Handwriting Continues to Prove Its Nimble Nature • A Conversation with Curator of Manuscripts at Mary Savig
This conversation was a part of our collaboration with The Smithsonian's Archives of American Art, Pen to Panel. Here, we talk with Curator of Manuscripts Mary Savig about the creation of their latest anthology, which was the root of our collaboration, Pen to Paper.
SARAH MADGES: I read in the review on the Smithsonian website that the idea for the exhibition and eventually this book came from a discussion amongst colleagues about how easily recognizable A.D. Reinhardt's handwriting is. Are there some other artists whose handwriting you can spot from across the room? Georgia O'Keefe's handwriting is so distinctive!
MARY SAVIG: Yes, Georgia O’Keeffe’s lyrical, bold handwriting shouts for attention and is impossible to forget. Hans Hofmann and Maxfield Parrish also boast distinct penmanship: Hofmann’s handwriting is twiggy but deliberate, and there is no confusing it for another artist’s hand. Parrish’s graceful penmanship doesn’t jump off the page like the others, but its inimitable elegance is as recognizable as his paintings.
SARAH: What factored into your decision about which artists, and their letters, to feature?
MARY: The artist’s handwriting had to intrigue me. It was also important to represent the broad scope and scale of American art, from the nineteenth century through the present, as well as artists from different geographical regions who worked in various media, like sculpture, photography, graphic arts, abstract painting, landscape painting, and crafts. The book includes outsider artists and conceptual artists, feminists and immigrants, and more. As a whole, this selection reflects the depth of resources at the Archives of American Art.
SARAH: In your introduction to the book you talk a lot about the historical development of handwriting in the U.S. Obviously you've researched this topic quite a bit — what was the most surprising or interesting thing you learned?
MARY: Much ink has been spilled on handwriting’s tenuous relationship with technology. “Once upon a time, before there were electronic typewriters, or tape records, or Xerox machines, boys and girls had to write by hand,” began a New York Times article lamenting the current state of penmanship in 1967. Technologies of communication, from telegrams to texting, have long threatened the written word. And yet, handwriting continues to prove its nimble nature. The craft of handwriting has flourished online, especially on social media. Artists, thinkers, and makers alike are experimenting with penmanship in innovative ways. Along these lines, the Archives continues to digitize and make our vast handwritten records available online for new generations to discover.
SARAH: What's your favorite letter in the book?
MARY: Don’t make me choose! My answer really depends on the day and since it’s a sunny Friday morning, I’m thinking of a charming letter by the Reverend Howard Finster. Liza Kirwin, deputy director at the Archives of American Art, writes, “Reverend Howard Finster was a consummate entertainer and an old-timey Bible-belt evangelist. His handwriting, most often in block capitals, was like his preaching — purposeful, emphatic, and an integral part of his art, his “sermons in paint.” This description encapsulates the spirit of the book.
SARAH: Who transcribed all of these letters? The book cites Transcription Center volunteers. How did people tackle the less legible ones?
MARY: Transcription Center volunteers helped with the bulk of transcriptions (a few of the letters had been previously transcribed). The volunteers are especially amazing at deciphering difficult hands. Many of them have compared translation to solving a puzzle: you have to be able to discern whether the faintest line might indicate a dash, a period, or a dotted i, while keeping in mind the bigger picture of the letter because it holds so many context clues.
SARAH: You note that for this book the writers focused on visual content over verbal. Why was it important that they do that? What were you hoping would emerge in the contributors' essays as a result?
MARY: Many of the writers had spent months, often years, in the Archives of American Art scouring these letters for details like the locations of artworks, sale records, notable collaborations, and the like. The goal of this project was to get the writers to step back from the content and instead approach the letter as if it’s a painting or a sculpture. What might the curves, dashes, and density of line tell us about the artist? I was always fascinated and often surprised by the diversity of responses. What emerged from this project is that primary sources, and handwritten letters in particular, remain relevant and poised for interpretation. I hope this book prompts others to look at our materials with a fresh perspective.