Cyberspace Calligraphy

July/August 2004

Reading time min

Cyberspace Calligraphy

Glenn Matsumura

After 1978, when a California funding crisis short-circuited a tenure-track job teaching art, Ann Balaam Miller was “irked for quite a while.” She had studied painting and lithography at Stanford with Nathan Oliveira and Richard Diebenkorn and enjoyed working with students in turn. It was frustrating to have “all these teaching ideas that never reached fruition.”

A career in calligraphy would flourish instead. She “inhaled” the alphabets of the ages—such lusciously named styles as Uncial, Carolingian, Gothic and more—and put them to work for such clients as Hewlett-Packard, Borel Private Bank and Trust Company, and Stanford. (The large dedication framed in the lobby of the Robert A. Chase Hand & Upper Limb Center in the School of Medicine came from her pen.) She does proclamations, hand addressing, and logo design. She and a partner sell motivational art prints at their company, The Positive Edge. Interior designers smitten with beautifully lettered quotations on walls call her, although Miller often declines because she “doesn’t do ladders.” She recently finished serving two years as president of The Friends of Calligraphy, a nonprofit society of professional and amateur scribes.

But in the past year, the Academy of Art University in San Francisco lured her back to teaching—and in a manner that might seem as incongruous as a monk with a Xerox machine. Miller teaches a fully accredited calligraphy course online. In its first semester, six students—three from the Bay Area, one in Colorado, one in Germany and one in Japan—perfected their serifs without meeting Miller in person.

Although Miller acknowledges that she can’t adjust a student’s grip on the pen, she says distance learning can be a boon for new calligraphers. Working with videographers from the school, Miller recorded demonstrations for 15 class modules. Students can work through the modules at their convenience and watch the close-up demonstrations repeatedly. They scan their work and post it so Miller and their classmates can see their progress. Miller writes back comments and answers questions throughout the week. Each student mails a final project to her—a handmade portfolio book.

The modules include readings, slide shows of archival and contemporary calligraphy, discussion topics and quizzes. In the video demonstrations, letters appear stroke-by-meticulous-stroke from Miller’s hand, while her voice describes their precise angles and proportions. (Practice sheets might start with a tiny column of hyphen-wide marks stacked alternately to left and right, so they look like a stylized head of wheat. In this way, the height of a page’s letters has been determined by the width of the pen nib—five nib-widths tall, for example, for Textura Quadrata.) Once an alphabet has been taught, the week’s assignment might ask students to use that style to present a pangram—a sentence that uses each of the 26 letters.

Some demonstrations focus on tools. In one, Miller cuts a pen from bamboo. In another, a folded pen nib is shaped and annealed from the aluminum of a soda can. One of calligraphy's joys, she says, is the sensuousness of its materials: the “creamy” feel of a $100 piece of vellum, the incense released when a stick of ink is ground.

Miller has been pleased with the quality of her students’ work, recognizing in them the perseverative nature of a good calligrapher: “someone who'll do something 40 times for the pleasure of it.”

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