A Conversation with American Calligrapher Rick Paulus

Today, we’re on the remote coast of Northern California, to speak with faculty member Rick Paulus. With over forty years of experience as a calligrapher and teacher, Rick notably served as the chief calligrapher of the White House under the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. At Rendez-vous, he will teach a class about the infinite potential of the pointed pen, as well as a layout and design class where he will share many tricks of the trade. Read on to learn more about Rick’s calligraphic journey, his tenure in Washington DC and see the invitation that he created for a dinner celebrating the White House’s 200th anniversary!

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Where did you grow up and what first sparked your interest in letters? Do you have any specific memories from a young age?

I grew up in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts, and on Cape Cod. It was my older brother's interest in letters that first attracted me to them at a very young age. I became aware of the diverse moods and styles of lettering quite early on, and purchased my first Speedball set on my tenth birthday. From that point forward, I became the go-to kid for cool book covers!

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

The first hand I attempted was Speedball's "Old English," a variation of blackletter. I am certain I failed miserably, but it sure was fun trying! The first hand I actually learned in a real sense was Foundational, under the tutelage of Sheila Waters in the Gaithersburg Barns. Today, the words I am writing usually dictate the hand I use, though I continue to admire a pure, clean Humanist hand and I fall back on that routinely to keep me honest and to strengthen my skills.

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

Oh, that is a tough one! My first teachers were my colleagues at Tolley's Studio, in Washington, DC: Diane Mahaney, Debbie Cowherd, Barbara Sweet, Anne Czapiewski, and Bill Tolley. It was Wendy Cook, who had just completed studies at Digby Stuart, Roehampton before joining Tolley's, who inspired a passion for learning, emphasized the importance of history, and introduced me to the Washington Calligraphers Guild. From there, it has been a never-ending parade of wonderful itinerant teachers over thirty-plus years.

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Where do you create, and how have you organized your workspace? What is your best time of day, and do you have any particular rituals or warm-ups before you begin?

Four years ago, my wife, Julie Guibord, and I moved to the remote coastal hills of Sonoma County. My studio occupies a room in our mountain-top house, which overlooks a small valley, a river, one dead truck, and sometimes a few cows below. I tend to be most productive early in the day, and more creative in the later hours of the day. My rituals and warm-ups vary depending upon what task lies in front of me.

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

1. Good paper (ideally, cotton with a mild tooth and somewhat soft texture).

2. A sharp pen (Mitchell for broad-edge, Leonardt Principal or Nikko G platinum for pointed pen).

3. A good medium (ground stick, Sumi Moon Palace with 10% water, gouache, or watercolor).

Without these three, each performing at their best, there's slim chance I will achieve the work I am striving to create. Do they always, all three at the same time, work at their best? It comes pretty easily after 40+ years, but often requires a bit of tweaking this and that until it's right. And when they finally do line up, it's all up to me!

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Could you share the story behind your journey to becoming the chief calligrapher at the White House?

Oh, that would take a lot of space to get to the bottom of that story. Quite simply, location and luck, luck being that place where preparation meets opportunity, location being that I lived in the Washington suburbs. I cut my teeth at the age of 22, in the legendary Tolley Studios, in Washington, DC, where I first learned such a position as White House calligrapher existed. I eventually lucked myself into the position as engrosser for the Department of State, a coveted position that only three people have held over the past forty years. In 1998, I became chief calligrapher of the White House. I remained there for eight years, serving the Clinton and Bush (W) administrations. In 2006, bigger things called and I returned to my home on Cape Cod.

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What were your primary duties and responsibilities as the chief calligrapher? What types of events did you work on, and which calligraphic hands did you utilize most? Is there a particularly memorable event or project that you could share?

In hindsight, my greatest contribution to the calligraphy office was in introducing the computer to the office, in 1998. That expanded the office responsibilities and capabilities greatly, in that much of the previously farmed-out typesetting and prepress work was brought in house, and, through the purchase of a high-end printer and binding equipment, much of the finished production was also brought in house. The calligraphy office is responsible for producing all graphics (digital, as well as hand-rendered) related to official and social entertaining by the president and the first family. This included invitations, programs, signage, booklets, branding of events, place cards, envelope addressing, photo inscriptions, book inscriptions, certificate design, illustration, and whatever else might be asked of them. It is, truly, a full-scale graphics operation, running on short deadlines, always. The office, surprisingly, has many other unique responsibilities, too many to list here but including: personally placing menus and place cards on every seat at every meal (except for private and family meals); handing out escort cards to every guest at State Dinners; inscribing certificates for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as well as many other awards; assuring the consistent and appropriate usage of titles, honorifics and forms of address from administration to administration; and so much more! It was always my approach to let the event dictate the calligraphic hand we would employ; to try as best we could to design every project to reflect the nature of the event it was intended for. So there was no "one hand" that prevailed. Place cards and menus for working lunches were written in simpler, easily legible hands, and scripts such as Copperplate or Spencerian Script were reserved for formal evening events. A perfect example would be utilizing an elegant pointed pen script for a State Dinner, but perhaps a loose, playful, informal Roman for a children's book reading with the First Lady.

My most memorable event would have to be the NATO 50th Anniversary dinner, where we had to seat 1,000 guests on the South Lawn, after two days of associated dinners and lunches for dignitaries from some 30 nations. Not my favorite, mind you, but my most memorable!

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You will be teaching “The Calligrapher’s Process - from Conception to Completion” and “The Truly Flexible Pointed Pen” at Rendez-vous. What knowledge and skills will students gain from these classes and how would you describe your style of teaching?

Many calligraphers have studied formal hands, but find themselves intimidated by the thought of taking those hands further in creating finished work. The Calligrapher's Process gently guides participants through the basic stages of design and execution that are essential to moving a piece from conception to completion. I share over forty years of studio experience and a deep love for the daily process of moving my work forward—failures included! In addition to confidence gained by this knowledge, a whole lot of studio tips of the trade are shared throughout the workshop.

I became inspired to create The Truly Flexible Pointed Pen workshop after having spent several weekends teaching formal scripts. Don't get me wrong, there is no substitute for spending a weekend, or a series of classes analyzing and learning formal hands, it is essential. But, after several weeks of this rather rigid work, I had to lighten up—to find a fun approach to the pointed pen. In surveying my pointed pen work over the years, I found it had many voices and textures, depending upon what was being written and for what occasion. After analyzing my own work, and the work of others, I had an epiphany! I discovered a strong sense of playfulness in the flexibility of form, and realized that I had long been using a method of sorts to achieve this. I felt that sharing this knowledge could fill a void in a world of rigidly-structured or, on the other end of the spectrum, poorly structured, approaches to the pointed pen. In addition to learning a few new hands, this workshop will give participants the foundation and confidence to take their pointed pen work to new levels of creativity.

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

With regard to a calligraphy community, I could not have been more fortunate to have landed in Northern California. Within two weeks of moving here from Cape Cod, Marcia and Melissa had me signed up as facilities chair for the upcoming Passionate Pen conference. I was hooked! Friends of Calligraphy has too many calligraphy greats among its ranks to list, the quality of exhibits and workshops is exceptional, and it is always, without exception, fun to gather with them! Then, just to the north of me is that legendary Mendocino study group led by Judy Detrick. Yep, the Northern California calligraphy community is quite wonderful!

The calligraphy community is critical to me. As an artist living on a remote hilltop, I spend much of my time alone. Every time I make that 3 hour drive into San Francisco for a calligraphy event, it is worth it. I learn new things and take away new inspiration with every trip. And, there tends to be lots of laughter, too :-)

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

Sailing is perhaps my biggest non-calligraphy passion. My first teaching experience was as the director of the sailing program for Harwich (Cape Cod) parks and recreation while in high school. Many years later, I became the coach for my former high school's sailing team.

Julie and I enjoy human-powered travel and have bicycled across America, hiked the 2,652 mile Pacific Crest Trail and bicycled 5,000k around France, sleeping in orchards, vineyards and woods the entire way. We have kayaked 1,000 miles, from Cape Cod to Canada, and back. We now live in an off-grid house in the remote coastal hills of Sonoma County. Calligraphers and travelers always welcome!

Rick Paulus

United States
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