

What is it about white on black that makes lettering look better than it is?  Kind of like candlelight that way.

Earlier this year I was asked to make some signs for a local chamber ensemble, the Bay Brass.  They were performing at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to celebrate the release of their CD "Sound the Bells", a labor of love eight years in the making. 

Little did I know at the time that the CD would go on to be nominated for a Grammy! Since my husband plays in the group, my first thought was--do we get to go to the awards?!?  But I think the classical small ensemble awards are probably handed out the night before, maybe in the basement, or the parking well.  Lady Gaga will have to wait to meet me.

Anyway, you can hear samples of, and/or purchase, this amazing recording here, along with their Christmas album which is awesome and has been a favorite for over ten years.  Be sure to mention you know their calligrapher...

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


While researching annotations for my great-great-grandfather Charles' Civil War diary, I followed up on his reference to Brandy Station, Virginia, where he was sent in April of 1864 for medical care ("a rather poor place for a sick man," he declared).

It turns out the building in which he would have received treatment is now known as the "Graffiti House", because the walls of the second floor contain inscriptions, drawings, messages, and signatures of Civil War soldiers that were concealed under wallpaper, etc. for many years.  The graffiti, according to the Brandy Station Foundation website,  "could have been made by soldiers recuperating in the hospital, by other soldiers posted at Brandy Station, or by soldiers passing through the town."  There are signatures, drawings, and of particular interest to engrossers (check out that shading!), the "Maryland Scroll".  At one point the scroll was removed from the house and acquired by a private collector, but later returned to the Graffiti House in its frame.

"Maryland Scroll", Graffiti House, Brandy Station VA

"Maryland Scroll" detail, Graffiti House, Brandy Station VA

The building changed possession from the South to the North, and a Union soldier made his mark thusly:
"Army of the United States of America", Graffiti House, Brandy Station VA
Love the flourishing!

About a year ago, a stabilizing process was begun on the plaster walls and lo and behold, another signature was uncovered.  This is what Michael Sull might call "pedestrian Spencerian", but I think the "F" and "E" caps are pretty cool!  I'm guessing they are about a foot tall.

  I find it inspiring that at one time, handwriting was a skill that many could do so beautifully, even in pencil on a plaster wall.  By the way, here's what the building looked like when the Foundation acquired it:

Cheers for the preservationists!

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Saga Continues

One of the highlights of October was my third visit to Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio for the Spencerian Saga.  The sunset over Lake Erie the first night could not have been more welcoming.

This year it was the Engrossers' Saga--a once-every-five-year occurrence--and the 25th anniversary of the annual workshop.  I've already said plenty about the Saga here, but this one seemed to bring together a lot of things I had been dabbling with and helped me see how I could put them to use in a cohesive piece.  Stay tuned for that one...

From Ohio I went to meet my sister at my beloved Findley Lake, New York, to stay at the Blue Heron Inn the Lakeview Room, of course!

I decided to put some of my new-found skills to work as I signed the guestbook.  Maybe no one will ever see it, but I love knowing that it's there!

Back home, while messing around on the internet I discovered that my son had been named "Mr. November" at his college back East.  Not sure what that's all about, but used it to adorn the 3 X 5 card that will be enclosed with his exam-week care package:

Onward to December...!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Finding Light in the Darkness

Photo by Steve Johnston

At the little school where I am Director (i.e., administrative staff of one), we have a wonderful annual tradition called the Lantern Walk.  In the weeks leading up to the event, the teachers help the children craft beautiful little square lanterns out of watercolor paper with tissue-paper star-shaped windows.  A little tealight is glued into place and the families search for a Y-shaped stick to hold the lantern.  We practice our four traditional songs (which the children are usually too awestruck to actually sing at the festival) and then all of the families gather just after dark on a Sunday evening as we approach the Winter Solstice.  They are greeted with several hundred luminarias (candles set in sand in white paper bags) showing the pathway.  Being as quiet and reverent as possible with three-to-five-year-olds in attendance, we proceed with our lighted lanterns to a large field, where we stand in a circle around a small bonfire and sing.  Simple, short, meaningful and memorable.

It is my job to "make the call" if the weather is questionable, often a source of agony and stress.  Sometimes I have decided to go ahead, only to be greeted with a downpour moments before the families arrive.  Other years it has been so windy that there was no hope of keeping the lanterns lit.  Usually we manage to get through it with whatever weather northern California provides.

But every once in a while--and this was one of those times--it is absolutely perfect, and just magical.  The night before, there were torrential rains--I mean drenching downpours--and there didn't seem to be any chance it would be happen tonight.  BUT...the weather was progressively clearer, and by the time I had to decide (2 pm) it felt right to say yes, yes we will go ahead.  It turned out there were a few clouds, and a little wind, but a lovely bright three-quarter moon and a little nip in the air.  One of the best years ever.

The last time it was this special,  one of our parents was inspired to write a poem, and I was moved to letter it.  

Poem by Daniel Polikoff
Artwork by Jody Meese

Poem by Daniel Polikoff
Artwork by Jody Meese

Poem by Daniel Polikoff
Artwork by Jody Meese

This was done some years ago, so I don't remember much about the details. I believe it was Doc Martin's bleed-proof white, and I recall sponging on the moon and sprinkling salt on the blue paint to make the starry night.  The little yellow blobs, of course, are the children's lanterns in procession.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


So I never got around to reporting on my first trip to the annual convention of the International Association for Master Penmen, Engrossers, and Teachers of Handwriting  ("engrossers", not "and grocers", as someone thought I was saying). Was there ever an organization more in need of an acronym?  I think not.

IAMPETH was held this July of this year in Phoenix, which I'm sure is lovely in the winter months. [Phoenicians, you have my total admiration for staying cool in the face of three-digit temperatures day after day. I do not possess that kind of stamina.]  The convention is a virtual candy store for, well, penmen, engrossers, etc.  The mostly half-day classes were enough to whet one's appetite for more on a technique, and to see the IAMPETH rock stars in action, up close and personal.  And just as exciting, to meet in person some bloggy-type friends--you know who you are!

By far the most addictive class I attended was "Leaf Script Capitals" with White House calligrapher Rick Muffler.  The wonderful Jane Farr wrote a terrific blog post with tutorial here;  go read it!

Since my flight home was delayed (we do fog here in San Francisco in the summertime, not great for air travel but nice and cool--okay, freezing), I had plenty of time to start doodling an alphabet while waiting in the airport.

The inimitable Master Penman Harvest Crittenden had sat in on the class and suggested that there would traditionally have been a pearl nested in the greenery, so when I got back into the studio I played around with that a bit...

...then tried a rose... acorn (no peeking, Harvest!)...

...and some design elements borrowed from a random cocktail napkin I found in my kitchen.

I used it on a birthday card (a little sloppy, rush job!)...

...and experimented with metallics and gratuitous acanthus leaves.

Great fun and great possibilities!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Lovely Liesbet

© Jody Meese 2011
"Be patient toward all that is unsolved within your heart, and try to love the questions themselves."       ~Rainer Maria Rilke

Last weekend the San Francisco Friends of Calligraphy sponsored a two-day workshop, Designing and Interpreting for Extraordinary Letters with the inimitable Liesbet Boudens of Bruges, Belgium. This was Liesbet's first trip to this country during which she is teaching in Northern & Southern California as well as Monterey.  She is effervescent, funny, charming, and all-around an inspiring teacher.

Liesbet Boudens

Prior to the class, we were asked to choose a short phrase and make some sketches based on drawn Roman caps.  I chose a piece of a Rilke quote I've always loved--plus, I couldn't resist having a letter "Q"to play with!  Liesbet had us working small with a .3mm mechanical pencil, and then enlarging our designs by around 200%.

Final small pencil sketch, ~3"X5"

After a day-and-a-half of fine-tuning our designs, we transferred them to cold press watercolor paper;  Liesbet prefers the texture it gives the letters once they are painted in gouache.  It was a revelation for me to use a broad-nib pen to paint the letters!  Once I got used to it, it was much easier to control than a brush (for me).  Liesbet also recommends that the letters not be painted in order, so that if one needs to remix color, a slightly different shade will be distributed throughout the piece.  Brilliant! She goes over the dried goauche with a white wax Derwent pencil to bring out the grain of the cold press paper.  Haven't tried that yet...

While on the surface, this seemed like a simple project, it was seriously challenging, and the variety and ingenuity of design in the group was amazing! My FOC colleagues have my greatest admiration.

Naturally, it wouldn't have been an FOC workshop if I hadn't sneaked out with my fabulous tablemate and partner-in-crime, Ruth Korch, to do a little shopping.  This time it was the American Craft Council show in the building next door, where I scored this little tea strainer/cheeseboard ensemble embellished with Celtic knotwork in cherry wood from MoonSpoon for a birthday gift!

All in all, a weekend well spent!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

L Cake

I don't know anything about the flavors in this cake, since I delivered the stencil to Wendy just before dashing out of town!  I believe the top is a white chocolate disk, and the stenciling is done in green and gold lustre dust.  It is our smallest one yet.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Generous Jo

One of the great things about the blogosphere, of course, is that we can virtually meet and get to know people who share our passions, however esoteric and obscure they may be (the passions, not the people).  Now I'm willing to bet there's a pretty small percentage of folks on the planet who even know what "dinky dips" are, let alone have figured out a way to make them more elegant and fun.  Enter the wonderful Jo Miller, calligrapher extraordinaire who recently surprised me with a gift of one of her ingenious creations.  "This holder is made from a piece of driftwood reclaimed from Lake Maurepas in southeast Louisiana," she says.  "It has a hand-rubbed finish which feels smooth as glass."  And, I might add, is so light that filling the dinky dip with ink probably doubles its weight.  Thank you, Jo!

Jo has made these available in her etsy shop, where she also has some darling ones made of reclaimed beadboard.  Dinky dips are a necessity for PPPs (Pointed Pen People)--so easy to see and control the amount of ink on the nib.  A wonderful gift for yourself or a calligraphy friend...and guaranteed to take your lettering up a notch!  At least that's what I'm hoping...

Friday, May 13, 2011


Most of the time when I look back through early pieces I find them, well, cringe-worthy.  So it was a pleasant surprise to come across this one, which isn't half bad, I think.  At the time I did not realize this was not Wendell Berry's entire poem, but had been excerpted in the version I had been carrying around for years.  The piece was an assignment from the wonderful Ann Miller in her "Calligraphy & Letterforms" class at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, summer of 2004. [Ann still teaches the class, but only online. It's pricey (college credit) but an invaluable overview of the history of the artform.] The assignment was to use a curvelinear baseline with a quote of our choice.  It's monoline--probably various Speedball nibs, probably Sumi or Higgins Eternal ink.

That summer was a resurrection of sorts for me and glows in my memory.  I took the ferry across San Francisco Bay early each morning along with the self-described "worker bees" headed to the Financial District, had my ritual bagel and coffee on the boat, then walked a half-mile or so up Market Street to the classroom with my big portfolio and toolkit.  Virtually everyone else in the class was a twenty-something Graphic Design major who didn't quite "get" pen and ink, and couldn't wait to return to their digital lives, but I was enamored and obsessed.  

Here are the pieces of the poem I used in the piece:

Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold...
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years...Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade...Swear allegiance
to what is highest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.
copyright © 1973 by Wendell Berry

Monday, May 9, 2011

Border Trouble

I recently learned the expression "border trouble", in this case referring not to immigration---nor to illuminated borders, like the one above---but rather to the sometimes-daunting obstacle between the idea for a piece and the point at which it begins to take shape.  Since I sometimes struggle mightily to move through that region, it helps me to think of it as just a transition, kind of a bothersome ordeal one has to go through to move into the pleasure on working on the piece once it starts to come to life, not to mention once it is finished.

It's school fundraiser season once again and I created this piece to raise some money for a good cause.  Artwork doesn't always do well in a silent auction but this was displayed nicely and went for a pretty penny!  The border outline came from the fabulous collection of the Graphics Fairy (you really need to go to that site, and bookmark it!);  I was able to take a little shortcut and print it onto tracing paper (rather than actually tracing it) and then transferred it to Arches 140 lb hot press with Armenian bole.

Because of the nature of the quote, I used more colors than I usually would have in the border.  The ink is Pelikan (with some powdered gum arabic added);  the rest of the design is gouache, pen, and 23K gold leaf.  I used a [left-handed] Brause 1.5mm nib;  the image is about 7.5" X 10.5".  I used my Logan Compact Mat Cutter (which has come in handy more times than I can count) to cut the mat, then popped it into a frame I picked up at Michael's half-price.  Ta-dah!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Cursive Catastrophe

Civil War Diary of Charles Wesley Foulk
Did you catch "The Case for Cursive" in yesterday's New York Times?  Apparently there is a new generation of children who not only cannot write in cursive, they can't read it either!  The biggest concerns seem to be that their block-lettered signatures will be easier to forge, and (rather secondarily) that the fine-motor-skill benefit of fluid writing may be lost.  Cursive, one elementary school principal posits, just may not be a "21st century skill".  Hmmmph.

But what I found the most distressing was the account of a 22-year-old and her cousin who found their late Granny's diary but couldn't read it. “ 'It was kind of cryptic,' [the young woman] said. She and the cousin tried to decipher it like one might a code, reading passages back and forth."

Seriously?  Are those of us who can read cursive going to become sought-after specialists, the dying breed able to interpret archival material---say, my great-great-grandfather's Civil War diary (the first page of which is pictured above)?  I'll admit Charles' authentic Spencerian (according to Michael Sull) handwriting is sometimes challenging to read, but that might be because he was writing with a dip pen in the freezing cold in his army tent.  I'm just saying...

On the upside, I see a new opportunity for parents here!  When our children were young, my husband and I used to resort to speaking a little Spanish when we didn't want them to know what we were saying (which worked well until their Spanish got way better than ours).  Nowadays mom and dad can leave each other notes in plain English that will just look like lovely scribbled designs to their offspring!

In any case, it seems that diary-snooping may be severely curtailed in the near future.  So go ahead and let'er rip in your journals, scribes!  No one now under twenty will ever know your secrets.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Enders Redux

The finished piece in my garden
Olive branch detail
Lettering detail
Halo detail
Once you've been to a place like Enders Island, there's no way you can stay away when you have another chance to go.  My trip last October was still vivid in my mind, and as it turned out, all five of us from that class--plus two new friends-- would be returning to take another class, "Illuminated Prayer on Vellum", with the inimitable Harvest Crittenden at St. Michael's Institute of the Sacred Arts on the island.  (BTW, check out Harvest's brand new Photoshop for Calligraphers online class, coming up in June!)

Sunrise the first morning was worth the trip!

View from my window
Harvest had created a lovely design with haloed dove, olive branches, and text, which we transferred onto sheets of vellum we had prepared with dental-grade pumice.  Over the four days of the class, we learned tips and techniques on gilding, shell gold, color theory (Harvest uses the CMYK palette), shadowing, and how much patience it takes to paint v-e-r-y tiny Roman drawn letters.
Harvest in action
Harvest demos feather detail
My piece in progress
As if that weren't enough, the chef outdid himself and each meal was more amazing than the last.  And for me, the camaraderie and exchange of knowledge and information was just as valuable as the workshop.  It was truly an amazing group of women.

The Class
Farewell to Enders


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