BY SARAH MADGES
Kathy Orf is a calligrapher living and creating in St. Louis, MO. She has been practicing a “morning writing” ritual in which she sits down and draws in calligraphy without any prior planning for just a few minutes each day, a 365 project that allows her to continually approach her work in fresh ways. I had the chance to talk to her about what exactly calligraphy is, how it relates to handwriting, and how she became so invested in the art.
SARAH MADGES: How and when did you first become interested in calligraphy? How did you come to make a career out of it?
KATHY ORF: I had a “decorative arts” class in high school that included calligraphy and — I’m really dating myself here — macramé! Then in college, I majored in graphic design and had a whole semester of calligraphy, which was really rare. After graduation, I worked in graphic design until my second son (Alex) was born and then decided I should stay home and do calligraphy part time. I had started trying to sell my work at arts and crafts shows just 3 months after my first son was born and thought I would continue that. I’m not sure I would call it a “career,” maybe more of a passion or a creative outlet…It is really hard to support yourself doing calligraphy and luckily I never had to. That said, I’ve been doing calligraphy for 30 years.
MADGES: When people hear the word calligraphy, they tend to think “beautifully ornate handwriting” or “wedding invitations.” How do you characterize calligraphy — is it an art form, a process of symbol arrangement, pimped-out handwriting? What are calligraphy’s essential elements? What makes it different from handwriting?
ORF: I think calligraphy can be different things depending on how it is used. It can definitely be an art form…something which has been a struggle to achieve in other’s eyes. But it can be very utilitarian when it is used to address envelopes or fill in names on pre-printed certificates. I do not consider calligraphy to be hand-writing in any sense of the word. It takes years of practice and good instruction and some talent to reach a certain skill level. Calligraphy is not fast in learning it or its execution. The letters may look like they’ve been written quickly, but many times it is more deliberate than you might think. And the funny thing is, one important part of hand-lettering is consistency, but whenever I look at printed lettering, I look to see if the letters are identical to determine whether it is hand-done or a typeface. So, even though you strive for consistency, you also want it to look organic, like it came from someone’s hand and not a machine.
MADGES: Does your handwriting resemble your calligraphy? Have you always had good handwriting?
ORF: My handwriting is the worst…just ask my husband. But I think it is because I am always in a hurry when I am writing something and using a ballpoint pen. Put a calligraphy nib in my hand and it’s a different story. It’s almost like my hand knows what to do at that point.
MADGES: Do you have one main mode of calligraphy, or are you always inventing and adapting the letters and symbols to their specific purpose and environment?
ORF: I know many different hands…italic, uncial, blackletter, foundational, romans, copperplate…and variations of them all. But I tend to get in ruts and use the same personalized style all of the time. I guess you could call this style my “calligraphic handwriting” because that is what I use to write with most of the time. My tool of choice to create this lettering is a pointed pen…Brause EF66. It is very flexible and can be used to write very tiny or even letters up to an inch tall. Every morning, I pick up my Brause, a piece of paper that I had already painted and just write a saying using this “handwriting,” although it does not resemble my actual handwriting at all. But, when I sit down to do a finished piece, I might think more about what I want it to look like, and what style I should use, and even use a chiseled nib, like a Mitchell.
MADGES: What are your most common assignments — and what kind of clients do you attract? How long do you spend working on individual pieces?
ORF: Most of my work of late is just doing sayings for friends. I don’t advertise, except through word of mouth. I have some certificate work for Washington University in the spring and fall, and will do a wedding or two a year, but usually just for friends, as I’ve never really enjoyed the rote nature of the work. I also create pieces to sell at fairs using my photographs of things that look like letters that I combine with my calligraphy. I can usually do a simple lettering job in a couple of hours. If I am creating a background and lettering a larger piece, it takes maybe 6 to 8 hours — it really depends on so many variables.
MADGES: What do you think about the diminishment of handwriting and cursive lessons in U.S. schools? Have you noticed any change in the demand for and reception of calligraphy as handwriting diminishes in use and popularity?
ORF: I think it is terrible that they are trying to stop teaching handwriting in schools. I think it is one of those things that they will later decide was detrimental to cognitive development. I’m not sure diminished use of handwriting has affected the popularity of calligraphy as much as the increase in fonts that look like it!
MADGES: What are some of your favorite examples of calligraphy in general — historical, global, etc.?
ORF: I just went to see the Book of Kells this summer at Trinity College in Dublin and it was amazing. I also love the work that Donald Jackson did on the St. John’s Bible that he just completed a couple of years ago for St. John’s Abbey and University in Minnesota. But I am mostly drawn to and excited by contemporary calligraphy.
MADGES: Why do people respond to it? Do you think there will always be a demand or desire for calligraphy?
ORF: I think people respond to calligraphic work because it so often interprets words in a way that touches them. Sometimes it’s because it is something they “wouldn’t have the patience for” — I hear this very often. And sometimes just because it is beautiful! I think there will always be a desire to do calligraphy as art, maybe not as much of a demand for invitations and such, although the whole retro movement may help, like it has for letterpress printing! But to survive, I think it will have to grow more into the realm of art and it has been doing that for a while now.
MADGES: Any advice for calligraphy enthusiasts out there?
ORF: Join your local calligraphy guild. Learn from good teachers and don’t just take a class and never do it again…practice or do homework if it is assigned. The best thing I ever did was to take a year-long class taught by a calligrapher named Reggie Ezell. He travels to four different cities for one weekend of every month of the year teaching almost everything you need to know. The great thing is that there was homework each month, and I DID THE HOMEWORK…and that made all of the difference! Unfortunately, Reggie is retiring after next year. But that was the best investment of time and money I ever spent.