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You're a what? Calligrapher.

Rose Folsom writes for a living. She doesn't write books or magazine articles or news stories like the ones most writers whip out at the computer keyboard. Rose simply writes. She is a calligrapher, and what she writes matters less than how she writes: beautifully.

With the most precise yet fluid strokes of an inked pen, she has created everything from place cards for the King of Spain to company logos and Christmas cards. Professional calligraphers like Rose prepare award certificates, wedding invitations, invitations for formal dinners, and similar items for clients who need something more personal than what is available from commercial printers. On the walls of her studio hang the calligraphy of her colleagues and some of her own work. The word calligraphy comes from the Greek words meaning "beautiful writing." One can see why.

Rose explains that the way she learned to write beautifully differed slightly from the norm. She waited longer than usual before taking formal instruction. "I just had one lesson from a friend of mine, only the most basic things. And then I went for a year with nothing -- just several hours of practice a day."

In June of 1973, she got her first job doing calligraphic work at the State Department in Washington, DC, writing names on place cards and Presidential certificates of appointment. The job gave her the chance to practice and learn more, but it didn't make her a wealthy woman. "I was making $3 an hour," she laughs, "and I quit because they wouldn't give me $3.50." In mid-1974, she was hired at a private studio, Tolley Calligraphy. Her new boss's father had served as White House calligrapher from the Wilson through the Eisenhower Administrations. It was a good environment in which to expand her skills. And so she did.

For the next year and a half, Rose Folsom progressed through an intense learning experience. At Tolley, she honed her craft at the commercial drawing board and learned how to turn out a high volume of work quickly. "It's pretty daunting," she remembers, "to know you have 800 certificates to fill in the names on. At a commercial studio, you get used to sitting down for hours working at the same job. But as long as you keep asking yourself, 'How can I make my writing better on this next certificate?' you can keep going. Constantly striving for improvement is the carrot that keeps you going."

Rose began her formal study of calligraphy while she worked at Tolley. She went to class every Saturday and studied under the guidance of Sheila Waters, one of the best in the business. "We started with Roman times and moved up to the present, so I learned the historical scripts chronologically. And then we spent 6 months on layout. Because I studied with her while I was working at the studio, I learned the artistic point of view and the commercial point of view in that same year and a half. It was a very concentrated 18 months."

In December of 1975, Rose left Tolley and plunged into business for herself. What does it take to make a go of it on your own as a calligrapher? Rose's answer comes quickly: "Fire in the belly. You have to want it really badly."

Building a successful calligraphy studio means hitting the pavement in search of clients. "For the first 3 years I was in business, I regularly took my portfolio and walked to government agencies and the associations and the lobbying organizations. I used to get out the phone book and find all the organizations I could, group them geographically, and go see six a day or something. I only earned $95 in my first month, but everybody was always interested in looking at my work. I'm always grateful I'm not a photographer or something where there are millions of them. Because people don't get to see a lot of calligraphy, they were always interested to see my samples. I think a major milestone was when I became too busy to go out and look for work. That's been the last 15 years or so."

Not very many of Rose's clients are private businesses because, as she points out, few large companies are based in Washington. "Of course, if you were in Chicago or New York or Los Angeles, they would be your clients. If I were in New York, I would have hit all the big companies because they have the budget."

For Rose, all the work was well worth its reward. "When I was starting out," she explains, "everything was new. I was so thrilled anytime anyone wanted my work. I still am."

Her success has also resulted from an ability to understand what clients want and to deliver exactly that. "People are most concerned about your interest in meeting their deadlines and doing what they want you to do. So honestly, the quality of the work, although it's terribly important to me--it always has been and really has to be very important--is actually secondary to meeting deadlines and being easy to work with."

The kinds of work that clients request vary. Rose often prepares invitations and envelopes for dinners or receptions, usually for hundreds of people. She also finds that Federal agencies and nonprofit organizations in the area come to her for a lot of special employee certificates and awards. Company logos and other more artistic work round out her practice.

What is her state of mind when involved with her work? "Totally absorbed, because you have to concentrate on the letters. It's really more complicated than you might think. It sounds funny, but a pen has two sides and you have to pay attention to putting even pressure on both and to keeping the rhythm and flow of your hand steady to make sure the writing looks even. You have to pay attention--maybe unconsciously--to your breathing to make sure there are no hiccups in your writing. I think it is very much like mediation, because you're focused completely on one thing and everything else disappears." In fact, Rose practices an art that has been used for centuries in Zen to discipline one's powers of concentration.

There are times of stress in this line of work, however. Deadlines always loom. "We calligraphers often get 36 hours to turn out something that is supposed to look like it took days on end to finish." Deadlines aside, Rose does enjoy the flexible schedule her work allows. She can meet those deadlines working bankers' hours or in the wee hours of the morning. And nothing can compare with the satisfaction she feels in seeing a tangible result of her efforts, a result that people truly appreciate and take interest in.

The question people most often ask Rose about her work is, "What happens when you make a mistake on the last word of the page?" Answer one: The mark of a good calligrapher is knowing how to fix mistakes. Answer two: The electric eraser, a small device that buzzes the offending spot of ink right off the page.

Becoming a calligrapher takes a lot of individual initiative. As Rose observes, "There is no place I know of in America where you can show up and get a comprehensive education in calligraphy." Rose advises people who want to pursue calligraphy to take continuing education courses on the craft at a local college. She emphasizes the importance of finding good teachers and buying firstrate books on the subject. Also crucial is joining one of the large calligraphy guilds, such as the ones in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, as well as a small, local guild if one is available. The guilds, with their meetings and newsletters, provide excellent information on classes, instructors, exhibits, and calligraphic books.

With a lot of practice, a person with talent can expect to try out commercial work after a year of study. It normally takes about 5 years to establish oneself as a professional and 10 years to become really good. At the entry level, an aspiring calligrapher might earn about $15,500 to $17,500 a year at a commercial studio. A journey-level professional might have a salary of around $27,000 to $31,000. Experience working in a private studio can familiarize beginners with the commercial aspects of calligraphy, including the pricing of work, which is the key to starting one's own business.

Calligraphy is a time-honored craft, but how does it fit into the technologically advanced state of life in the late 20th century? Rose thinks that people continue to value calligraphy because it preserves the human touch. Although she does not use a computer in her own work, she notes that some calligraphic designers do create company logos on the video screen. "Computers have been good to us," she says, "because they've taken away some of the drudgery work so that we can be more artistic. Computers have let us reach higher."

There is a down side for Rose, though. "I've lost some big jobs to computers. Machines can take a pen and write, but the quality can't compare. And they're not cheap. I actually had to raise my prices when I found out what the machines were charging. Computers may come close, but they'll never really replace pen, ink, paper, and a learned hand."

According to Rose, "Just in the last 20 years, calligraphy as an art has bloomed." More and more people are enrolling in classes and taking up the pen. Perhaps this shows better than anything how people still crave that essential human quality that goes into making beautiful writing.

Although calligraphy is both a craft and an art, most consider it a craft first because of its practical uses. After mastering the craft, Rose began to explore the artistic side further. "In 1986, I started to try to find a way to make calligraphy be art." Her experiments are called calligraphic painting. This work differs from the very artistic decoration found in the calligraphy of the Orient and in Arabic countries. Her paintings let the words themselves be the art, whereas decoration tends to supplement words in the Asian and Middle Eastern traditions.

"Every painting is words, though most people don't seem to think they're words because you can't read them all." Rose has had two shows featuring her calligraphic paintings, one in 1988 and another in 1989. She received very favorable reviews from the critics. "To me that was real validation. I had done the thing I had set out to do."

More recently, Rose Folsom curated an exhibition called "Calligraphic Artists' Books" at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She has also written and published The Calligraphers' Dictionary, a highly respected reference work for both beginning and experienced calligraphers.

Her sage advice for beginners: "Practice. Practice with the best models you can find. The solitary hours at the drawing board make one a calligrapher. And you can start with a drawing board on the kitchen table. Who knows? If your writing's good..."
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Author:Mariani, Matthew J.
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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