A Conversation with American Artist & Calligrapher Pamela Paulsrud

Today we head back up to North America, to speak with faculty member Pamela Paulsrud. A visual artist, papermaker and calligrapher, Pamela has an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Columbia College and has also done intensive studies in the healing arts (such as healing touch, reiki and energy work). Her artwork has been featured in numerous juried exhibitions, as well as publications such as Letter Arts Review and Bound & Lettered. She is the co-creator of Treewhispers, an ongoing collaborative project that recently partnered with Greenpeace. Read on to learn more about Pamela’s childhood in rural Illinois, her journey in the visual arts and more about her Rendez-vous course, Sounding the Inner Landscape.

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Where did you grow up and what first sparked your interest in lettering?

I grew up in a small rural community in northwest Iowa. It was a great place to be a kid, really! Granted, it was limiting in regard to a formal art education with historical underpinnings or an art scene. However, it was rich in freedom and creativity in that it offered me time to spend exploring the surrounding fields and climbing trees. I’d lay in the grass late at night peering out into the Milky Way while counting falling stars and just being. I realize now those experiences and observations fostered my connectedness to nature and unwittingly introduced me to the patterns of sacred geometry and the transcendence of time.

As an observer of handwriting, my interest in letters goes back as far as I can remember. I’ve always been keenly aware of the personality, energy, and magic that it holds. As soon as I learned to print, I taught myself script.

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What is the first hand that you learned, and which hands resonate with you most today and why?

I am so very grateful to Judith Chambliss, the co-founder of the Chicago Calligraphy Collective. She was my first instructor and taught me the Foundational hand which was a perfect starting point for me. Italic is the hand that resonates with me the most because of its beautiful branching, versatility and seemingly effortless flow.

While handwriting isn’t a “hand” per se, it continues to pique my interest. I see it as a visual language emanating from our thoughts and emotions, a remnant of a process. Each line, each stroke, is distinguished by the materials, the mood, the day, the rhythm, the breath—a visual language within a language, a cross between a fingerprint and an EKG, telling not only who we are but also how we are in that moment of time. My interest lies not only with line and space but heartbeat, breath, and vibration—that energetic quality which seems so elusive.

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Which teachers have made the deepest impact on you and your work and why?

Whew, that’s a loaded question! Through the years I’ve had so many teachers, and have gleaned so many gifts from each of them. To name a few—Reggie Ezell’s year-long class unfolded a structured format requiring dedicated commitment and practice; Peter Fraterdeus led me to Sacred Geometry and opened my eyes to the “positivity” of negative space; Thomas Ingmire awakened poetry and the auditory response; David Meckelberg’s rainbows of lively letterforms made me leap for joy; Rosie Kelly colored and co-piloted my world; Yves Leterme taught my pen new dance steps; Carl Rohrs’ masterful command of the brush wooed me; Mike Gold reminded me to play like the Masters; Brody Neuenschwander never failed to amaze me with the depth of his knowledge integrated with the profound application of his skill; and Laurie Doctor, well, she fed my soul. We’re blessed to have a such a rich calligraphic culture and my list goes on!

An epiphany that stands out for me happened while studying with Kazuaki Tanahashi. This was early in my calligraphic career at a five-day retreat at The Clearing in Northern Wisconsin. My daughters were very young at the time and quite frankly I don’t even remember how I arranged the get-away. Thomas Ingmire and Kazuaki Tanahashi were teaching—each independently, Kaz in the morning, Thomas in the afternoon. This was pre-internet for me so quite honestly I had little knowledge about Kaz or his work. It was the work of Thomas that had lured me there.

I took note when Kaz arrived regally in his kimono— quietly, mindfully approaching the day, the class, his instruction. Following his introduction, he took the Sumi dipped brush and with a breath and a smile he created one stroke. One stroke. Now, I will have to admit this whole workshop was a shift from the hectic, busy lifestyle I knew as a young mom pressed for every moment to be both present and productive—but one stroke? One stroke!

It truly wasn’t until the third day of the workshop that I finally settled into the gentle flow. I arrived at my table, arranged my materials, meditated—preparing yet again for “one stroke”. I loaded my brush with the rich black Sumi. A breath. Then—it’s hard to explain but I suddenly felt as if my essence merged with the ink as it flowed from the brush onto and into the porous fibers of the paper. Something happened in that moment of time—it took my breath away. It touched my soul. I am forever touched and humbled by Kaz’s grace, his presence, his art and life’s work, his humor and kindness.

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Where do you create, and how have you organized your workspace? What is your best time of day, and how do you incorporate music into your process?

I work with a variety of materials and media so where I’m working is dependent upon the project. My drawing table has migrated from my first studio space in the basement. It was delightfully quiet but rather dark. One New Year’s Eve a dear friend suggested to bring the table up to my living room—as an empty nester, why not? In front of the picture window I had good light and from there I could watch the neighbor’s kids build snow forts. My drawing table now resides in a newly constructed room full of light dedicated to my art (and as it turns out, bird watching).

The garage, driveway, and back yard has always been and still is studio space, accommodating working room for papermaking with buckets of pulp, molds, and deckles, as well as power tools used in my work.

Working late in the night when there were fewer distractions was my preference when I first started calligraphy but I’m finding earlier parts of the day seducing me, especially in the winter when the light is so precious.

Music often accompanies me depending on the project, mood and the day. Silence is nice too, allowing for bird songs. I’m aware of the vibrational aspect of sound and its impact, so I do want to be mindful of that.

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What are three of the most essential tools for your calligraphy practice and why?

The brush. It’s a creative dance partner.

Pencils, hard, soft and especially water-soluble pencils. Perhaps because it’s one of the first tools we use as a translator of thoughts. I like the sound it makes when writing on a hard surface, the complexity or variation of line it creates, and I enjoy the interplay with water and water-soluble graphite.

The compass has been a wonderful adjunct to the more abstract work that I do.

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What has been one of your most meaningful commissions or projects? What made this project particularly special, challenging or rewarding?

The most meaningful project that I've undertaken thus far is Treewhispers—an ongoing, international collaboration awakening our heartfelt connection to trees.

The genesis of this project stems from my love, admiration, connection and deep respect for trees—and a bike ride. It intertwines so many of the aspects that I cherish—calligraphy, art, poetry, stories, handmade paper, collaboration, connections—all inspired of course by trees. My gratitude extends to the calligraphic community playing a vital role in the growth of the project, embracing and furthering the outreach.

The project has had many manifestations and still continues to inspire and amaze me. It was a surprise when an e-mail from Greenpeace arrived in my inbox inviting Treewhispers to partner in their campaign Voices are Vital. This campaign was to raise awareness about a company with controversial logging operations suing Greenpeace to silence their efforts. This company is a big supplier of paper for publishers, so the venue was staged to target authors, publishers, and the general public at the 2017 International Book Expo in the Javitz Center, New York City.

Kat Clark, my main contact with Greenpeace, was a dedicated professional as was every team member in the organization with whom I met and worked. Her vision of integrating the art installation in a functional space for critical dialog was brilliant. To have this project be a voice in their mission and to stand along such dedicated stewards of the land was truly an honor. Voices are vital!

The challenges in this particular case included the logistics of getting the work there in a timely and affordable way, and installing and uninstalling within the parameters of the convention center’s guidelines. The project is ongoing, so stay tuned!

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You will be teaching a course entitled “Sounding The Inner Landscape“ at Rendez-vous. What knowledge and skills will students gain from this experience and how would you describe your style of teaching?

The geometry of nature fascinates me and I hope to share that wonder as we wend our way through a step by step exploration of structure, design, geometry, and patterns evolving in nature. The compass is an exciting exploratory tool full of surprises (no prior use or knowledge of this tool is needed or required—we start at the very beginning) and will initiate the journey creating a springboard for creative exploration and expression.

We’ll also be examining handwriting, mark-making and integrating color and it is my hope that we can let go of the familiar long enough to greet the unexpected.

I feel that we’re all an integral part of the creative circle.

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How would you describe the calligraphy community in Illinois? What does community mean to you, in the context of the lettering arts?

I’m most familiar with the Chicago Calligraphy Collective and the regional study groups.The CCC, a mighty team of volunteers, has provided a vast array of opportunities for study with local, national and international instructors. A monthly newsletter connects and informs the community with a plethora of information, social events as well as opportunities for exhibition both juried and non-juried.

Friendships and inspiration from the calligraphic communities are longstanding and deeply celebrated.

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Outside of calligraphy, what are some of your other interests and hobbies? What might be something about you that people would be surprised to learn?

I would have to say my grandbabies are at the top heap of my interests. They remind me of what’s real in life—the beauty of the moment, laughter, and play.

Last year I started raising monarch butterflies which instilled in me the wonder and miracles of metamorphosis.

People might be surprised to know my first degree was a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. My interests have always fluctuated between art and healing. I worked several years in a small Iowa hospital until my husband and I moved to the Chicago area and started a family. I went back to school in graphic design at Loyola University a few years later. A career change into graphics unveiled type design fostering my love of letters. Who wouldn’t be intrigued by kerning, counters, bowls, and serifs? Wanting to take my studies further and integrate this knowledge into my hands, I sought someone to teach me the art of making letters—calligraphy. Little did I realize the vast portal I had just stepped through.

Pamela Paulsrud

United States
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