I have enjoyed a passionate relationship with calligraphy for over forty years; we have been through thick and thin together and still, the alphabet continues to confound me as well as bring me great joy! From being the kid in school who designed all his friend's book covers, to addressing fancy envelopes to shipmate's girlfriends while in the Navy—and on to becoming chief calligrapher of the White House, calligraphy has always been a part of my adventure. I continue my quest for the perfect letter in my studio here in the coastal hills of Sonoma County. Please contact me to discuss your next special event, or that poem that you have always wanted written up real nice! If you want to read more about this enduring friendship I have with calligraphy, read on......
My (Calligraphy) Story—and I'm sticking to it!
It began with the fire of a $5.00 bill burning a hole the the pocket of a 10 year old boy. Actually, I had my eyes on that bottle of ink and Speedball text book at JJ Newbury's 5&10 for months before the $5.00 arrived in the form of a birthday present. I remember clearly now, over 40 years later, the excited walk downtown to make the purchase—and the even more excited run back home to try it all out! I can even recall the smell of that Speedball ink as I opened the bottle for the first time. I was hooked from the start. I began (of course) with the most elaborate, "the fanciest" hand in the book, "Old English." The ever-popular italic hand is much easier to achieve, so that followed pretty quickly and became a longtime favorite. During my teen years, I explored and enjoyed many art mediums, but calligraphy remained a constant interest. When I was 16, my older brother, who had developed an interest in lettering, enrolled in classes at Butera School of Art in Boston. (Butera, the last sign painting school in the country, graduated its final class in 2011) Letters took on new meaning and new significance as I found a peer with whom I could enjoy hours of conversation simply around these 26 shapes.
At the impressionable age of 18, I had been convinced by my parents that a future in art was not a viable option, so this Navy brat enlisted in the US Navy, to see what I could see....and all I saw was the sea! (Okay, I saw much more than the sea, I just had to put that in there out of tradition.) Actually, I had a wonderful time in the Navy, flunking out of two schools before finally getting it right after a year of studying Farsi at the Defense Language Institute, in beautiful Monterey, California. It is not that I slacked off with the first two schools (electronics & Russian), nor that Farsi is a particularly easy language to learn; it has much more to do with finally, after suffering two previous failures, letting go of stress and enjoying life more. Weird, but true; and why the USN gave me three shots at school instead of one is also a mystery which I gladly accept. Throughout my four years in the Navy, I continued to mess about with broad-edged pens and created everything from invitations for friend's weddings and Navy Day balls to place cards (in Arabic) for the Commander of Middle East Forces while stationed in the Persian Gulf. By the end of my enlistment, the allure of working with my brother the sign painter won out over the Navy's offers of reenlistment bonuses, advancements and world travel.
In August of 1983, I received my discharge from the military, and three days later began taking classes at Butera School of Art. (Talk about culture shock, moving from the Navy to art school overnight) It became quickly apparent to me that Butera was not offering the level of knowledge that I sought, and I withdrew after one semester. I found Butera's approach to the study of lettering had very little substance. Granted, to this point I had never studied anything beyond the Speedball Textbook—but I somehow sensed that they were missing the meat and bones of what I needed to understand the alphabet. They were teaching a technical skill, but not teaching the alphabet. I later learned that what was missing was the essential historical reference to our art. It was acutely absent at Butera. In addition to my disappointment with the curriculum at Butera was my own downfall of not being terribly adept with a brush. I did not find the same joy in brush lettering that I did with a much more easily controlled steel nib. Thinking that my shot at lettering was a failure and at a loss of what to do next, I decided take this opportunity to fulfill a long-held dream of riding my bicycle across the United States, and to take that time to consider my next move. I took a few months to bicycle across country, against the wind the entire way. (I would advise anyone who wishes to ride across the United States to ride from West to East and enjoy the prevailing westerly winds as you ride!)
Upon completing my long bike ride, I found myself couch surfing at the house of a few of my old shipmates outside of Washington, DC. I had decided during my ride that my best career option was to reenlist in the Navy. I met with my detailer, and set a date eight weeks out on which I would reenlist. With less than $300.00 left to my name, I needed to make enough money to survive the next eight weeks. At this time, one of my housemates had been reading the Washington Post help wanted postings, and suggested that I visit "this guy in DC who needs a calligrapher." I had, to this point, never considered such a thing as an actual professional calligrapher. I truly did not know such a thing existed. I hopped on my bicycle (still my only mode of transportation), rode it up to Buck's County, PA to pick up my VW bug (unregistered and uninsured) and drove it back to Cape Cod where I gathered off the walls of friends and relatives whatever calligraphy work I thought worthy of bringing to my job interview, and drove back to Washington, DC to apply for the job. Thirty years later, the bolt of lightening that ran through me upon seeing the work of AB Tolley, the founder of Tolley Studios, remains fresh. The work they showed me was magnificent! Tolley Studios was a small business, situated one block from the White House, that employed four or five full-time calligraphers who were tasked mostly with designing and filling in certificates for government agencies and national organizations headquartered in our nation's capitol. I was so impressed with this work, (and I knew I'd be leaving in seven weeks to go back to the Navy) I blurted out that I would gladly do this for minimum wage. Well, Mr. Tolley saw something in my work, or maybe in me, that convinced him to hire me—at three times the minimum wage! Within two weeks I placed a call to my Navy detailer and explained that I would not be coming back. I had found my calling.
AB Tolley was an early chief calligrapher at the White House, and I found that to be fascinating. During my employment at Tolley's, and article appeared in Calligraphy Review quarterly featuring the White House calligraphy office. I was smitten with the idea of visiting this office, only one block away from my work, and telephoned them to ask for a visit. I was gruffly rebuffed, and it was made known to me that they were too busy to show the place around to every calligrapher who calls.
After only two years at Tolley's, this young, ambitious but not very business-savvy calligrapher decided to hang his own shingle. Quickly realizing this was not a good move, I returned to the Washington, DC studios, under the employ of David A. Hobbs. Hobbs studio was a spinoff of the previous Tolley-Hobbs Studios, where I remained for another two years. Marriage and the birth of our first son dictated that I earn more than the wages of a studio calligrapher, so I left my work as a calligrapher in favor of a higher paying position as production manager of a small portable exhibit manufacturing company, Professional Exhibits and Graphics (PEGS). A few years down the road, just as I was about to face unemployment as PEGS closed its doors, I received a call from a friend explaining that the Department of State Office of Protocol was looking for a calligrapher to temporarily fill the seat of the State Department engrosser while that individual was in New York for events surrounding the opening of the United Nations General Assembly. This is a yearly occurrence, as our secretary of state is tasked with hosting meetings in both New York and Washington during that busy period. And, as you know, without calligraphy there is no diplomacy, so they position a calligrapher in each city. Well, the moment I sat down in that seat, in that ground floor office with a window view, just next to the entrance to the Department of State, with all of them beautiful flags, I felt as though I had arrived where I needed to be—it was amazing! Alas, I was just filling in, as needed, for two or three weeks. The existing engrosser (yes, that is the title of the State Department calligrapher) had held the position for eleven years, with no intention of leaving any time soon. As luck would have it, within weeks of my having substituted, this engrosser's husband, a foreign service officer, was offered a position in Germany which they could not refuse and the engrosser position became open. Good timing. I hand-lettered all 12 pages of my SF-81 (standard government job application) in 1/16" italic lettering, bought a new suit, worked my way through several interviews with success, and was offered the position. Having competed with very competent calligraphers for the position, I believe it was my veteran status that put me a hair above the others for this position.
Four years into my employment in the State Department Office of Protocol, Bill Clinton was elected president and two of the senior White House calligraphers had decided to retire. In the interest of downsizing the government, these two positions were to be reduced to one. Feeling I was well groomed by now to fill a seat in the White House calligraphy office, I applied for the position, but was not selected. Not one to be let down easily, I was happy to have given it a shot, and continued about my wonderful job at the State Department. Another four years on, the White House found itself in need of a chief calligrapher. It worked differently this time; the social secretary called me before it was known that the position would be open and asked if I would be interested in moving to Pennsylvania Avenue. It is the greatest honor to be considered for such a position, and it was a great honor to serve there as I did for eight years. Having said that, the State Department job was a much more enjoyable position on a daily basis—and even, perhaps healthier. I claim as my favorite accomplishments during my tenure in the White House the introduction of the computer to the calligraphy office, the emphasis on employment of a broad range of hands and the increased use of event-specific graphics such as hand-painted national flags and national flowers on State Dinner menus, and always welcoming curious young calligraphers into our office for a tour and some encouragement.
In 2006, eight years into my employment at the White House, the death of two of my dearest friends, my displeasure with an administration that initiated what I believe to be an illegal war, the onset of stress-induced asthma, and the encouragement of my wife, all led to my decision to make a major course change in life. I resigned my position at the White House and returned to my childhood home on Cape Cod, a place I had missed for close to 20 years in Washington, DC. The life changes came in many forms, but this is a calligraphy story, so I'll stick to the subject. I very suddenly found myself faced with the proverbial blank canvas, both on my writer's desk as well as in life in general—what was I to do with this new life? What am I going to do with my calligraphy? I had long wanted to be an "artist" in a painterly way, in an expressive way as compared to the pure, classic and highly legible work I was tasked with creating during my time in Washington, DC. My work began to shift, as menus, invitations and place cards became less important and the desire to show more expression in my work began to increase. During this transition, I considered the work that my pen had been doing up to this point and the work that I want to create from here on out. Previously, I had used my skills on behalf of an administration that I did not agree with; now, I wanted my pen to work toward objectives that are near to me and sincerely felt. Nature would be the answer. My pen quickly turned to my love, the ocean, where I began exploring calligraphic interpretations of the words of writers that celebrate nature, people such as Henry Beston, Rachel Carson, Henry Thoreau, Herman Melville, and John Muir to mention but a few. This work still consumes me and has led me to great adventures, physically as well as artistically. Art reflects life, life reflects art. In my search to understand nature better I have immersed myself more deeply so that I may better express it on paper. I have, with my wife, hiked thousands of miles, including a thru-hike of the 2,600 mile Pacific Crest Trail; bicycled thousands of miles through France, sleeping in orchards, woods and vineyards the entire way; and kayaked 1,000 miles from Cape Cod to Canada (almost) and back. These experiences and further exploration of literature of the sea and of nature continue to altar my work in wonderful new ways.