Early in the evening, as the sun still shines through the edges of trees and a slight breeze draws bumps to your skin, Ewan Clayton, professor of design at the University of Sunderland in England, sits on the steps outside Wilson Library and speaks to a fellow calligrapher.
Clayton, and many other calligraphy enthusiasts, were at Western last week for the 37th International Calligraphy Conference, July 14-21. The conference drew in around 400 people from all over the world from ages 14 to mid-80s. People gathered to learn, listen and surround themselves with fellow letterers.
“You might think that [calligraphy] is backwards looking, but it is a way to think about how we communicate and it reflects all of that,” Clayton said. “In the age of technology, calligraphy is a lot more personal. It is an art of daily living.”
From the age of 12, Clayton took interest in calligraphy because his handwriting was “really bad.” Now at the age of 62, Clayton has been doing calligraphy professionally for 40 years and was one of this year’s instructors.
“I was self taught at first,” he said. “But I also started to take classes later on and eventually I was able to write a book.”
“The Golden Thread: the Story of Writing” was published in 2014 and explores the history of writing.
Growing up in Ditchling, England, Clayton was inspired and lucky to have grown up in an area that is known for its history in calligraphy, he said. Ditchling is home to Edward Johnston, who is known as the father of modern calligraphy, and is acclaimed for creating the 102-year-old sans-serif Johnston typeface used throughout the underground metro system in London to this day.
“It’s an opportunity to meet with like minded people,” Katherine Malmsten, co-director of this year’s conference said. “It’s like a reunion for many people who don’t have a guild where they are from.”
At the conference, classes were offered for all skill levels. One class focused on letter formation and nature, another on Celtic and Gothic hybrids.
Along with the classes that were offered, a book store full of all the supplies one would need to begin their journey in the calligraphy world was set up in the reading room of the Wilson Library.
Most of the participants were from the U.S. but some flew from Canada, Asia, Europe and many other countries, said Malmsten and Gruhn. This year’s conference, titled “Seattletters” is the second time it has been held in Washington state – the first time was in 1996 at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma.
The attendance for this year’s conference brought in more people than last year’s, Sue Gruhn, co-director of Seattletters said.
“It’s so nice to see younger faces join us. There are some folks here who have attended every single conference,” she said.
Six-time international conference attendee, Shari Jobst, sat out in the sun in Red Square painting for one of the many classes she attended this year.
”I like being surrounded by encouraging people. There’s no competition.” Jobst said. “We like to share our craft.”
The keynote speaker of this year’s conference was the world-renowned British calligrapher, Donald Jackson, known for his 16-year project of the first handwritten Bible since late medieval times. The Saint John’s Bible is made up of seven volumes that contain the 73 books of the old and new testament and was commissioned in 1998. It is now displayed at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota.
“We all look up to him,” Jobst said. “While he was speaking, he kept using the word ‘friends’ and that was just so nice to hear from this person who we all admire so much.”
Jackson did not teach any classes during the conference, but instead took classes as a student.
“My grandmother was actually his nurse,” Clayton said. “It’s a small world and funny how all these things worked out.”
Two-time conference attendee, Miriam Jones, was especially excited about this years’ conference because she does not have a calligraphy guild where she is from in Canada.
“It’s very social and we all value that aspect of connection,” she said as she held onto her ice cream cone from the Viking Commons.
“It’s a traditional thing, but it is still relevant,” Malmsten said. “You can absolutely make a career out of it, it’s not just a hobby, but it can be!”
Malmsten worked at Trader Joe’s as the person who did the lettering on their windows.
Many people enjoy calligraphy as a hobby, but some really take it past that and are able to find ways to bring it into their professional lives. Gruhn said she does it mostly for her own enjoyment, but at times she is asked to do commissions.
The Rain Writers – Calligraphers of Northwest Washington is Bellingham’s own guild that meets on the third Saturday of every month at the community room in the Community Food Co-op at Cordata Parkway. It is a way for those in the community looking to learn, promote and encourage lovers of calligraphy.
Next June and July the conference Rendez-vous 2019 will be hosted at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Quebec.