A Conversation With American Calligrapher Annie Cicale

No stranger to the international conference scene, Annie Cicale has been teaching calligraphy since 1983 and was the director of A Show of Hands in 2016. She is the author of The Art & Craft of Hand Lettering and her work has been featured in Letter Arts Review, The Speedball Handbook and Bound & Lettered. She creates beautiful artist’s books, which are part of public and private collections, including several notable libraries such as the Beinecke Library at Yale University. Based in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Annie will teach two classes at Rendez-vous: Romans You Can Cope With and History and Geometry in Medieval Scripts. Read on to learn about Annie’s journey in the lettering arts, the teachers who have impacted her work and how she approaches book design.

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

I grew up in Bozeman, Montana. In second grade, we learned “real writing” (a cursive hand), and I always loved writing assignments from then on. My high school art teacher covered a very little bit of lettering, and mostly encouraged experimentation rather than discipline. I copied the lettering from the Beatles Rubber Soul and Santana’s albums and messed around with geometrical forms.

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In your book, you write of receiving a fountain pen from your brother on your 18th birthday. What was the first hand you went on to learn, and who are the teachers that have made a lasting impact on your work?

With my new Osmiroid pen, I tried to take notes in classes, but reverted to pencil and ball points as the notes were more important than fine lettering. So mostly I doodled with that wonderful pen.

Even in art school, lettering was taught without much focus. My first favorite script was a Rotunda, a nice blackletter script with rounder o’s. I met Denys Taipale, and then immediately took classes from Father Edward Catich and Sheila Waters, I realized then that the disciplined side of letterforms was important for clear communication and for a unique beauty that I had also found in life drawing classes. For a few years I took every workshop I could and spent two summer sessions with Hermann Zapf at RIT. The combination of the creative experimentation from art school and the discipline of these teachers opened a wide spectrum of possibilities for me. Then there were others: Thomas Ingmire, Dick Beasley and Leanna Fay were only a few of the many who helped me see what my wonderful high school art teacher was getting at.

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What is the first conference that you attended and what did you gain from the experience?

Living in Montana, we knew we had to either bring teachers in or go elsewhere to learn from the best. I did both. Of all the crafts I have learned, I have found that direct contact with a lettering instructor is the shortest way to really learn about letters. I attended the second conference in Philadelphia [in 1982] and realized that not only were there terrific teachers at the conferences but that they would teach me at my level, as I was very new to this. In addition, I met wonderful people who were strangely as passionate about lettering as I am, and many have become lifelong friends.

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Where do you create, and how have you organized your work space?

I am lucky to have a nice work space—a bonus room over the garage. On one side is my computer, the other side my drafting table. In the middle are a few moveable tables which I use for teaching here and for bigger projects. My first studio was about 6 x 9’ (2 m x 3 m) so this is quite luxurious. Strangely, the largest paintings I have ever done, 2.5 x 4’, were done in that tiny studio.

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

My brain, a pencil and some sort of mark making tool.

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In addition to your calligraphy, you are also known for your artist books and have spoken about how the book format allows you to express more complex ideas. Could you share about one book that has been particularly meaningful? During the design process, which typically comes first – an image or the text?

I recently finished a book called Water is Life. It began with a giant steamroller print, about a 3.5 x 3.5’ (1 m2). With text on both sides, it has quotations about water, both ecological and spiritual, as well as haiku I have written and Japanese kanji characters pertaining to water. There has been a political and ecological thread in my work since my MFA exhibit about the exponential growth of our species, and this piece continues in that way. In some of my work, images come first, others the text. It is such an interwoven process that I can’t say directly which dominates. I never know where an idea will take me; there is no preconception of what the work will be and the journey through a complex piece is never easy but always interesting. I usually have just one of these big projects going at a time, but there are lots of little ones as well. One of my favorites is a series of books for an annual book exchange with about 8 other scribes.

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I know you are an active guild member and that you also often travel to teach. What does community mean to you, when you think about the Carolinas as well as the international lettering community?

The Carolina Letter Arts Society covers two states, both North and South Carolina. We have two workshops a year and a newsletter (I’m the editor and I love finding stories to tell our guild.) We have periodic exhibitions to showcase all our members’ work and many of us worked on A Show of Hands, the 2016 international conference. Through this group, we maintain our own skills by bringing in amazing teachers and we introduce new members to their ideas. Calligraphers are always delighted to find fellow scribes who are as excited about lettering as they are, and many friendships are made. Since we work in isolation, these gatherings allow us to share our discoveries of new ideas and new tools, and to forge relationships that just don’t happen among the soccer moms at home. The international conferences take this one step farther, with students inspiring each other as well as the teacher to master skills and try new ideas. The conferences have an energy of delight that we are from all over the world, all with a love of letters.

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What was the genesis behind the two classes that you will be teaching at Rendez-vous? What inspired you to create these classes, and how would you describe your style of teaching?

I will be teaching Romans You Can Cope With, a class inspired by my workshop with Father Catich many years ago. As much as I loved these forms, my ideas about Romans changed when I saw the work of David Mekelburg. They are thought to be hard, but I try to take the mystery out of them and help my students explore many approaches to them. The title is one I’ve come to after many years, after struggling to make my Romans look like type. In this class we work with classic principles but we make the letters more fluidly, showing the movement of the hand.

Our class on historical scripts [History and Geometry in Medieval Scripts] was inspired by many of my teachers, notably Sheila Waters, Stan Knight and Mark van Stone. By working with letters written by medieval scribes, day after day, to complete huge projects, we see letters that were written with confidence and even joy. Those scribes worked with just a few styles, but we look at them and see how we can use them to develop a number of styles that work in the 21st century.

In teaching, I present letterforms in ways that show the details, with students following along with me, making the letters on their own pages. I bring to my classes the focus from my first true lettering teachers, but also ask the students to find ways of expressing their own ideas, either through their choice of content or through inventive techniques. In these two classes we will be exploring ways to make these forms our own, to personalize the traditional forms.

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

I like to hike, and have been on a few treks, including a couple in Nepal to Everest Base Camp and in the Annapurna area. I was a ski racer, and when that passion waned, I taught skiing. I wish it snowed more here in North Carolina. When it does, I get my cross country skis out and ski the corn fields in my neighborhood.

I often mention my chemical engineering background. Though it didn’t become my profession, my training gave me a kind of discipline in the work I do, with a methodical and experimental approach to my process. And it helps me understand the properties of my materials, especially paints and paper.

One of my favorite things is to get on an airplane to see the world, whether I am travelling with my family or with calligraphic adventurers. Once I get somewhere, I become a museum maniac, and photograph a lot of signs and odd bits I see along the way.

When I’m home and not in the studio, I like to garden, read books and knit while binging on old movies and historical dramas.

Annie Cicale

United States
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