Guild of Book Workers Newsletter
Number 104
February 1996


by Frances Manola

The Society for Calligraphy, Los Angeles, now exchanging publications with our Guild, has sent us interesting newsletters and journals from their society and their regional groups. Our large state of California has lots going on for calligraphers.

I've selected one journal, AbraCadaBrA's (ACBA's) Special Calligraphy Issue, No. 9, Spring 1995, which concentrates on the art of the book - also a special interest of mine. The articles are written by creative calligraphers and typographers who make books, including Nancy Leavitt, Suzanne Moore, Susan Skarsgard and Peter Thornton, with a lead article by Donald Jackson. I mention certain people because I am so fascinated and impressed by their creativity in making books. Donald Jackson writes of the dilemma of calligraphers who consider themselves fine artists, but find no open door into art exhibitions. Although many fine artists have used, and still do use words, phrases and letters in their work - such familiar names as Joan Miró, Paul Klee, Ben Shahn, Stuart Davis, Henri Matisse, Jasper Johns and Larry Rivers - these words, phrases and letters were used mostly after they had attained fame. Once you have made a name for yourself you can do what you want! Copies of this issue are available for $12.50 from ACBA, P.O. Box 24415, Los Angeles CA 90024.

I own a wonderful book published by the Museum of Modern Art called Love and Joy About Letters by Ben Shahn, who at fourteen was apprenticed to a lithographer and learned to love all he was taught about letters. His book begins:

"The strings touched by the right or left hand move, and the sound is sweet to the ear. And from the ear the sensation travels to the heart, and from the heart to the spleen, and the enjoyment of the different melodies produces ever new delight. It is impossible to produce it except through the combination of sounds, and the same is true of the combination of letters. It touches the first string, which is comparable to the first letter, and proceeds to the second, third, fourth and fifth, and the various forms combine. And the secrets which express themselves in these combinations, de-light the heart which acknowledges its God and is filled with ever fresh joy . . . So wrote the great mystic, Rabbi Abulafia."

Artists who create wall panels in color and form, and know nothing about letters, cannot understand the inspiration which the spontaneous flow of calligraphy from the pen can give, and the juries are composed of these same artists. So, Donald Jackson is proposing to us a way in which we can make a niche for ourselves. Make books, which was the beginning of our art in the first place. Go back to the manuscript book and creative books and call them all Artists' Books, and call ourselves artists or book artists, because we bring this work to the level of fine art. There are a number of people now working in this way, but mainly on framed pieces which are not accepted by fine artists as art. These creative calligraphers, who have probably studied art and know how to make a work of art, could easily move towards books, if they so desired.

I studied art under the G.I. Bill after WWII, and I found that the art school I attended was long on technique and short on the essence of art, except for one, or possibly two, instructors. I kept wondering how I could catch onto that certain something that brings a painting to life. What helped me was an inspiring book, still available in paperback at most book stores - The Art Spirit by Robert Henri (pronounced Henrye; he was not French). There may be other aspiring-to-be-creative calligraphers out there, and I recommend this book. I continually suggested to my students that they learn to design and draw and mix color, and I would urge anyone who wants to do creative book art to take a course in art. Workshops are not enough, but could then be added. If you truly love letters, you will then be able to gradually expand your work into an art. And buy Henri's book and absorb what he says.

When I worked at the Whitney Museum in the '50's and '60's, I was fortunate to have worked with people who knew Henri, a member of the Whitney Studio Club which grew into the Whitney Museum of American Art. In his art Henri was greatly influenced by the French Impressionists and worked with broad, direct brushstrokes. He was a member of a group which called themselves "The Eight" because there were eight of them who were startling in their subject matter. They dared to paint things as they saw them and were dubbed "The Ashcan School" by art critics. Henri was worshipped by his students because he believed in the blending of art and life, and was able to communicate this to them.

In conclusion, here are some quotes from The Art Spirit:

"It beats all the things that wealth can give and everything else in the world to say the things one believes, to put them into form, to pass them on to anyone who may care to take them up."

"I have just laid down a book and the caress of my hand was for the man who wrote it, for the great human sympathy of the man and his revealing gift to me through the book. I have never seen the man, do not know his outside but I am intimately acquainted with him. His warmth is all about me. Insofar as I am capable I am his kin."

"There is a kind of penmanship made in schools which seems to draw around the letters of a word like a wire, and there is another penmanship, much more human, that seems to be the word."

"He paints like a man going over the top of a hill, singing."

"It is necessary to work very continuously and valiantly, and never apologetically. In fact, to be ever on the job so that we may find ourselves there, brush in hand, when the great moment does arrive."

"Those who cannot begin do not finish."

"No knowledge is so easily found as when it is needed."

"The artist is teaching the world the idea of life."

"Find out what you really like if you can. Find out what is really important to you. Then sing your song. You will have something to sing about and your whole heart will be in the singing."