Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2005 | Features

The Beauty of Writing

By Tina Owen
Glen Epstein lives up to his reputation, bouncing gleefully from desk to desk like an irrepressible Tigger clad in Hawkeye gear.

The artist picks up his pen and dips it in the small jar of ink, wiping the nib slowly and carefully on the side of the glass. His hand hovers in precise alignment over a sheet of paper already decorated with graceful curves and elegant lines.

Flick! Splat! Bright blue ink explodes in exuberant splotches. So much for the delicate art of calligraphy or “beautiful writing.”

In adjunct professor Glen Epstein’s hands, calligraphy isn’t always a quiet, respectable art form. If traditional calligraphy—the kind associated with wedding invitations and medieval manuscripts—is a formal dance in which letters bow and nod politely to each other in tightly choreographed routines, Epstein’s work often resembles a swing dance. These letters tumble and whirl, prance and preen. They hurl themselves across the paper with an energetic abandon that masks the underlying discipline.

Epstein’s done his fair share of formal calligraphy, including thousands of graduation certificates for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and dozens of posters for the Prairie Lights reading series. But this internationally acclaimed calligrapher loves to let loose his creative streak and his personality. When he used to represent the university at the Iowa State Fair, people would line up for the privilege of taking home pieces of vibrant art made from their names.

In a Phillips Hall classroom this past summer, a shorter line forms around Epstein’s desk. As a demonstration for his “Calligraphy: Gothic Hands” class, he’s just made a student’s name bloom exotically on a plain piece of paper. When he raises his arm to add a trademark flourish of ink splatters, the students take a big step backwards instinctively and in unison. Then the requests begin: “Do my name now.” “Do mine.” “Do mine!”

Grade school and university students alike are entranced by this magic wrought with paper and ink. As Epstein teaches it, calligraphy is fun, daring, creative—and just a tad wild. “If an East L.A. hoodlum who hated art appreciation in high school can be among the best in the world, anyone can learn the basics,” he tells his students.

He also reassures them that, in terms of grading, he marks on attendance and “beautiful reading”—their diligence in studying the required textbooks and essays. In the first session, students don’t even handle the Sheaffer pen sets they’ve just purchased at Iowa Book. Within a few short weeks, though, students’ nerves give way to astonished pride as they produce accomplished works of art, in both traditional and less orthodox styles.

“What surprised me most about learning calligraphy was that I could do it. It seemed like one of those things that only talented people could do,” says Holly Fitzpatrick, a linguistics senior from Nevada. “I loved being able to do homework with my roommate, and while she was struggling to decide which Spanish word was supposed to fit in some generic sentence, I would experiment with embellishments on capital letters and get excited about changing the ink color in my pen.”

The UI offers calligraphy classes in regular semester sessions, as a guided independent study course, as a Saturday and Evening course, and in the summer session. This past summer, Fitzpatrick and several of her peers pack a semester’s worth of knowledge and practice into five short weeks. They start by learning how to handle the pen, to angle it so the nib creates thick and thin lines, to calculate the correct height and width of each letter, and to figure out the spacing between each letter and line. They experiment with the eight to ten basic strokes that, in various combinations, create every calligraphic alphabet. Once they’ve mastered these fundamentals—which their professor refers to as “getting the sheet music under your butt”—Epstein encourages them to play with energy and texture and to incorporate their personalities into their work. “Take the music past where you found it,” he urges. “Find the rhythm in the calligraphy.”

Tina Sullivan of Coralville, a returning adult student in the Bachelor of Liberal Studies program, finds her unique style in a calligram—a hand-lettered poem curled inside a watercolor painting of her sleek Siamese cat. Torri Ball, a junior art major from Sioux City, holds up a large sheet of paper on which dramatic letters against a fiery background spell out lyrics from one of her father’s favorite songs. She plans to surprise her father with this handmade welcome home gift when he returns from serving in Iraq.

Bold slashes of color and tangled thickets of lines distinguish some of the projects. The words they represent are barely legible, but that’s beside the point. “Some calligraphy is difficult to read, but who cares when it’s so beautiful?” says Epstein. “When you see a lovely piece of calligraphy hanging on a wall, you ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ before you’ve even deciphered a word.”

Most students take these calligraphy classes as three semester hours toward their humanities requirements. Few have even held a broad-edged nib before. They’ve flocked to Epstein’s classes for the past 23 years because they find calligraphy attractive, and because they’ve heard the professor is fun and not at all intimidating.

Living up to his reputation, Epstein bounces gleefully from desk to desk, like an irrepressible Tigger clad in Hawkeye gear. He cracks corny jokes at his own expense and elicits groans from his students. In the midst of this laid-back atmosphere, students soon realize that while calligraphy is, indeed, an alluring art, it’s also hard work. Before they even attempt to shape a curvy Gothic form, they have to learn to concentrate. “Beautiful writing is as easy as it looks,” Epstein insists, “but it’s much slower than it looks.”

Time slows down when you pick up a calligraphy pen. Students have to adapt to a painstaking pace, just one careful stroke and movement at a time. The effort of focusing so hard exacts a physical and mental toll, and errors creep in, usually at the end of a long piece of work. Concentration becomes a physical act rather than an abstract concept. “Every time you sit to write, concentration comes with the territory,” says Epstein. “If you’re doing it right, all the concentration is in your fingers.” After practicing their penmanship for hours, students have to figure out how to uncramp those fingers. One student who suffers from tendonitis has to resort to icepacks and Advil.

People who are used to handling a Bic or a pencil discover that a calligraphy pen is a completely different beast. The nibs scratch and squeak—tiny animals scrabbling on the paper. “It’s like a live creature in your hand,” says Epstein. “And the first few words that come out, there’s never a fly-swatter around when you need one!”

Once they get the hang of it, students are often tempted to decorate letters with lively curlicues and other extravagant gestures. That only works if they’ve constructed a perfect basic letter. “Otherwise, it’s like highlighting a pimple,” says Epstein. “It’s not something you want to do.”

Of course, if perfection is the goal, then why not simply use a computer program with an extensive library of fonts? Uncial, Italic, Blackletter, Carolingian, and hundreds of other alphabets in all shapes, sizes, and styles turn anyone with a computer and a printer into an instant calligrapher. Epstein says that such programs give him a stomachache. “The printing press didn’t kill calligraphy, typewriters didn’t kill calligraphy, and the computer won’t do it either,” he adds.

In Epstein’s view, calligraphy is so special not just because it’s beautiful but because it’s slow, it’s personal, it’s handmade. It’s about the relationship between an artist, his art, and the observer. By the end of the course, many students agree. Keen to beautify their world and their minds, they register for advanced classes or take up calligraphy as a hobby. They plan to fill their apartments with their artwork, to create handmade cards, to frame a particular piece and give it to a friend or relative.

Their professor believes that a calligrapher “discovers the power of his pen to lighten the world.” Perhaps it will even illuminate other worlds. A calligraphy logo that Epstein created for UI emeritus professor and space expert James Van Allen, 36MS, 39PhD, is on board the Galileo spacecraft that’s exploring the outer edges of our universe. It represents the ancient yet enduring expression of mankind’s artistic impulse. Even out there among the stars, calligraphy is helping humans leave their mark—beautifully.