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A Conversation with American Calligrapher Carl Rohrs

Hailing from the golden state of California, Carl Rohrs is a familiar face at international conferences and guild workshops, as he has been teaching calligraphy, lettering and graphic design since 1984. Carl notably created the logotype for Letter Arts Review and is also the editor of Alphabet, the journal of The Friends of Calligraphy. This year at Rendez-vous, he will teach a five day course “The Circle Expands – Eclectic Inspiration and Modern Calligraphy”, all about pulling inspiration from independent artists from different eras as a way to develop one’s own signature style. Read on to learn more about this class, hear about Carl’s background in sign painting and discover how a love of psychedelic letters led to a lifelong career in the lettering arts!

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

I went to grade school in Southern California and high school in Illinois. As a kid, I learned to draw from looking at Will Elder, Wally Wood and Mort Drucker in Mad magazine, the political cartoonist Paul Conrad in the LA Times and especially Rick Griffin in Surfer magazine. Conrad didn’t have much in the way of lettering in his work besides his stylized signature, but Mad magazine, and again, especially Griffin, featured lettering prominently, so even though at that point drawing people was more interesting, I’d draw names and words to go along with my cartoons, almost always.

After we moved from California, that was the end of seeing Griffin’s work for awhile. But I was one of the poster guys in school for events and class elections, because I could draw goofy block letters and 3D stuff. Then I saw an album cover that was entirely hand drawn psychedelic lettering (Quicksilver Messenger Service’s 1st) and I recognized the line work as Rick’s. It was kind of a turning point, looking back, that I could recognize him just from his cross-hatching and the way his line moved, even though it was a completely different style from the last time I’d seen his work two or three years before. Such a huge moment — I found out I had some sort of intuition or discernment or just an eye that I could trust. Looks silly written down, but a dawning self awareness was mixed in with the excitement of being galvanized by these incredible letters, drawn by someone whose work had already taught me so much. A whole new world opening up via an earlier idol who I thought I’d never hear from again. Learning the intricacies of psychedelic letters was really the big catapult that made me a lettering artist forever. This was still years before I heard the word calligraphy.

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You are known for your work as a lettering artist, graphic designer and sign painter. In which arena did your professional journey begin and how did you first establish your business?

While I was getting an art degree at Humboldt (where I was finally introduced to calligraphy), I tried my hand at sign painting in a very amateur way. There was a wonderfully exciting sign guy in the Eureka/Arcata area, Chuck Ellsworth. I tried to get a job with him but never got past the phone call, but after I graduated, I ran into him doing a fancy window with brass leaf, and asked if I could watch. He graciously explained what he was doing. What I learned that one day was equal to everything I’d learned getting my degree. Just learning about the right tools — light bulbs turning on and burning bright! Shortly after, I did my first real sign — a variegated leaf window in Gothic letters for a little cafe in Petaluma, CA. When I walked outside for my first look, I knew my life had changed. So I moved to Santa Cruz and started knocking on doors to see if a sign was needed, and built my so-called career one sign at a time. I didn’t start selling my calligraphy for several years, and graphic design was something that a sign guy can’t really avoid. Both those things were added in when the situation called for it. Calligraphy was really something that was for enjoyment for quite awhile, unless a sign job came along where it made sense.

These days, the signs coming out of my shop are much fewer and farther between. They’re too heavy! Calligraphy is by far the most important aspect of my work. I’m getting to where I feel like it’s more accurate to just describe myself as a calligrapher instead of a sign painter, or even a lettering artist.

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

I feel like anybody’s work that turns me on enough to send me to the drawing board is my teacher, but If we’re talking about a formal learning situation, like being in the same room as the teacher, still the most influential is my beginning calligraphy class at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, with Reese Bullen. Besides introducing me to the basics in a very human, natural style, he was big on telling us WHY the letters looked the way they did, so analyzing letters became a natural process ever after, perfect for learning how to be self-taught. After I got out of school, I wasn’t plugged into a situation where there were classes to be taken, so I was taught by the work I ran across that moved me enough to try it by myself. But the basics I learned from Reese enabled me to analyze what I was seeing and find out how it translated into my way of making something from it. That included drawing letters from type, or any non-calligraphic source. But, I would LOVE to stop working and teaching and start taking classes myself. One of these days!

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Where do you create, and how have you organized your work space, between calligraphy and sign painting?

Whoever accused me of being organized is a dirty liar! I do have a system, I suppose, but it certainly doesn’t look like it. I have a packed-to-rafters garage with two work tables covered with stuff that gets pushed back when I need to write, plus a computer table for some of the sign work. My painting studio is a covered deck — no more breathing paint fumes indoors. The graphic design computer is in a different part of the house and that’s where I spend most of my work time these days. It’s a little less of a mess. Flat surfaces are pile magnets in my life.

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What has been one of your most meaningful commissions or projects?

The main thing in my work these days is editing Alphabet, the journal of the Friends of Calligraphy. It gives me a legitimate way to follow my love of investigating any and all ways that letters are made. I can get lost so easily in the things that turn me on, much to the neglect of the work I’m supposed to be doing. Now it’s my job! It’s taken over my life at this late stage, and I’m loving every minute of it.

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

Horizon pens, flat & pointed brushes and a pencil.

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Would you share a little bit about the development of your class “The Circle Expands”? What inspired you to create this specific class and how would you describe your style of teaching?

The inspiration of other artists has been a part of life since my age was barely in double digits. I have been trying out the things I’ve seen and liked as long as I can remember. I could never capture what they did, but I found that the exposure and attempt at emulating them led me to my own style. And finding out about my favorite artists has always been part of that. As I became a teacher, it was only natural to share the things and people that rev my motor, so classes about eclectic inspiration are exciting to teach. As the years go by, I keep running into more and more work that just about blows the top of my head off, and it still changes my work as I study them, both the new artists I find, as well as the secrets that are still being unlocked in the work of my old inspirations — because I like to go deep — but it is amazingly gradual. It never stops! Just when you think you know the work of someone who’s been an inspiration for years and decades, some little nuance you missed before pops up and lets you know you are finally ready to understand and use it. It’s fun to gather and design pages around the work that excites me, both in the workbooks and in the Journal, then try it myself to see what it does to my writing, and put that all together and share it with the victims who sign up for the classes, and see if we can find a way to make some part of that a part of their future work. The circle expands in both those ways — the new artists I’m coming to discover for myself and the newer understanding of older favorites, and the number of new people who get exposed to that in these classes, a dozen or two at a time, who are going to spread that magic in their own way as it changes their work, too. Everything can influence everything if you let it — it’s a gigantic circle, only getting bigger. It’s why the universe is expanding — to make room for the inspiration of artists influencing each other.

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How would you describe the calligraphy community in Santa Cruz and in California in general? What does community mean to you, in the context of the lettering arts?

There is a small, very informal group of calligraphers in Santa Cruz, but more organized groups in Monterey, Seacribes, and in San Jose, Pacific Scribes. I have friends in all three, but my calligraphy family is really San Francisco’s The Friends of Calligraphy. I have been editing their journal now for 4 years (as well as a three year stint back in 1989-92), and it is a huge part of my life. The friends I have made at conferences and in the traveling I get to do as a teacher has expanded that circle beyond my dreams, with friends the world over. Add in the interaction between us all online and I feel like I have lettering buddies everywhere! The camaraderie I experience around calligraphy, lettering and sign making, daily, is the most phenomenal perk of the career in which I’ve found myself.

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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?

Music, movies and reading in the dark. Is it a surprise to hear that every Latin letter I make is influenced by psychedelic letters and Chinese and Japanese calligraphy? I hope both so and not — can’t decide.

Carl Rohrs

United States
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