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A Conversation With French Calligrapher Benoit Furet

Hailing from the northwestern city of Saint-Renan, French calligrapher Benoit Furet has a deep love for books and the Middle Ages. He writes how he gives “great importance to the words themselves and [tries] as far as possible to write them out in the original version, using translations only when the original language does not use the Roman Alphabet.” In addition to his calligraphy, Benoit is also known for his Celtic knotwork and intricate filigrees. He will be teaching a five day course entitled “Filigrees & Versals from the Gothic Period”, a class that pulls from 14th century traditions. Read on to learn more about Benoit’s love for historical manuscripts, how his personal heritage informs his work and how replacing the gutters at his home sparked inspiration!

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Where did you grow up and what first sparked your interest in letters? You say that you discovered calligraphy by chance, so I’d love to hear more about that experience. What brought you to that fateful workshop?

I am a Breton (Brittany is the most westerly region of France) and as such, I’m well steeped in Celtic culture. I always wanted to learn to draw Celtic knots, which are part of my cultural heritage. I had the opportunity to attend a workshop that focused on Insular script and decorative elements. At that point, I didn’t know about calligraphy. During that week, they gave me a pen and the task of making only lines. It was during the last two days that the subject matter that I was intrigued about was actually covered. What a revelation: I left there with a passion for historical writing systems and manuscripts, a good understanding of Celtic knot techniques and a terribly sore back from having worked on low tables.

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

I started with Half-Uncials (not the easiest one to start with) and then turned more towards the standard curriculum: Uncial, Carolingian, Chancellery, Gothic, etc. I don’t really have a favourite hand, as I tend to like the more complex scripts that offer many variations for each letter and have interesting ligatures. Legibility is not necessarily an overarching criteria for me. I try to find a suitable style for each composition, one that resonates with the text. For example, it seems incongruous to work on a Nietzsche text in Half-Uncial, or a Breton song in Gothic lettering.

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

Amanda and Keith Adams ‑ they taught me almost everything I know. I studied almost exclusively with them and they taught me to step back from my work, not follow contemporary interpretations or models, but instead to always refer to the original manuscripts. They were both excellent, as well as demanding instructors, who wished to transmit their style and instill a sense of autonomy. I try to be likewise with my own teaching.

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Where do you create, and how have you organized your work space? What is your best time of day for work, and do you have any particular routines or rituals before starting?

I am lucky to have a studio of over 300 sq. ft. with a desk and a large table for working on paper. I have another smaller space where I work on a smaller scale and with materials that might be messy, like stone engraving, working on wood or metal. I don’t have a particular time of day that I work. I might wake up at 4 am and go directly to the studio because I have a burning idea, or I might get to my desk in the afternoon and stay until midnight if I’m caught up in my work. I always start with a warmup which can be from 30 minutes to an hour, just creating lines and getting into the feel of the script before starting my real work.

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How long have you been engraving and what do you enjoy most about this technique?

I started engraving seven years ago. To be exact, it was not actually engraving but etching (in French we used the same word “gravure” for both, even though they have nothing in common from a technical point of view).

The idea came to me after the replacement of a gutter on my house. The gutter was aged zinc and over time so many beautiful colors and textures had been created in it, that I just had to use it. I flattened it, cut it into bits and started to try different etching techniques. All of my works on metal are etched, using acid or electro-etching. I love metal. When you've been working on paper or vellum for so many years, it's a pleasure to experiment with other materials. Since I love DIY projects, I continued to try other media, starting with clam shells, then pebbles (found near the shells) and then on to other stones and granite (that was just a little bit further along the shore).

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

The metal edged pens (I use Brause nibs for writing), flat brushes for large format and a butter knife for carving in slate (I admit that I reworked the blade to create a sort of small chisel).

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You have a self-described weakness for Celtic knotwork interlace and filigrees. What appeals to you most about this kind of penwork and design?

I’m not able to draw well and am absolutely incapable of rendering people in illuminations. In fact, the thought of drawing folds in fabric gives me nightmares! Knotwork and filigrees are based on simple patterns, easy to deconstruct and to create with an almost mathematical purity. It’s perhaps the easy way out, but it allows me (with less technique but with a great deal of detailed analysis of medieval manuscripts), to create an infinite number of intricate patterns.

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Would you share about the development of your class “Filigrees and Versals from the Gothic Period?” What inspired you to create this specific class and how would you describe your style of teaching?

I started studying filigrees almost twenty years ago. From simple elements, one can create an extraordinary number of patterns. I often give courses on this subject, but am sometimes frustrated that I don’t have enough time to share all that one can learn by studying the actual manuscripts. I’m hoping that the time allotted for this course will allow me to transmit not only the technique of the decorative elements, but also the various types of initials. I find the variety of different lines in a single style to be extremely appealing.

Between the 12th and 15th centuries, the patterns, colours and abundance of models evolved (not to mention the differences between various regions during the same era). This is an extremely rich corpus that can be of service in the dating of manuscripts.

My goal, when I teach, is for each student to understand the subject, leaving no one behind. In taking apart the constructions down to their individual linear components, everyone can understand in their own way. The beauty and elegance attained in their creations depends upon the individual work. Everyone knows that calligraphy and its associated disciplines takes patience to learn.

Finally, since we are in the 21st century, I encourage the participants to be innovative, using the medieval techniques to create decorated letters, monograms or simple patterns that are not merely copies, but that become truly contemporary creations.

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

I’m not really connected to any community. Partly out of fear of being influenced by the work of others, I tend to spend most of my time in the studio. It’s easy to adapt or appropriate the style of a teacher when one follows their courses, and often that leads to something rather watered-down. I think one needs to work alone once a person has the necessary skills to do that, in order to develop one’s own style. In this regard, I feel that community is important for exchanging about techniques, meeting for exhibitions or conferences, but that the real work must be done in the solitude of one’s own studio.

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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 work in the garden, making greenhouses where I grow vegetables. My vegetable garden produces many edible plants and flowers that promote biodiversity (habitat for insects and nesting areas for birds). In other words, I am someone who is involved in ecology, in recycling (including the materials for some of my metal or wood constructions). When I’m not doing calligraphy, I walk a lot and I take pleasure in my environment, taking photos with lots of textures, both urban and minimalist. Also, as my initial background was in computers, and I continue to develop websites and tools (like the knotwork generator available on my site).

Benoit Furet

France
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