Preserving the Lost Art of Fine Handwriting

In the days before the weight of our words fell to the skill of our thumbs, people did crazy things. Some of them took goose quills, cut off the feathers, and fashioned the points into nibs. Some mixed powdered pigments with water; others purchased teeny bottles of ink. All dipped some sort of pen into some kind of ink, placed the points of said pens to paper (often calfskin vellum), and then wrote messages to one another. Messages with meanings greater than LOL or OMG.

They called it calligraphy, and it’s an art celebrated in our new exhibition Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible. It’s also celebrated in our second-floor Gathering Space, where each weekend through the show’s closing on April 7, 2012, Albuquerque and Santa Fe practitioners of this dying art are demonstrating their skill at it.

(Those are the hands of Catherine Hogan above, and she’s writing my name far prettier than I ever could on something I”ll use to mark my place in another lost craft that some of us still love: books.)

The calligraphers and bookbinders adding to the exhibition belong to Escribiente, Albuquerque’s calligraphy guild, and the Santa Fe Book Arts Group. They plan to be available from 10 am to noon and 1-3 pm on Saturdays and Sundays through April 7, though winter weather may occasionally interrupt those plans. Keep an eye open during the week, too: Calligraphers sometimes show up and set up shop for the love of it.

Take today (i.e., Thursday, Nov. 10). Three members of Escribiente–Catherine Hogan, Beth House, and Rick House–drove up from Albuquerque and worked away on a variety of crafts.

Rick, for example, was practicing his newfound skill of turning feathers into quills.

Beth was calligraphing a piece of writing by Henry David Thoreau–an ode of sorts to the benefits of forest fires.

(On April 30, 1844, shortly before retreating into isolation at Walden Pond, Thoreau accidentally started a blaze in the Concord Woods, destroying some 300 acres. The devastation, including the narrow miss of Concord itself, so angered residents that for years afterward Thoreau could barely escape the epithet “woods burner” from his neighbors. The event, though, likely played into his budding environmental philosophy. In 1850, Thoreau’s journal noted in part: “I once set fire to the woods….It was a glorious spectacle, and I was the only one there to enjoy it.” For more on that event, click here.)

In the meantime, here’s a sample of Beth’s work:

Take special note of the letter at the top left; she illuminated it with real gold leaf:

If you can’t be here when the demonstrators plan to be, but have a group of folks who might be interested in learning more about the book arts, call ahead and we’ll work to arrange a demonstration for you. For such requests, call Tom Leech, director of the Palace Press, at 505-476-5096.

Whenever you come, bring your curiosity and your questions. Not only are the volunteers good at what they do, but they love to talk about the book arts.

Thanks, Rick Beth and Catherine (below, from left to right), for helping us bring another day of life to an art that deserves many more.