Wednesday, August 12, 2015

7 Questions: Christopher Calderhead


Christopher Calderhead is a visual artist and graphic designer who has exhibited his letter-based works in the United States and Great Britain. He graduated from Princeton with a bachelor's degree in art history. In 1998 he obtained a master of divinity degree from Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. Ordained the same year, he has served parishes in the Church of England and the Episcopal Church USA. He is editor of Alphabet, a journal of the lettering arts published by the Friends of Calligraphy, and author of One Hundred Miracles (2004), a collection of miracle paintings by the great masters.  He recently published, through Liturgical Press, Illuminating the Word: The Making of the Saint John's Bible Second Edition.  I believe it is the best book, currrently in print, concerning The Saint John's Bible.  Christopher blogs at Studio Notes.

1) To start off, could you tell my readers a little bit about the work you do?  How did you get involved in calligraphy?  Was this something that was a passion of yours from early on?

I have been interested in calligraphy and lettering since I was a boy. My father had his own advertising agency in New York, and I grew up in the art department. I remember looking at headlines in the ads the art directors created and pondering the letterforms: Why are the strokes of the sans-serif type Kabel cut off at an angle? How do you draw the fat, balloon shapes of the typeface Cooper Black?

When I was in fourth grade, I traced out a series of alphabets from an old 1930s lettering manual. I used to carry this tracing in my pocket, and when I had to add a heading to an assignment in school, I would carefully unfold it and trace my heading out, letter by letter.

In college at Princeton I majored in Art History, and a lot of the papers I wrote had to do with fine printing and graphic design.

After college, I studied calligraphy and bookbinding at the Roehampton Institute. Ann Camp was my principal teacher, and she grounded me in the rich tradition of edged-pen writing. At Roehampton, for the first time, I was surrounded by people who would sit and discuss the shape of the lower bowl of the lower case g through an entire tea break! It was wonderful.

Since then—that was 25 years ago—I have had a very varied career. For the last ten years, I have concentrated mostly on teaching and writing books. Since 2007, I have been the editor and designer of an international quarterly magazine, Letter Arts Review, which covers all aspects of lettering art, from calligraphy to typography and text-based art.

My own calligraphic and lettering art has evolved over time. Fresh out of Roehampton, I worked in fairly classic styles. Since then, I’ve broadened my approach. I’m not actively seeking commissions these days; most of the lettering art I do is designed as a fine art, and I explore both direct pen- and brush-made lettering along with photomontage and other techniques.


2) Could you talk a little bit about how you got involved with The Saint John's Bible project?

I was living in Cambridge, England, at the time (this is around 1999). I knew Donald Jackson already—I had written an article about him for The Scribe, the journal of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators, and I had visited him and his wife Mabel at their home in Wales.

Jo White was the person who put the deal together. She was one of the most important people involved in making The Saint John’s Bible happen in the first place. She has been one of the great movers and shakers of the Calligraphy world, organizing conferences and workshops, and creating a genuine network for calligraphers to gather and work together. Jo and I knew each other fairly well, and she really pushed for me to be hired to write about the project.

Everyone involved in The Saint John’s Bible knew that the project should be documented. Donald’s staff were careful to collect and save all the sketches and preparatory material. The Bible project sent photographers to shoot Donald and his team at work.

When I was brought on board, I was something of an unknown quantity to the people at Saint John’s. So the initial idea was that I would write a series of articles documenting the process of making the Bible. Each article existed in a long (5000 word) form, and also in shorter excerpt format which could be immediately published. That these would later turn into a book was not guaranteed—but it was a start, a foot in the door, and an opportunity to show I had the chops to do the work.

By the time I left England to move back to the States, I had written about seven or eight articles.

I was at Saint John’s in the summer of 2002, and I pushed the matter with Carol Marrin, who was then Director of the Bible project: Is this going to turn into a book or not? I did a book proposal, and everyone agreed to go ahead and turn my articles into a full-fledged book. (I am simplifying here what was in fact an extremely protracted process!)


3) What was a typical day like observing and documenting the process?

Donald’s Scriptorium in Wales is about 5 hours by train from Cambridge. I had a wonderful boss who gave me some flexibility with my time, so I would go to Wales for short visits—just three days and two nights at a time. Sometimes, I would my vacation days to accommodate a trip.

Donald ran his studio in a very old-fashioned way: his model was very much the old apprenticeship model, and family life and the life of the studio were in many ways complementary.

Sometimes I stayed with Donald and Mabel at their house, which was across the lane from the Scriptorium and its attendant outbuildings. On other visits I would stay with my friend Sally Mae Joseph, who was the studio manager in the early years of the project, and lived in a cottage down the road.

The setting was incredibly bucolic, with the houses and buildings nestled in a hilly countryside surrounded by fields of sheep and small patches of woods.

I would walk over to the Scriptorium after breakfast, and Donald or members of his staff would unpack things for me to look at, talk about the work on the drafting tables, and generally help me explore what it was they were doing. Donald would come and go, but at some point we would sit down for a good, long interview. Sometimes we sat for two or three interviews over the course a visit.

I generally had lunch with the staff in the kitchen of the Scriptorium, and in the evenings we might have dinner out at a pub, or sit down to one of Mabel’s beautifully cooked meals at the big house.

The feeling of these visits was never rushed; I really can say I had the privilege of entering into the ongoing life of the Scriptorium.


4) For those who don't realize how immense and complicated the Saint John's Bible project was, what would you say was one or two of the biggest obstacles Donald Jackson and his team had to overcome?

Now that’s a hard question.

It took well over a decade to complete the manuscript of The Saint John’s Bible. Donald had to assemble teams of scribes and artist to collaborate with him. All the money—and it was serious money—had to be raised for the project. And while the manuscript volumes were being made, an ambitious program of exhibitions and promotional tours was taking place. In addition, once the full-sized printed facsimile, the Heritage Edition, went into production, the project became vastly more complex. All the while, Donald and his counterparts at Saint John’s had to figure out how they planned to work together. It was long learning process for both sides of the negotiation between the artist and his client.

But I will hazard a guess that one of the most challenging aspects of the project arose from the choice of the actual text. The contract specified that Saint John’s would chose which translation was to be used. When they opted for the New Revised Standard Edition (the Catholic edition), they locked in some very specific challenges for Donald. The NRSV has extremely detailed guidelines for how the text may be used. For example, there are four levels of text indentation that have to respected, and the chapter and verse numbers are set up according to a complex formula. As a result, every page had to be set up first on a computer, proofread and approved, and then given to the scribes to write. This not only limited Donald’s freedom to format the text, but introduced a massive logistical issue in coordinating different stages of design and execution with proofreading and computer layout.

The other greatest important challenge, I think, was the simple fear involved for Donald in making what had to be his masterpiece. This project is the culmination of his whole career—the biggest, most sustained project he has ever done. And to take on something as weighted with tradition as the Bible and make something fresh and new and worthy is an enormous, frightening challenge.

One of the things I admire most about what Donald produced is that the Bible looks very much of our own period—it is not an antiquarian exercise. It draws from tradition in many key ways, but this is a contemporary response to the biblical text.


5). Which of the various technical aspects of the project impressed you the most and why?  (Like vellum preparation or making ink or creation of rough drafts...)

Donald is a master with using gold and working on vellum, so of course those aspects were fascinating to see. But the one thing that impressed me the most was the way he created a team of scribes with a unified style.

Most calligraphers today work alone, and so they develop their own personal styles. And calligraphers aren’t used to working like gig musicians, picking up on the riffs of other artists and playing in sync. It’s just not the way the world of modern calligraphy works.

If you go back to the big scriptoria of the Middle Ages, however, you had whole trams of scribes working in a house style. We can look at medieval manuscripts and detect personal characteristics of individual scribes, but we can also see that all the scribes working on a project had a common ethos or way of writing. It’s a very subtle thing—on one hand, there is plenty of personality in those scripts, while on the other hand, their communal effort holds together as a unity.

So the most remarkable aspect of the project—for me—is that Donald assembled a group of contemporary calligraphers and recreated that unifying feel, while not extinguishing the unique personality of each scribe. I don’t think anyone but Donald could have pulled that off. He’s so deeply embedded in the tradition that he understood how to get the group to coalesce into a team.

One of the striking things about his method was that he refused to give them an exemplar—a standard sheet showing the Bible Script. Instead, he talked and demonstrated and the team spent hours writing together to get a feel for the script. As the writing continued, the scribes would gather at intervals in Wales and they would compare their writing. Inevitably, when they were each writing alone at home, their styles would slightly diverge. But by gathering every few months, they would come back into sync with one another.

That’s something really unique about this project.

I contrast that with another 20th century project—the series of Royal Air Force memorial books in St Clement Danes church in London. Those were written in the 1950s, I think—maybe 1960s. The artistic director of that project set a pattern for the scribes to follow, and each book was handed to a separate calligrapher, who worked alone on his or her volume. That project, as fine as it, doesn’t have that unitary flavor that Donald achieved in The Saint John’s Bible.


6) Liturgical Press recently published the second edition of your book "Illuminating the Word: The Making of the Saint John's Bible".  Of all the books concerning the Saint John's Bible it is easily my favorite.  Although it is in the form of a "coffee table" book, I read it so often that it rarely sits on my coffee table, so I hesitate even calling it that.  Could you talk a bit about what the process was working on this book?  What is unique to the second edition?

Of the books I’ve written, this one is very special to me.

There’s a real pressure when you have an institutional client—like a monastery or a university—to write an “official” history of a project like this. It’s simply in the nature of human institutions. You end up having to interview the provost and the dean, each of whom say something pleasant about the project. It’s easy to end up with a lot of platitudes that aren’t very interesting to read.

I was determined when I began writing the chapters that became Illuminating the Word that I wanted to tell a good story, and give people the feeling of being there in the moment. I took a risk by writing it in the first person, because the book is not about me. But that seemed the best way to capture the immediacy of the scenes I was describing.

Although the chapters in the first book were written to specific themes such as the layout of the pages or the search for the proper writing surface, I chose to treat them in a narrative fashion. So in effect, I take the reader on a journey to visit the project and discover it alongside me. I think that’s why a lot of people have reacted positively to the book. It’s not dry. It’s a good story.

The first book was published to coincide with the first exhibition of the Bible at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 2005. At that point, Donald had completed only three of the seven volumes of the manuscript, so my book detailed the making of Gospels and Acts and the Pentateuch and ended with the Psalms volume. We knew that once had finished all seven volumes we would probably need to do a second edition and bring the story to its close.

The second edition preserves most of the chapters of the first one. We made as few changes in those as possible.

We then added a whole new section that told the story of each volume in a step-by-step fashion, detailing which artists and scribes joined the project at each stage, how the layout and design of the volumes developed, and recounting some of the difficulties and challenges that arose along the way.

The third part of the new edition looks at specific aspects of the production of The Saint John’s Bible. Tim Ternes, the current director of the Bible project, has a lot of experience talking to visitors who come to Saint John’s and to the exhibitions, and he knew what kinds of questions people asked. As a result, we added a very technical chapter on the scripts of the Bible, geared toward accomplished calligraphers, and explaining the characteristics of the various scripts in the book. We also added a chapter on how the pages were prepared for exhibition and stored. And we added a full chapter with interviews with each artist and scribe who participated in the project.

Probably one of the most important new chapters is the one that describes the printing of the full-size facsimile Heritage Edition. I have to say here that I can be kind of old-school sometimes, and I always thought that the manuscript was the main thing. People are so used to printed books that they assume the point of a project like this is to produce an edition. But I feel quite strongly the manuscript is the original artwork, and any printed edition is essentially something else. So it was always clear to me that such offshoots of the project like the reduced-size “trade edition” facsimiles were wonderful in their own right, but quite secondary to the main project, which was to produce a manuscript.

The Heritage Edition really changed the game. It was produced at the full size of the original, and it was lavishly printed and bound. Eventually, it became a project of its own, and Donald split his time between finishing the manuscript and working with the printers and other skilled craftspeople to produce a really exquisite printed version of the manuscript. Now we can really say that The Saint John’s Bible exists both as an original manuscript and as a full-size printed edition.

That change in the nature of the project was very important to capture, which is why we added a separate chapter to describe it.

Altogether, the second edition gives a really comprehensive account of how The Saint John’s Bible was made.


7) Finally, do you have a favorite illumination or text treatment from the Saint John's Bible?  Why?

Oh man. It’s very hard to choose.

Of the illuminations, the one that consistently sticks my mind is the image of Wisdom from the Wisdom of Solomon. Donald rendered her as an old, wise woman, who looks directly at the viewer. The background is metal leaf in two tones, so the effect is like that of a mirror, as though one is both seeing the figure of divine Wisdom and looking at oneself at the same time. I love the fact that the face is rendered in a somewhat photographic manner, although without color and half-tones.

In that illumination I think Donald really succeeded in creating a brand-new image that has an iconic quality. It’s not like anything in the long history of Christian art, yet it also has the distilled quality of devotional imagery.

I also appreciate the fact that that illumination reflects a theological interest in mining the Bible for images of the feminine. The Bible is clearly the product of patriarchal societies, and reflects the values of those societies. In our time, many Christians have wanted to redress the balance and find messages and images that celebrate women and their role within the communities of faith, as well as seeking to move away from purely masculine understandings of the divine.

In the end, however, I like that image simply because it sticks in my mind, and that’s a mark of an effective work of art.

But I should close with this—whenever I spend time looking at The Saint John’s Bible, I almost always look carefully at the large blocks of capitals that make up the beginning of some of the books. Genesis 1 is a perfect example. Those massed caps are incredibly subtle. Donald uses his quill to make shapes that often depart from the purely classical forms of traditional scripts. Those caps show how deeply he understands the way our letters function, and he has no need to be consistent with his letterforms. In fact, he plays with them, pushing and distorting them in incredibly sophisticated ways. It’s looking at those caps that really sends the shiver down my spine.

3 comments:

Michael Demers said...

Interesting and impressive. I also noticed that "The NRSV has extremely detailed guidelines for how the text may be used". Could this be the main reason why it was abandoned for the English language lectionary outside of the U.S.?

John Podgorney said...

Thanks for the great fascinating look inside this great masterpiece and the painstaking work of everyone involved.

Max said...

Gotta admit, after reading this I went and ordered the first edition of Illuminating the Word for $7.50 used on Amazon. :D Hopefully, it's not much different from the second edition, because it sure cost a lot less. :)