Ewan Clayton’s Entering the Curve

Clayton's "Entering the Curve" workshop was held in the Peter Cooper Suite, as known as the Clock tower.
Clayton’s “Entering the Curve” workshop was held in the Peter Cooper Suite, also known as the Clock tower.

In early June, I attended the 3-day weekend workshop Entering the curve: an introduction to five hundred years of cursive writing 1150-1650 at Cooper Union’s Type@Cooper in New York City.  Ewan Clayton, a professor of design at the University of Sunderland, UK and co-director of the International Research Centre for Calligraphy, instructed the workshop, whose attendees were a mix of seasoned and novice calligraphers with diverse academic and occupational backgrounds. Most of the calligraphy classes and workshops I’ve taken over the years have focused on technique rather than the history of calligraphy; therefore, this seminar’s historical perspective was of real interest to me.

Clayton is a great storyteller, who fascinated the class by making history come alive with his engaging stories, many of which will likely be in his soon-to-be released book, The Golden Thread: A History of Writing. One interesting thread Clayton discussed regarding calligraphic hands throughout the centuries was the ‘re-purposing’ of fast hand versions of formal hands, which were then formalized into newer and slower variations. For instance, Roman minuscules were developed from a fast hand version of Roman capitals and later formalized into carolingian. Clayton illustrated the transformation of the Roman capital ‘H’ into the lowercase ‘h’ by lettering it quickly, where each stage revealed how the upper right corner of the letter diminished.

One of the highlights of the workshop was Clayton’s demonstration and instruction on quill cutting. The quills we used were shed naturally and each student had an opportunity to cut their own quill and later practice writing cursive hands with it. The Cutting Quills segment was recorded and edited by fellow Type@Cooper faculty member Hannes Famira and can now be viewed online.

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The workshop was well balanced with plenty of time for us to practice many types of cursive hands and also discuss their historical applications. I especially enjoyed lettering Humanistic exemplars, which is a hand that has strongly influenced modern-day type design. According to Type@Cooper‘s program director and faculty member Cara Di Edwardo, who visited during the workshop, “The humanistic hand of the 15th century is the most important model for lowercase letters. Those printers who set up shop in Italy in the 15th century and the French printers of the early 16th century modeled the first Roman typefaces from the contemporary book hand, humanistic. These early designs have been revived many times in the 20th century and are prized by fine printers. In the pedagogy of typeface design, the humanistic hand is fundamental to understanding the anatomy, weight distribution, and proportion of text faces.”

Page from the Book of Hours of Giovanni II Bentivoglio, Bologna, c. 1497-1500, humanist minuscule with decorations.

Clayton’s Entering the curve workshop gave me a better understanding of the origins and development of many cursive hands. It was certainly worth the journey down to NYC from New Hampshire and I look forward to learning more about the history of writing in his upcoming book.

Ewan Clayton’s The Golden Thread: A History of Writing, published by Atlantic Books, will be available in the UK on September 5, 2013 and February 11, 2014 in the USA.

The Golden Thread

Following is the publisher’s synopsis of the publication.

The Golden Thread is an enthralling and accessible history of the cultural miracle that is the written word. It is an invention that has been used to share ideas in every field of human endeavour, and a motor of cultural, scientific and political progress.

From the simple representative shapes used to record transactions of goods and animals in ancient Egypt, to the sophisticated typographical resources available to the twenty-first-century computer user, the story of writing is the story of human civilization itself. Ewan Clayton marks each step in the historical development of writing, and explores the social and cultural impact of every stage: the invention of the alphabet; the replacement of the papyrus scroll with the codex in the late Roman period; the perfecting of printing using moveable type in the fifteenth century and the ensuing spread of literacy; the industrialization of printing during the Industrial Revolution; the impact of artistic Modernism on the written word in the early twentieth century – and of the digital switchover at the century’s close.

The Golden Thread raises issues of urgent interest for a society living in an era of unprecedented change to the tools and technologies of written communication. Chief amongst these is the fundamental question: ‘What does it mean to be literate in the world of the early twenty-first century?’ The Golden Thread belongs on the bookshelves of anyone who is inquisitive not just about the centrality of writing in the history of humanity, but also about its future.

Internationale Sommerakademie – Salzburg

I spent most of August 2012 in Hallein, Austria in Manfred Pernice‘s O Tannenbaum course at the Internationale Sommerakademie (SOAK). O Tannenbaum and several other SOAK courses were held in the historic and impressive Alte Saline building, which once processed salt that was mined locally. It was an eventful 3 weeks attending exhibition openings, lectures and Mittagsgespräche (lunch talks), meeting people from all corners of the global at the Alte Saline and at the Festung Hohensalzburg (the other SOAK location in Salzburg) and also experimenting with found and re-purposed materials for the course. In some ways we had Christmas in August in Pernice’s O Tannenbaum course. Pernice invited us to consider the Christmas tree, and the adornment of it, and how it’s transformation might inform our own sculptural project.

To get into the holiday spirit teacher’s assistants Noële Ody and Cäcilia Brown asked us to create gifts. Above is a gift I created and it was randomly received in a round of musical chairs, where everyone had a seat when the music stopped.

Before going 3-dimensional, I contemplated certain feelings, sounds and images one might experience during the holiday season by playing with words and their placement or rearrangement.

“Ein guter Gesang wischt den Staub vom herzen” – Christoph Lehmann 1576-1638 ” A good song wipes the dust from the heart”

I was fortunate to locate found objects quickly (wheel and microphone stand) at Hallein’s recycling center, that later became Outside Woman. Below is an image of Outside Woman before it became a part of the collective works on the Intimate Violence project.

Many thanks to Vesko Gösel for creating the red chaotic spiral piece pictured below, which was included in the final installation.

Final IV project exhibited at the Alte Saline, August 2012.

Not Here

Inside Woman – Floor Woman – Inside Woman

Copperplate Calligraphy

I’ll be teaching an introduction to copperplate calligraphy workshop this fall at AVA gallery in Lebanon, New Hampshire. See below for the workshop description.  For more information or to register please contact AVA directly.
Introduction to Copperplate Calligraphy workshop at AVA gallery
instructor: Laura Di Piazza
October 26–November 16
Wednesdays, 6:00–8:00pm
Four 2-hour classes
Copperplate calligraphy is a pointed pen hand developed in 17th -century England. We will work with an oblique pen holder, pointed pen nib, India ink and practice pads with grid and slant lines. Our initial focus will be on the amount of pressure applied to our pens to produce thick and thin strokes. We will begin practice with minuscules and later majuscules, which will be grouped according to similar letterforms. All materials will be supplied.

To New Beginnings

There are many admirers of new beginnings. Somehow another chance to get it right or make it better drives us in new directions or deeper into our current path(s). Seasons give us great inspiration of renewal: to sow, plow, reap and rest – the harvest of our lives.

Laura Di Piazza, It Begins With, 2011, ink on paper, 14″ x 17″

Lettering in Art

Laura Di Piazza, Shin, 2011, digital photography (raw image)

On exhibit until September 10th, The Poetry of Shadows exhibit, PhotoPlace Gallery online annex.


Laura Di Piazza, What’s it t’ ya, 2010, mixed media on paper, 8″ x 15″


Laura Di Piazza, Trance Dance, 2011, oil and mixed media on panel, 2′ x 2′





Show n’ Tell Typography

Main Street Museum‘s 1st night event:  Show n’ Tell Typography at The Center for Cartoon Studies Friday September 2, 2011, 7pm White River Junction, VT. Speakers: Molly Howard of the Center for Cartoon Studies, Interdisciplinary Artist Laura Di Piazza and designer Taylor Haynes.

Ornamental Penmanship’s golden age spanned from 1850 to 1925. This “was a unique period in American calligraphic history. Beautiful penmanship was the rule of the day, and the flexible pointed pen was king” (Sull). The Spencerian system of writing was developed by P.R. Spencer in the mid-19th century. Spencerian is considered the first American hand. It is similar to the English Copperplate hand in that they both are scripts and lettered with a pointed pen. The English Copperplate hand is circular-based and each letter consists of thick strokes (shaded) as well as hairlines and is lettered with disconnected strokes. The Spencerian hand, with it’s oval-based forms and light or absent shading in lower case letters and many hairlines throughout the alphabet, is a more fluid hand and is faster to letter.

Ornamental Penmanship by Louis Madarasz
The Declaration of Independence

Copperplate is the main lettering style in the body of the Declaration of Independence and also among the signatures. John Hancock’s signature stands out. It’s likely because he may have been the first to sign it. His name is an informal synonym for ‘signature’. National Handwriting Day is held on his birthday January 23. Hancock was not a master penman, he was however the 1st and 3rd Governor of Massachusetts and the 4th President of the Continental Congress.

Many American’s (above 30 years of age) have a connection to ornamental penmanship through the many hours spent, in elementary school, learning the Palmer Method of handwriting, which was based on the Spencerian system of writing. The Palmer Method is far less ornate and faster to write than Spencerian.

Palmer Method

The Palmer Method, developed by Austin Norman Palmer, was adopted as the standard handwriting system in public schools in the early 20th century (New York City 1905).


Promoting the Art of Ornamental Penmanship:

International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers and Teachers of Handwriting  |  Society of Scribes  |  AVA Gallery  |  Michael Sull, Master Penman  |  Masscribes  |  Association for the Calligraphic Arts  |  John Neal Bookseller  |  Paper & Ink Arts