Saturday, May 19, 2012

So Many Lessons to be Learned

Yves Leterme taught a gestural writing workshop in Memphis following a stint at Cheerio and one in the Washington DC area, where he had elite students (Peter Thornton and Sheila Waters to name-drop two.) Mary Lou Sherman and I had decided Memphis (being friendly and slightly closer) was a great place to take the workshop too, and our nearly six hours on the road flew by with lively - mostly calligraphic - conversation. (Thanks, Mary Lou!) I spent most of the week in Memphis TN and in a small town in MS. The Yves Leterme workshop was in Memphis (at a Police Station, no less...did we feel safe? Yes!) and I stayed with beautiful Judy Sproles in her lovely home in Mississippi, only 30 minutes away, while Mary Lou stayed with our friend Maggie Naylor and her perfect (everybody said so!) husband Bob. I was totally key-free and responsibility free for the five days, chauffered from Monday morning to Friday evening by Judy and Mary Lou. How lucky can a girl get?
(This is NOT the Police Station.)

The gestural writing of capital letters is not an easy thing. I would have preferred to learn the lower case letters since that's what we mostly use and since the joins are what give the gestural writing their flowing look, but the class was about capitals with one day of lower case and joins thrown in. I normally don't care for the look of many capitals together, and in internet-language, all caps is shouting. Not my style. When he introduced the lower case on our last day, it helped the rest come together a bit more for me. What is gestural lettering? Free-looking lettering with changes in slope, size, joins and more. Did I achieve success? No, but I will. As Yves, who was classically trained for years, said, "It took me twenty years to learn this; don't expect to master it in three days."

I thought about that this morning as I was cutting grass. Background - my husband has hurt his back and is getting epidural shots every two weeks to help ease the pain. I will not let him try to cut the grass. So, for the past three weeks, I have put my grass cutting clothes and shoes on - one pair of white running shoes now green-stained and dedicated to yard-work - and am learning one by one the many lessons of grass-cutting.

Week one, lesson one...I learned that it's tougher than it looks. I cut front and back yards and trimmed my bushes and hauled the cut branches and weeds to the yard waste bin. I was sore for two days after that. I can relate the first lesson to the many times I have tried to learn a new calligraphy style. So much to learn that it's almost a physical tiredness. It's exciting to discover new things, but it also wears on the mind. Study this stroke, study that one, pull this stroke, flick that one. How do I hold the pen for this? Dip the pen, brush the nib? Does this letter relate to that one? Whoops - A letter from a different style sneaked in there. Pay attention! With gestural writing, which I was learning this week, the different styles sneaking in are actually desirable, imagine that! But who'd have thought it would be so difficult to keep this lawnmower running, or to make these wild looking letters look graceful? Here are two of Yves' sampler sheets:

Week two, lesson two...Remember what you learned before. Dang it! I cut half the front yard before my husband noticed that I hadn't pulled what he calls the 'four wheel drive' self-propelling handle. Without it, pushing that mower is like trying to push a mule. Very stubborn. I went into week two, refreshed with muscles strengthened and no longer sore thinking week two would be a breeze. Hmmm - expectations thwarted. It was similar to day two of gestural writing. Well, I got past the worst of it, surely today my letters are going to develop life. I'm no dummy. I've learned new styles many times, have many in my repertoire. Ummm - how come this is so different? Well, I am so schooled in formal writing styles and also have some contemporary styles in my bag of tricks. This gestural writing is another animal altogether. It requires tossing out the old and learning completely anew. And yet, surely the old adds some value to the process. Knowing the 'correct' letterforms IS important in order to retain the gracefulness of letters as you create new forms. What may look like total cacophony to some, in actuality has a good deal of grace when done well. Yves's work was a perfect counterpoint to my own plodding attempts. Where were my thins? Missing in action. Why were all of mine so staid and stuck in the mud? I do beautiful pointed pen work, which is full of thick and thin variation, I do gracefully executed flourishes as natural and subtle extensions of my letters. I pride myself on 'good taste', which is something Yves mentioned as important many times. And yet...

One of our exercises was to write the word Knowledge. This is not my sample, it's Yves' - as if you couldn't tell.

Week three, day three...Something new is always being added. I was once again almost halfway through the front yard this morning before my husband showed up to tell me the grass might be too wet. We'd had no rain, but the temperature is hot and we have a lot of humidity. The grass in the morning was indeed full of dew. I was trying to beat the heat of the day and risking the wrath of late sleeping neighbors by mowing at 9:30AM. Once again, pushing that mower was a huge effort. I had to clank it up and down several times to loosen wet grass from the underbelly that was slowing it down. My goodness! How many lessons are there yet to be learned about that stinking mower? Ah yes. Frustration over my own ineptitude creeps in with both grass-cutting and lettering. Then behind the garage I once again had forgotten about the four wheel drive handle. Had the moisture under control, but the self-propelling lever was forgotten. It is the same with the lettering. Remember this. Yes! I have it now! Oh no! I forgot THAT! One day, when I have time to play/work at it again, I will 'get' the secrets of gestural writing. I know I have it in me to write expressively. And I already have the first three lessons to build upon.

Here are a few of my attempts to gesturally letter the Our Father during class:

A bonus to the grass cutting - I was able to hear and see chirping bird-babies in their birdhouse, and I cut the grass near their home as quickly as I could so Mamma could come to feed them. It was fun to see and hear the new life along my back fence. One day I think I will see the life in my lettering. Not just in the gestural letters, but infusing all of my lettering. Life begets life. A bonus to the workshop - authentic New Orleans Jambalaya and bread pudding with bourbon sauce prepared by the culinary genius Sam Rabinovitz and devoured by Yves, me and several other class mates at Sam and Ann's beautiful home. Another bonus to the trip - I was able to see some of Mary Lou's original work at a frame shop in Jackson, TN...Ooooh, nice!

Side note, my husband asked who I was writing to (as he was trying to fill me in on his week at home alone.) I said, "No one, I'm just writing a blog about cutting the grass and learning gestural writing." He laughed and said, "Well, any fool can cut the grass." I have a new respect for the brawn in my house who usually cuts the grass, but I won't show him the many practice pages that make it seem that I can't even write the ABCs. But I'll show you:

Week four is yet to come, but maybe I'll have had a moment or two by then to attempt the gestural lettering again, and maybe the grass-cutting will only yield some staining wet grass to make some kind of ink experiments with. I will see growth in the birds in their nest and also in my lettering skill. A girl can dream.

Here are two examples of student work with Yves' renditions beside them to the right.

One exercise was to letter a name in a rectangle - gesturally. When Yves asked what I'd done I mentioned three nieces' names. He said Andrea was the one who got lucky. A nice way of saying that's the only one that turned out well, ha ha. Andrea's is the starred one lower left.
He took pity on Celeste and did hers his way for me:
Now Celeste is the lucky one.

Here's a good one. It was my attempt to letter a quote about the sword in the stone. I labeled the version Yves did so I wouldn't get it mixed up with my own. I am laughing uproariously right about now.

Here is one of Yves' intriguing gesso pieces with assorted gestural marks peeking out. He demoed this for about 15 minutes, but we did not get to play. It was interesting to see how very differently he works with gesso than I do. These effortless looking pieces take lots of thought to pass his muster.


  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences with grass cutting and gestural lettering...I have a big smile on my face.

  2. Did you hear me laughing with you in Sword and the stone? You are so funny. I wouldn't like using all Capitals for 2 days and the fun part of gesso layering left out for the class. Guess you had to take the 5 day for more variety.
    Thanks for the good overview and samples of class work. Now you have an idea of where to begin playing with words and can call on your other letter hands to create more interest.
    PLAY play play and hopefully, get rid of that extra job of grass mowing...that's no fun.

  3. Great post Jan! And kudos to you for staying with it. I'm afraid my attempts, after Letters 2011, resulted in gestures not fit for print!

  4. Great report on the workshop, Jan. Very entertaining blog.
    - Graham McArthur

  5. Thanks for your comments, everyone. I've not had the opportunity to get back to the gesturals except for a brief discussion with Diana - the most naturally gestural person I know. The baby bird was killed by some critter I suppose, but the parents are fighting with another 'couple' over rights to the birdhouse and maybe it's not too late for them to produce another. I wish I knew how to keep it safe. Mother Nature can be a b----. I cut the grass on Saturday with NO issues other than the heat (over 90F), but it felt good. Husband came back from errand to be completely impressed. Maybe I can do the same with gestural lettering one day. : )