After completing my 2 years in commercial printing, I moved to Gloucester in the UK to study full-time Graphic Design. I have had a love of letterforms for most of my life, mostly down to a family friend who is a calligrapher and stone cutter and through growing up in the leading area of the Arts & Crafts Movement. Alex O’Sullivan is more than just any calligrapher; he is a 2nd generation calligrapher. This means he stems from the father of modern calligraphy, Edward Johnson. Johnson taught Eric Gill the famous typeface designer and sculptor, who then taught Alex O’Sullivan. Alex lived and worked in his studio near our home.
We spent many of our summer evenings in the Sullivan’s typical English/Irish cottage garden with him and his wife sharing wine with my parents. For me it was a magical place filled with the smells of drying petals and the sounds of the spring running through the flowers and tree lined banks. I loved the curios within the studio at the end of the garden, all sorts of interesting brushes, pens and inks would be on the work tables. The walls were lined with chisels and blades of his stone cutting and an ancient stone wheel was outside partially lost in irises for sharpening the tools. From this early age I imagined my adult life would have such a leafy studio hideaway.
Somewhere around the age of 13 or 14, my mother horrified at the state of my handwriting, sent me to Alex for some calligraphy classes. My handwriting remained bad to terrifying, but I did learn to appreciate the beauty of letters and just as important, letter spacing. I used my new skill to enter poetry and art competitions in one of the local villages and amazingly won prizes. Rather amusing when I still had such a horrific scrawl for my school book work. I wonder if that makes me a 3rd generation calligrapher to Edward Johnson? Hmmm, I never thought about that, I have a pedigree!
Jumping forward 4 years to my Graphic Design course again! In the UK, it is possible to take courses that concentrate on a given subject, without core requirements outside of the subject area. Everyone studying that subject take the same set of classes from 9-4 every day (with a lunch break) for the 2 years. As a group we got to know each other pretty well and lived the ups and downs like an ongoing soap opera.
Subjects covered were elements and fundamentals of design, communications, black & white photography, illustration, print media, relief & screen printmaking, drawing and life drawing, typography and computer graphics. There were probably more subjects, but I forget! The second year was mostly project based where we designed as though for clients. It was a tough course, everything was so tight, even letters as small as 9pt had to be hand rendered for text. Critiques were rough too; the lecturers really pounded everything to make sure we could back up our designs with the appropriate bullshit.
I completed the course, but I can’t say I was an outstanding student. After being a commercial printer, I had thought the course would be a means to make art while being paid a salary. I found the boundaries of design constricting and dulled my spirit. The precision involved was tiring and frustrating and once I started work I realized how important it is to produce someone else’s dream and not my own in that line of work.
Computers gradually became the main system of working and drawing boards became something to display the finish design work rather than a work tool. I burned out totally and hated the fact I had to sit at a computer day after day.
So I quit…