Professional Calligrapher Margaret Shepherd Won’t Let Calligraphy Die

Posted inDesign Books

One of my first jobs post-college was working at a stationery store in Los Angeles called Shorthand. On the job, I was surrounded by all manner of writing instruments, from fountain pens and Blackwing  pencils to inky rollerballs and brush pens. I’d spend lulls between rushes doodling on test pads, like an ice cream parlor employee sampling the flavors, and found myself sucked into the world of cursive, brush lettering, and calligraphy. Even though cursive is waning out of favor—a topic recently covered for PRINT by Chloe Gordon—I remain decisively on team script. 

Calligraphy has always enthralled me, but until working at Shorthand, I had merely been a passive admirer. I leaped to invest in my own nibs and inks and fell down many a calligraphic rabbit hole on Instagram. While online art-making resources are wonderful, there’s still nothing quite like an actual instructional book you can keep on your shelf as a resource. Professional calligrapher, author, and educator Margaret Shepherd understands this all too well as the author of 20 titles geared toward teaching calligraphy.

Shepherd has been a professional calligrapher for 55 years, with her work currently housed at the Smithsonian Museum and the Rare Books Department of the Boston Public Library. She’s conducted freelance work for colleges and law firms and has taught workshops and given calligraphy demonstrations around the world. Her latest book focuses on the history and depiction of American calligraphy, specifically, aptly titled Learn American Calligraphy. The book takes readers on a visual trip around the United States, learning how to calligraph in multiple styles along the way.

As a somewhat novice calligrapher, I reached out to Shepherd to learn more about her love of the art form and what her new book offers. Her responses are below!

(Conversation has been edited for length and clarity).

Keep on Truckin’; R Crumb invokes both Cooper type and graffiti letters.

It’s a lofty question, but why do you love calligraphy so much? What is it about the art form that compels you to dedicate so much of your life to it?  

It’s a good question. Basically, I flunked the transition from simple “manuscript” letters we learned in first grade to loopy, arbitrary “cursive” script that was forced on us in third grade. I ended up with terrible handwriting—a sort of hurried printing—until ten years later when a friend gave me an Italic pen. This opened up a whole new world; the problem wasn’t me; it was the limitations of cursive script. I gather that calligraphy offers a second chance to all those Americans who couldn’t learn script or were never taught—and there are many of us!  

I was lucky to have the right teacher (Norberto Chiesa, a former student of Paul Standard) at the right time (my early twenties) and in the right place (Sarah Lawrence College). The course in calligraphy was only offered once. Two students took it. We spent months on the Roman capitals, starting with weeks learning the letter O.

I’m convinced that calligraphy is just intrinsically appealing to everyone, from non-specialists to hobbyists and professionals, because it engages both sides of the brain.

I noticed that after every campus event, people saved the name tags I’d lettered and posted them on their dorm room doors. I’m convinced that calligraphy is just intrinsically appealing to everyone, from non-specialists to hobbyists and professionals, because it engages both sides of the brain. Scientists have determined that one side reads the words, and the other side sees the abstract shapes. Put them together and it creates a rich, satisfying experience for both writer and reader.

I love calligraphy because it lets me spend my days turning wonderful texts into visual art.  

More is More graffiti logo Simple words from a record company.

Do you feel a responsibility to help keep calligraphy alive in our hyper-digital world? Why is it  important to keep teaching calligraphy? 

For decades, whenever I mentioned my profession, people would automatically comment, “Oh, that’s a dying art!” or some other off-the-wall comment. When I began teaching high-school art teachers, I found that the low profile of calligraphy meant that very few how-to-do-it books were available. So, I turned my teaching materials into a basic textbook, the first of 20 books I’ve written about aspects of the field. That book, Learn Calligraphy, is still in print, introducing beginners to the basics. 

That’s how calligraphy will continue to survive and thrive— by joining the culture in every country where it takes root.  

But calligraphy has changed in the 50 years since I thought I had summed it all up; America has finally declared its independence from Old World alphabet styles. The definition of calligraphy got bigger, stretchier, and livelier. Now, any survey must acknowledge the influence of sign painting, graffiti writing, Native American images, folk art, protest placards, penmanship instruction, cattle brands, and even the letters imagined by retro-futurists. My new book, Learn American Calligraphy, celebrates the New World’s stylistic independence from the Old World. That’s how calligraphy will continue to survive and thrive— by joining the culture in every country where it takes root. 

Postscript: I’m doing my part to resist the hyper-digital world, by being pretty inept at its processes.  

Robert Streeten 1803 quilt. A virtuoso quilt is pieced from hexagons.

What do you hope readers take away from Learn American Calligraphy? What sort of  experience do you hope they have engaging with the book?  

I hope readers can enjoy learning about the rich variety of alphabet styles invented here or modified to suit American purposes. Readers can appreciate the letters around them and understand why they look the way they do long before they pick up a pen. Even beginners don’t have to limit themselves to historic calligraphy from Europe and England centuries ago. 

After waiting decades for someone else to write a book about American calligraphy, I have put together my own introduction. With every alphabet I included, I asked myself, “What makes it American?” and “What makes it calligraphy?” Each alphabet offers a back story, an explanation of how it relates to other American arts and simple instructions for how to write it. Readers will learn what, how, who, and most of all, why American calligraphy matters. I hope they will feel like Michael Sull, one of the early reviewers, whose review started out, “Finally!”