All during high school, or until I was old enough to drive myself, my mother faithfully dropped me off at the front door of the art museum in my hometown, Portland, Oregon. Evenings, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I entered the deserted museum–– uniformed guard in the front foyer–– and made my way past whatever current exhibit was on display, then down the marble hallway to the stairway at the back of the building. For three years of my life I took a two-and-a-half-hour class led by Lloyd J. Reynolds, master calligrapher and iconoclast professor from Reed College.
The art museum allotted him a long narrow space just wide enough to fit twelve or fifteen desks with slanted tops. Narrow windows at the top of the room were covered with wire mesh for security; fluorescent tubes our only real source of light. The room was often empty when I arrived. Over the next half hour others drifted in and settled themselves unpacking canvas art bags. We took up our pens in silence and retrieved our papers from our large black art folders. There was no need to be told, we were there to work.
Calligraphy is the art of making letters. That is the simple definition. It is not a skill like print lettering or stenciling, but a covenant between the artist and the paper. I was to find later that at its pinnacle it is a dance––a kind of performance––in which the artist is able to express himself with a spontaneous, yet disciplined, outburst on paper. A master calligrapher stamps his work with so much personality it becomes instantly recognizable as his own, as does any Cezanne or Picasso. Like any art form, it starts with singular focus, constant practice, and the application of will.
Reynolds usually arrived on time or slightly after the hour. He kept his white shoulder-length hair slicked back, and his thick, black-framed glasses seemed to accentuate his usual scowl. He marched down the aisle between the desks, toting his enormous briefcase and puffing on his ever-present pipe. Once at the head of the class he would take off his coat to reveal a disheveled black suit, white shirt, and a narrow black tie. Next, he would unpack his briefcase and organize himself for class.
I always remember him arriving in a foul mood, or perhaps he was distracted or tired or something else a 16-year-old would not understand. Most of us knew not to press him until he was well into the second half of the class. He took his time getting situated and, once organized, proceeded up the aisle to see what we were working on. And we better be working on something, otherwise we would be admonished, yet again, that we could just as easily be doing nothing at home. When the occasional uninitiated joined the class, with thoughts of a new hobby, they didn’t last long.
“You must hold the pen just so,” he said, as he demonstrated with an enormous calligraphy pen that made two-inch wide strokes. The letters floated effortlessly off his hand and onto the art tablet he set up on an easel at the head of the class; six strokes and a perfect capital M stood anchored to the ground, its solid and yet flourished edges standing tall. A collective groan rose from all of us.
“Why do you even bother if you aren’t willing to do your best?” He would ask, relighting his pipe or taking a few puffs. Lost in thought for a moment, Reynolds seemed to contemplate his own words, and we could sense him mellowing. And I realize now, forty years later, that we were doing our best, but he pushed us for all we could give.
One of his former students, calligrapher Clyde Van Cleve, once said this about Lloyd Reynolds: “He had little patience with uninformed intuition. He celebrated the beauty of a circling kite and knew the importance of the string.”
The string––practice––was the key to everything, he told us repeatedly. To make a flourish look spontaneous and light on the page there must be true artistic discipline behind it. Only a master can make it look easy. As we bent over our letters endeavoring to meet this goal, slowly his attitude would begin to shift from ill-humor to a call for understanding the pattern of things––all things.
Once warmed up, he would segue into his lecture for the night. It might be about a script he was particularly interested in at the moment, Carolingian or Gothic, but it would soon became a lecture about Charlemagne and European history in the eighth century, and then on to how print presses changed not only lettering but writing as a whole, showing us the links between what we write today and the same letters written long before us. Or he would start out by talking about the Golden Rectangle and by the end of the lecture he would encompass Euclid, Pacioli, and Da Vinci. We could feel his enthusiasm rise as the lecture progressed. He took us with him on his journey into art, and history. At fifteen or sixteen I didn’t know who Pacioli was, but he made me want to.
By the end of any given class he was alive and energetic, a champion of our work. Renewed by his own enthusiasm, he would always tell us before we left for the night, “Now, go home, and make beautiful letters.”
Taking a class from Reynolds was an apprenticeship in life. Through him, I began to discover that even the mundane held meaning. It could be true of cooking or any other creative outlet. Anything I attempted could simply be routine but I could, if I wished, turn it into art. It was up to me.
[Storytelling prompts provided by The Scintilla Project. Click here to find out more or click on the icon in the right hand menu. It’s fun. It’s Scintilla ’13]