Wrecking Letterforms Three Different Ways

Ceramic Tile of Carved and Colored Ampersand Split in Two


I’m decidedly not a Calligrapher, Typographer or Sign Painter. Nor a Lettering Artist. And certainly NOT a Graphic Designer, as this journal entry whines on and on about. Yet the past school year spent with an indulgent, open-minded, but “nitpicking asshole” (his words) instructor leading me through these realms revealed a cool surprise. Turns out you can mangle it and still find happiness and beauty.

Most of us just print and write. Maybe we wish it was more coherent or neater, but there it is, our personal relationship with our tool and our hand, take it or leave it. Or use a keyboard.  Beyond grade-school cursive instruction, there’s the vast world of shaping letters and making meaning. The history of writing is a fascinating progression from Sumeria to Fontlab. Ranging from impressed clay tablets to bezier curves, it blessedly circles back round to the personal and idiosyncratic human art of making skillful marks.

Two Asides: 

Uno: I have a type of Synesthesia called Ordinal Linguistic Personification. I did not know there was a name for it until recently – it is seldom studied – but basically numbers and letters seem gendered to me and always have. It’s not something I invented rationally and the sex of a letter or number has no relation to its shape or sound and does not change when used in words. While most letters and numbers are boys to me (still think like a five-year-old on this subject) someone else’s OLP list would be completely different and not up for debate either.

Dos: As a dorky sixth grader I gave an oral report complete with a hand-drawn poster I pointed at with a yardstick about the Phoenician alphabet. I felt as if I was revealing precious secret knowledge and wanted to know more, but it never appeared in the rest of my education, except perhaps in Ancient Art History. (Ask me about that term paper on the still-undeciphered Indus Script.)  Still, I never quite found the other lettering/type aficionados out there, even though I came near during my completely fluky stint as the lone Graphics Coordinator for Intel in the 70s. I have soldiered on alone, nursing my private passions. That is, until now.

The Wreckoning: My plan in Lettering/Typography class was to absorb everything and to translate, synthesize and bring it into my clay world straightaway by doing all my assignments in ceramics. Lana Wilson said it well: “Choose your areas in which to be average, and your areas in which to excel.” The Lettering Arts needed to be a springboard, but one I wanted to bounce on and dive from.

Wrecking Calligraphy: I did not practice. It gave me hives: I made a line of OOOOOOOOOOO, all rotten bent goose eggs. During demo nights my penstrokes and shapes would cohere momentarily, but ultimately I will not be writing home about my fabulous new scribe career. What really took, however, was the scaffolding I built on my Phoenician report and Indus paper: how all these writing styles came to be, how they cross-bred and feed into modern-day calligraphy, for which I have a true reverence. I joined the SF-based Friends of Calligraphy and share their love of history and elegant applications. When I write anything now, even sticky note jottings,  I am much more present with my instrument. That is its own form of practice. In clay, which remembers and records each touch when wet and dispassionately fires decorations exactly as made for damn near all eternity, such deliberateness is crucial. While I won’t be doing any classic calligraphy, I will forever be doing the dance of it.

Wrecking Lettering: Even though I resonate more naturally with drawing and building letterforms rather than writing them, I have challenges with proportion, spacing and consistency. I wanted to improve, but first one has to see what’s wrong and I had a hard time turning on that light. I also have aesthetic and philosophical hesitations about getting too perfect.  The siren songs of entropy and wabi-sabi are strong in my ears. Yet the constraints of correct form can be most valuable and it is good to beware of settling for outcomes instead of choosing them. I did dig in: many drafts, many erasures, many tracings and restarts, trying to grok what made one choice better than another. A life drawing professor from way back said over and over that you “cannot abstract from nothing, so learn to draw realistically first.” It’s the same with letters. I will still wreck my lettering, no matter the medium, but I am wrecking it with eyes open now and will essay not to.

Wrecking Typography:  I am an avid type lover since those Intel days when I hung a poster showing all the Letraset Dry Transfer typefaces on the back of my bedroom door, pondering their names, variations and uses.  My instructor pretty much barely tolerated the typefaces I chose, though, and because he held the keys to this kingdom I kept quiet and listened. And learned. (Most times I saw his point, but I still secretly love that quirky capital M in Rhyder. It perfectly suited my purpose.) Also, type is digital and more cerebral now, which removes me from the tactility and making I enjoy. InDesignCC and I have an agreement: if I stay away we get along. I will suffer with or without it, but at least I chose my poison. It is certain that I will continue to make crappy typeface choices and transfer them to clay awkwardly, but hey, sometimes that may suit my purpose too.

My takeaways?  You don’t need a title to do something well, fascination will take care of it. Exquisite wreckage fosters learning. It’s fine to see the world your own particular way, odd synesthesia included, but it can always be amended and extended. Opportunities for practice are everywhere. Look at signs, printed materials, screen titles and found words constantly. There’s a lot of shlock out there, try not to add to it.

–Liz Crain, whose main takeaway fosters kind and lighthearted perception no matter what. That ironically cracked-in-two ampersand tile in the photo was a “gift of the kiln gods” made by wanting it all now and pushing the clay to dry too quickly after hours of planning, carving and painting. Exquisite mangled wreckage of happiness and beauty, indeed.




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