First-time Attendance at an International Conference of Calligraphers

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One of my goals for the post-fulltime-job chapter of my life was investing more time and effort to improving my modest calligraphy skills. Specifically, I hoped to accomplish three things:

  • To practice more often.
  • To begin learning at least one style of calligraphy I wasn’t familiar with.
  • To take more classes and workshops.

Three years into retirement, I can report that I’ve made progress on all three of my goals. Here I’ll be describing in more detail something I did recently that’s related to Calligraphy-Improving Goal #3.

About six months ago, I was reminded that one of calligraphy’s most enduring international conclaves – this year was its 35th consecutive conclave –  was convening in 2016 in Asheville. I took a deep beginning-calligrapher’s breath and decided to sign up for it. That decision, despite the conference’s rather formidable $1,560 registration fee, was largely due to::

  • The conference venue’s proximity to Atlanta.
  • Encouragement from my steady progress over the past few years from the weekly calligraphy classes taught at a local senior center by the amazing Sharon Ann Smith.
  • Encouragement from Carol Gray, a former calligraphy instructor of mine, a fellow Quaker Meetinghouse attendee, and a fellow member of Atlanta’s calligraphy guild, Carol was one of the other six foks from the Atlanta guild who attended the conference, so not everyone was a stranger to me there!
  • The helpful mantra that often floats through the brain of this sixty-eight year old non-affluent retiree: “If Not Now, When?”
  • The sheer excitement of an opportunity to immerse myself for an entire week with almost three hundred other people in All Things Calligraphy.

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Dubbed “A Show of Hands,” this year’s conference (June 25-July 2) consisted of a wide range of classes that attendees pre-registered for. I signed up for two separate courses taught by the same instructor – one course about the subtleties of how to properly connect the lower-case letters of the Italic style, the other about the fundamental principles governing correctly forming Roman capital letters.

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Joyce Teta 1My instructor, Joyce Teta, was superb: an experienced calligrapher, knowledgeable about a host of calligraphy-related topics, an incredibly sensitive and intuitive listener, a skillful teacher, and great fun to be around. I also very much enjoyed meeting and hanging out for many hours each day with the other students in the class, several of whom, like me, took both the classes Joyce offered.

One of the many gifts of Joyce’s classes was her introducing me to the work of one of her favorite calligraphers, the stupifyingly talented John Stevens, who I certainly hope to meet some day. (Possibly at Cheerio, the twice-a-year “calligraphy camp” Joyce and her husband operate at a YMCA camp near the North Carolina-Virginia border: John often teaches there. Plus I’d get to hang out again with Joyce!)

Everything Joyce taught me was not only tremendously helpful, but some of whjat she taught me was a revelation! I had never studied Roman capitals at all, and certainly had underestimated what is involved in forming them properly. As for how to properly connect lower-case Italic letters – well, I had somehow missed several important memos about that crucial subject as well.

A sample of one of the class exercises I did for Joyce’s class about Italic branching:

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A class exercise from Joyce’s course in Roman Capitals:

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Joyce and one of her happy students

Capital Investment Class

Joyce’s “Capital Investment” class: (L-R) Dot,Cate, Keith, Cal, CC, and Joyce. Behind us: a reproduction of a rubbing from the famous Trajan Column.

The conference took place on the stunningly gorgeous campus of Warren Wilson College. Merely being on its spectacular campus for an entire week was a treat in itself. Embedded in a forest surrounded by pastures, the college’s buildings are a mix of modern structures with others – some of them built in the late 1890s – made of stone.


The pedestrian-friendly layout of the campus and its landscaping (including its gardens, a woodland-surrounded pond, 25 miles of pathways, etc.) made for a delightful conference environment; WWC’s 800 students and faculty are lucky people to be able to spend more than a week there.

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The smell of the nearby recently-mowed hayfields  was as delightful as the sight of the mountains that surround those fields. (The serenity of campus’s beautiful surroundings definitely re-triggered my decades-long fantasy of someday moving to Asheville!)

I paid extra for a single room in one of several student dorms where most of the conferees stayed, and was lucky to be assigned a dorm with air conditioning. A photo of my sleeping quarters for the week:


I didn’t end up spending much time in my dorm room, however. In addition to the excellent all-day classes I took, I enjoyed attending all the conference’s excellent evening programs and exhibits.

  • One of the evening programs was a slide-show about the life of famed U.S. calligrapher Edward Catich, narrated by one of his students (now in his sixties?).
  • The conference’s first evening program was a mesmerizing concert by Akira Satake, a Japanese-born composer and banjoist (and talented potter) and his much-younger music partner of many years (also a composer and violinist/fiddler), Duncan Wickel.
  • Both the campus art gallery and its library exhibited works by some of the conference faculty.
  • The conference also featured an auction of donated calligraphy pieces (to raise scholarship funds for young calligraphers to attend future conferences).
  • Two hours were set aside for conference attendees to observe (in silence) each of the conference faculty at work doing his/her own style of beautiful lettering.
  • Near the end of the conference, the work created by all 250+ conference attendees during the conference was spread out on tables so everyone could see and ask questions about the classes they didn’t take.
  • Among my many minor conference thrills was browsing the display of dozens of envelopes decorated by calligraphers who had written to the conference coordinators or vendors. A few examples:

(For some better-photographed examples of similarly eyeball-popping calligraphied envelopes, check out the fifteen years worth of winners of the annual Graceful Envelope Contest, sponsored by the Washington, DC calligraphy guild.)

  • The final evening program included a slide show of candid photos taken by several photographers of conferees in various settings that were taken throughout the week-long conference.

There were also multiple opportunities for socializing outside the classes and meals (live music, a night dance, a beer tent, etc.). Being the crowd-aversive person I am, I didn’t attend those events except very briefly, but it was nice to have those options in addition to the intensive classes, exhibits, and programs. (About the only things lacking from the crowded conference schedule were ample opportunities for afternoon naps!)

The conference was superbly organized. Especially considering that each of these annual international conferences (the first took place in Minnesota in 1981) are orchestrated by volunteers, with no underlying permanent organization to support each brave band of them. On top of the impressive way the large gathering was orchestrated, I loved the thoughtful details provided by the organizers: gorgeously calligraphied name tags, personalized calligraphied dorm room and classroom labels, the “goodie bag” full of calligraphy supplies donated by merchants and various calligraphy guilds around the country, etc.

The talent displayed by the twenty-six faculty members and their small clans of eager students was astonishing. As the conference featured classes in so many dfferent topics, the range of work – and the styles of calligraphy displayed -was wide. In addition to the photos of chisleled slate shown at the top and bottom of this blogpost, here is a tiny, tiny sampling of the work produced by conference attendees during the week:

Throughout the conference, two major suppliers for calligraphers operated temporary stores throughout the conference.

  • John Neal Bookseller sold copies of dozens of  tantalizing calligraphy books – and calligraphy-themed T-shirts – for sale.
  • Pen & Ink Arts was chock-full of tempting inks, pens, papers, and all sorts of labor-saving gadgets. I made multiple visits to both stores (aka Nerd Heaven).

I also spent time browsing the tempting array of wares on display by a separate group of  “pop-up” vendors who set up for a single night of the conference.

I ended up forking over almost $500 worth of wonderful stuff, including  the two books my instructor Joyce recommends as the most indispensable ones: for instructional purposesFoundations of Calligraphy by Sheila Waters; for inspirational purposes, Scribe: Artist of the Written Word by the aforementioned John Stevens.

I have yet to unpack all the supplies I bought, although I do remember that amongst the stash of purchased treasures is my first bottle of walnut ink.  (Yep, made from walnuts.)

Miscellaneous notes about the conference:

  • I was among the lucky winners of one of John Neal Bookseller’s daily door prizes: a year’s subscription to a periodical called Bound & Lettered.
  • ŸThe food – three meals a day, served in the campus cafeteria – was consistently fresh and good; much of it is grown in the college’s gardens. There were plenty of options for vegetarians as well as meat-eaters. And ice cream, every day. (I gained three pounds.)
  • Except for an uncomfortably warm first day, the weather all week – especially early each morning and around dusk every evening – was perfect.
  • I definitely  enjoyed parking my car after unloading my stuff and not getting back into it again for a full week!

ŸThe opportunity to rub elbows for so many consecutive days with so many other calligraphers was exhilarating. Not only was the creativity and enthusiasm on display at the conference as exhilarating as the classes were useful, but I was also happy to, once again, find such wildly talented calligraphers to be so friendly, generous, helpful, humble, humorous, and curious.

And so numerous, too! Not a small thing, for someone used to scribbling away for many years without the congenial, inspiring company of like-minded scribes.

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8 thoughts on “First-time Attendance at an International Conference of Calligraphers

  1. Such wealth of exposure and immersion in your craft! You reminded me of the pint (!) of walnut ink an artist friend made and gave me back in the 70’s. Wish I could go back in time and re-gift it to you, since I know you would appreciate it more than I did then.

  2. Cal, it was a real pleasure meeting and working with you during the week. Our teacher Joyce Teta was a genuine gem. She taught us so much. Our lives are enriched by her presence.

    Thanks for sharing your experience. Peace & Blessings.

    1. Thanks for reading the blogpost, Keith. It was a pleasure getting to know you – so glad you also took both courses Joyce offered! And best of luck with your own calligraphy plans!

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