Saturday, June 13, 2009
The Benefits of Piece Work
The past two weeks have been a whirlwind of calligraphy and end-of-year activities at school. Each night, I have returned to my studio to work for several hours. Some nights, I lettered until the sky brightened and the birds began their songs. Awards, diplomas, placecards, and wedding envelopes made up the bulk of my projects this month. Some calligraphers might scoff at this humdrum piece-work, but I have found unexpected benefits in spending hour after hour on simple, repetitive lettering tasks.
First of all, I can listen to great music. Pandora.com fills the room with Nora Jones, Jack Johnson, the Beatles, Toxic Audio, Madeleine Peyroux, Nickel Creek, and many others. The music gives me energy -- I often find my pen-strokes keep time to the beat. Copperplate requires the soothing strains of Windham Hill or Jim Brickman piano. Italic, which is easy for me, allows me to relax into the more lively sounds of Queen or The Chieftans. Cuban music still reminds me of working with Claude Dieterich -- I reserve it for letters formed with quick, energetic strokes. As I sing along, my hand relaxes, my breathing steadies, and the letters flow from my pen with ease and enjoyment.
I have also learned to value this time because it gives me an opportunity to practice and perfect my lettering styles. Although I have been a calligrapher for more than 20 years, I continue to learn and improve. I may change the way I make a particular letter, or fool around with a new flourish, or tweak the angle of my pen... and with each piece I do, this fine-tuning becomes more comfortable.
As I write, I think about the person who might receive this envelope, this diploma. I try to make each name look unique in some way, in the hope that it gives joy to the recipient. I have found that when people find out I am a calligrapher, they ask me to write their names "fancy." Kids, in particular, are amazed that I can write one name 20 different ways. I'm the same, and I admit, I have a collection scraps of paper with my name written on them by several calligraphers and teachers -- Peter Thornton, Michael Hoyer, Michael Clark, etc.
And finally, as I have written before, the letters themselves give me joy. I suppose if they didn't, I would be in the wrong line of work! The long swoop of a lower case "g," the flourish above an "h," the little hairlines that drip down from a Gothic "r" make me hum with pleasure. "Yes! Look at that one!" "Ooh, a perfect curve!"
So, as I write this, I realize that as much as anything, this is about taking pleasure in the small things in life, the ordinary daily tasks, the boring, repetitive jobs we do. So, I urge you -- put on some good music, take pride in your work, seek ways to bring pleasure to others, and most of all...find joy!