Students can earn a good letter grade in art of calligraphy

Various styles have histories that have existed for hundreds of years

Posted: Monday, February 07, 2005

KODIAK - Students looking for a good letter grade at Kodiak College should consider signing up for Jim Peotter's calligraphy class.

The weekly sessions are all about good letters - and the pens, paper and ink needed to form them.

"People have a misconception that calligraphy is writing," Peotter said. "Calligraphy is drawing letters of the alphabet and different alphabets."

The retired school teacher and furniture storeowner admits his regular handwriting is "atrocious." But he has practiced the art of fine lettering for about 20 years, since he took a class at the college himself.

Now he checks the work of others who cover their pages with lines of repeated italic letters, practicing the basic straight and curved strokes.

The students' concentration turns their classroom in the college's tech center into a lighthearted and fluorescent-lighted version of the medieval scriptorium where robed monks labored years at illuminated manuscripts.

Some of the different styles of alphabets, or hands, have histories going back hundreds of years. The medieval monks used the squared-off gothic hands to conserve space on their valuable paper, Peotter said. Other hands are of more recent invention, such as the graceful Legends style, influenced by Arabic script. Many calligraphers enjoy developing styles of their own.

It's all about angles as the Kodiak College class starts by practicing italic letters. They carefully hold their pens at a 45-degree angle to the page so the strokes create the right variation in line thickness. The 5-degree slant of each letter must match neighboring letters.

Peotter frequently reminds his students to pay attention to their waist lines, but doesn't offer any tips on diet or exercise. Instead he explains the use of guides that show how to proportion parts of the letters, including the waist, or middle, and the ascenders and descenders.

Once these basics are down, the class will create majuscule and minuscule in other hands, and experiment with different pens. Peotter even will introduce students to cutting their own pens out of everyday objects such as popsicle sticks and wild plants.

"Everything you use creates a different effect on the paper," Peotter said.

Even choosing a pen and hand to use is only the beginning of calligraphy as art, and Peotter enjoys the compositional aspect of arranging text on a page.

He warns his students that they will start getting requests to make fancy certificates and gifts, once word gets around that they can turn words into works of art.

"And they will enjoy doing it," Peotter said. "It's one of the sidelights of the class."

Aspiring calligraphers typically have access to computers and printers with machine-perfect fonts, but they choose instead this more creative option.

"They want to show they can do something besides punch keys on a board," Peotter said.

Student Sallie Morris, proprietor of Castle Rock Arts & Crafts likes to try all the media she can, from watercolors to ceramics. In the calligraphy class, the challenge is to get an even line after dipping a metal nib into a bottle of India ink.

"You gotta have the right flow of the ink," Morris said.

Student Ayn DuBois overcame the challenge of being left-handed with a little experimentation.

"I learned to hold the pen upside down," DuBois said.

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