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State of Wonder

Calligraphy Project Rewrites The Script

Ever had the experience of signing a birthday card or jotting down a to-do list, looking down and cringing at your own handwriting? Reed College has started a program to bolster the written word.  

Student Levi Edleman works on his letter forms.

Student Levi Edleman works on his letter forms.

Alexi Horowitz/Oregon Public Broadcasting

Around 8 o’clock Wednesday morning at Llewellyn Elementary School in Southeast Portland, teacher Sarah Clark’s 4th grade students scramble into their seats to get started for the day. They quiet down, take out their paper and special flat-edged felt calligraphy pens, and get to work tracing over the outlines of italic letter forms in their workbooks.

Clark starts her class off with ten minutes of calligraphy, four days a week. “A long time ago not everybody could write,” Clark explains to the kids.

“Scribes … would write things on beautiful parchment, and if they made one mistake they would have to start all over again.”

This is the second year in a row that Clark has used calligraphy in her classroom. She’s still pretty new at it, but she says it’s a great way to calm the students down in the morning and keep them interested in writing.  

Clark is one of sixteen public elementary school teachers from around Portland who are learning italic calligraphy this year. It’s part of a new Calligraphy Initiative, organized by the Cooley Art Gallery at Reed College.  

Reed’s connection to calligraphy, the whole reason the school does any of this, it all comes back to one guy—a man named Lloyd Reynolds. Stephanie Snyder is the director and curator of the Cooley Gallery. She describes Reynolds as “an intelligent, powerful, and charismatic man who came to Reed as an English professor.”  

Reynolds taught at Reed for forty years, countless numbers of students. He started out as an English professor at Reed in the early 1920s. An amateur engraver and graphic artist, Reynolds fell in love with calligraphy while teaching. and in the late 1940s he started teaching a letter arts course.   He invited calligraphers from around the country to lecture and teach.  

Gregory MacNaughton is the coordinator of the Calligraphy Initiative. MacNaughton says, “Reynolds taught anyone who would have him, and consequently he has literally thousands of students.” Reynolds’s legacy is inscribed in the architectural landscape of the city — his students designed the letters ushering visitors into the Multnomah Public Library. Dive into the archives, and you can see him speaking in a series of televised calligraphy lessons he did for OPB-TV in the mid-1970s.

On the one hand Reynolds saw calligraphy as a practice that connected the writer with the whole history of written language. On the other he championed calligraphy as an art form accessible to everyone. MacNaughton says Reynolds “felt very strongly about people being able to practice a beautiful art form, and that calligraphy or handwriting was the people’s art form. It’s something that you do everyday. It’s something anybody can do, and it’s something that you can easily elevate to a place of great beauty in your daily life.”

Reynolds’ influence got an algorithmic boost from one of Reed College’s most famous students. In 2005, the late Apple founder Steve Jobs gave a graduation speech at Stanford University. Steve Jobs — the guy who gave us so much defining modern technology — talked about why calligraphy made such an impression on him at Reed.  

“Throughout the campus every poster,” Jobs remembered, “every label on every drawer was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.”

“And,” Jobs added, “we designed it all into the Mac.”

Just a handful of years after studying at Reed, Jobs helped usher in the personal computer age, and indirectly, the steady shift away from handwriting. Reed’s longstanding for-credit calligraphy program was scrapped in 1984, the same year that Apple released the Macintosh computer.

Today, handwriting has largely taken a back seat to keyboarding. In many states, children as young as kindergarten are being taught to use a keyboard because the new Common Core exams are designed to be taken on a computer.

University of Washington Educational Psychology Professor Virginia Berninger says something is lost when schools put computer literacy ahead of handwriting. She says the act of reproducing letters one by one by hand plays an important role in the development of literacy in children. It’s distinctly different, she says, from learning to type on a keyboard.

“The research says that there’s value to teaching kids to form the letters stroke by stroke,” Berninger says. Her research suggests that different forms of handwriting at a young age has the effect of improving and deepening literacy. But she’s sure to point out that handwriting is just one ingredient to educating literate students for the 21st century.  

More than being about literacy or slowing down, the Calligraphy Initiative, Snyder says, is about spreading the joy of elevating the minute and often mundane details of everyday life into art. From filling out forms at the doctor’s office, or signing your name on a restaurant waiting list, Reynold’s legacy is about making the world more beautiful, one elegant letter at a time.