Sunday May 20, 2012

Special to the Eagle

BENNINGTON, Vt.

When Ann Kremers was 10 years old, her parents gave her a calligraphy set that she was far too impatient to learn how to use.

Now an adult, she has become a calligrapher who makes a living from the handcraft art form, despite the challenges posed by digital publishing.

Once upon a time, calligraphy -- which means "beautiful handwriting" -- was used for all important documents, such as wedding invitations, diplomas, awards. Now many of them can be done, and done cheaper, on a computer.

But it is not the same, Kremers argues. And her clients agree.

"It is so much more personal and unique," said the Rev. Susan Crampton of Kremers’ work. "What she does is a work of art."

Crampton, a Williamstown, Mass., and long-time friend of Kremers, has commissioned her to do pieces for each of her four grandchildren on their 10th birthdays. Kremers draws their names in calligraphy on a plaque and adds details and drawings unique to each child.

Crampton’s children, in turn, hired Kremers to create a piece for their parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, using a quotation that Crampton often uses in performing wedding ceremonies as an Episcopal priest: "Every heart whispers a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back."

While Kremers is also a painter but says it is calligraphy that supports her financially.


Advertisement

In a studio on the third floor of her home, she letters wedding envelopes, place cards and table numbers. She rarely designs invitations as that is usually done by machines now, she said.

She also letters documents for businesses and institutions, such as employee appreciation certificates, honorary degrees, retirement certificates and Olmsted Awards for high school teachers, based on essays written by seniors.

She does not create diplomas. Those are also done by computer.

Kremers said it takes her anywhere from a couple of minutes to draw a single name to several hours for more intricate pieces such as the ones she made for Crampton.

She charges $30 per hour and tries to give clients a ballpark before she begins. Wedding envelopes, she said, are $3 to $4 each, depending on the script. Place cards range from $1.25 to $1.50 each.

Busy season

With June weddings and graduations near, this is her busiest time of year. While most of her clients are local, some come long distance through her website.

"It intrigued me," she said of art form envisioned by the calligraphy set her parents gave her years ago, "but it’s hard."

While earning a bachelor of fine arts degree at the University of Michigan, she contemplated taking classes in calligraphy but decided against it.

"I saw these people walking around the halls with 19- by 2- inch pads with nothing, but vertical lines they had drawn," she said. "At 19, I couldn’t do that. When I was young I didn’t have that kind of patience

But she had some calligraphy pens and she dabbled with it.

After she moved to North Adams in 1978, she made a friend who knew calligraphy, bought a book and began to practice.

It was then she said, "I realized I can do this."

Kremers was working in a craft gallery at the time and, as part of her job, made signs identifying the artists who had pieces on display.

Slowly, she began taking clients through word of mouth. Some asked her to letter a poem or a brochure.

"I only knew one script back then so everything looked the same," she said.

Eventually, she began working freelance with wedding planners and local institutions and found that she could make a living at it.

She also teaches the art.

"A lot is simply putting what I have done intuitively into words for others to understand," she said.

Takes practice

Calligraphy takes practice and it can be tedious. "It is not always clear why a letter doesn’t look like it is supposed to," she explained.

To top it off, there are so many different scripts, Kre mers cannot count them. 

"Some would say there are as many scripts as there are calligraphers," she said.

While there are also several schools of thought on what qualifies as calligraphy, Kre mers said foremost "it is intended to be beautiful and interesting."

She focuses on a few popular scripts in her classes including, black letter (old English), italics and copperplate. She begins with an introduction to the materials and the pens, so students will understand how they write.

She nearly always teaches the letter "I" first, then groups letters according to shared shapes or strokes. So she would teach I, then L, then maybe T, de pending on the script.

Types of classes

How long it takes to learn depends on the student. Kre mers taught a 12-week course at Berkshire Com munity College and was able to instruct her class in writing all 52 letters of the alphabet, numbers and punctuation, then allowed them to work on their own projects with their newfound knowledge.

Other courses are much shorter. She plans on teaching a weekend intensive workshop soon in Rutland.

Those who take her courses are generally older, retired and have time on their hands to pick up a hobby, she said. Younger people do not have the time, nor do they appreciate the art, she said.

Lost handwriting skills

She regrets that many schools, relying on classroom computers, are not even teaching handwriting skills to elementary school children. There is a whole generation growing up who not only cannot appreciate calligraphy, but also will not be able to read their parents and grandparents old letters, she said.

She said she hopes to be able connect with that younger generation through her teaching.