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Calligraphers still going against type

In a fast-paced world dominated by computers, these masters of handwriting continue to make art from letters. For them, the pen is still mightier than the keyboard.

August 09, 2011|By Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times
  • DeAnn Singh, a calligrapher who lives in Mar Vista, has been practicing her craft for more than 30 years. She's received a number of film commissions and recently titled the pages of a scrapbook belonging to Barbra Streisand.
DeAnn Singh, a calligrapher who lives in Mar Vista, has been practicing… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

The black ink on DeAnn Singh's fingertips is almost indelible. It's an occupational hazard, and she's slightly self-conscious about it as she sits down at her desk. Today she is titling the pages of a scrapbook that belongs to Barbra Streisand.

Singh is a calligrapher and modest enough to be flattered by the assignment. Scrapbooks, wedding invitations, even thank-you notes are staples of the trade, but occasionally she'll land a job that's more ambitious.

When a Hollywood director wanted a letter to appear as if it had been written by Queen Victoria, she took the call. When a television producer asked for a book to look as if it had belonged to witches, she was hired. When Ventura County officials needed a masthead to adorn a declaration for civic achievement, they turned to her.

Photos: Going against type

Singh has been practicing her craft for more than 30 years and is fluent in nearly 20 formal lettering styles. Keyboards and keypads may dictate the terms of the written word, but Singh's hand lettering is a reminder that words are not just a means of communication, items of sheer utility, but personal expressions of beauty and persuasion.

"Calligraphy is an art; typing isn't," she says. "When you see letters that have been handwritten, you make a connection that doesn't occur with type. Hand lettering leads to a broader, richer relationship to language."

But in a world bent upon frugality and speed, calligraphy is becoming a marginalized skill, more hobby than profession.

Lettering styles that look hand-drawn can be downloaded off the Internet. Budget constraints have led the city and county of Los Angeles to employ fewer artists skilled in calligraphy — targeted as an unnecessary taxpayer expense — and computers now produce portions of proclamations.

The calligraphy class that Singh taught for 25 years at the Beverly Hills Adult School was recently eliminated for lack of funding, and in April the Indiana Department of Education issued a memo emphasizing "keyboarding skills" over cursive writing for third-graders. Many calligraphers credit early writing lessons for inspiring their interest in letters.

The erosion of their trade has left some calligraphers eager to take hammers to word processors.

"Computers have corrupted everything," says calligrapher Thomas Ingmire of San Francisco. "The loss of handwriting is the tragic and, to my mind, the logical consequence of the computer."

If calligraphy is frivolous, says Etchie Mura, a retired graphic artist with the county of Los Angeles, then so is art and, in the case of the civic proclamations, so are expressions of gratitude.

"It's sad," Mura says, "that people have to defend the fact that society wants to preserve graciousness, art and the humanities."


Singh, 56, heads into the studio of her tiny Mar Vista home. Rooney the Pomeranian yips at her heels. Medieval monks had their rooms for writing: alcoves in the cloistered walkways of their monasteries. Singh has hers, a converted bedroom overlooking the backyard.

She opens the door to let the breeze through. Her husband, Ray, watches the grandchildren bouncing on a trampoline. Shouts and laughter can be heard over the guitar music she's cued. To be in Singh's company when she writes is to fall under the spell of the alphabet, the straight, circular and intersecting lines whose interplay becomes shapes and whose shapes become words.

Calligraphy — "beautiful writing" — employs a variety of lettering styles that are distinguished by a combination of thick and thin pen strokes and ornamentation. Beauty, in the eyes of calligraphers, lies in the proportions of letters and their arrangement on the page.

Some styles — Roman, Uncial, Carolingian, Gothic — date to the Middle Ages and earlier. Others, like Nueland and Legende, emerged in the last 100 years. Each follows a strict set of aesthetic principles. Roman capitals, for instance, calls for the A to be three-quarters as wide as it is tall, the B to be half as wide as it is tall and the C seven-eighths as wide as it is tall.

Designer and graphic artist Milton Glaser sees the writing as a performance. "The best calligraphy comes gracefully, without thought," he says. "It is like dancing. It is governed by rhythm and intervals."

As a child in Utah, Singh always doodled letters and traced the cursive type in advertisements like Cadillac's. She shared the best handwriting prize in first grade with Joey Hewitt, and after college, decorated cakes and wrote produce signs for Safeway.

In 1977, she moved to California and got married. Two years later, she took her first calligraphy class in the adult education program at Venice High School. It was a time when homespun arts like macrame and ceramics, spinoffs of the hippie aesthetic, were thriving.

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