A Conversation with Irish Calligrapher David McGrail

As we continue our journey around the globe, our faculty interview series now brings us to Ireland. David McGrail has been a Fellow of the Calligraphy and Lettering Arts Society (CLAS) since 1998 and teaches throughout Europe and the United States. His work is painterly, contemporary, and deeply influenced by Japanese aesthetic traditions. In the interview below, David speaks about simplicity, the concept of a “visual haiku” and shares details behind the genesis of his intriguing class “I flamed amazement…

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

My early childhood was spent in Wimbledon, London in a rambling 18th century house, and I’m still fascinated by old buildings with their quirkiness and mysteries. We frequently moved around; at one stage we lived opposite a cottage where the painter, J.M.W. Turner, had once lived. Maybe as I walked to school by those gates, my artistic curiosity was aroused!

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

Italic was my first hand and it’s still my favourite. It’s so versatile - from strictly formal, it can be manipulated to be wildly cursive and gestural. To me though, it’s the impact, say, of an exuberant italic colliding with the restrained elegance of Trajan that’s exciting, not just the finesse of the lettering. It’s the drama being played out that is important.

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

My first brush with calligraphy in the 1980s was at an evening class with Denis Brown who encouraged and inspired me, and we remain good friends. The beauty of his calligraphy still delights me. Thomas Ingmire was another teacher who inspired me and whose work I greatly admire. I was also lucky enough to have Joachim Burgert as a tutor on one occasion. These teachers approached calligraphy from a investigative angle rather than a skill-based one and this appealed to me, coming from a design background.

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What Japanese aesthetic traditions have influenced your work and when were you first introduced to these traditions?

At Art College, specialising in Illustration and Typography, I embraced the austere Swiss School of Design approach - structured, clean and minimal, with everything reduced to the essential.

Later, on a trip to Japan, I saw some contemporary design which captivated me. It was, to me, Swiss design with heart. Stunningly sheer, the designs often used metaphor to speak directly to our emotions, to invite us to share in and interpret the work. The simplicity of a few juxtaposed elements, often derived from nature, positioned in perfect harmony, said it all in a way that touched me.

Clearly, traditional Japanese aesthetic principles influenced this contemporary design, and many of these principles resonated with me: that something which is pared to its essence describes it most powerfully; that an unfinished work (i.e. not perfect) - a blossom about to bloom - is most engaging; that an intriguing suggestion can be more potent than a straightforward declaration. A complex message expressed with a small number of strategically placed details is, to me, a visual haiku.

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Where do you create, and how have you organized your work space? What is your best time of day, and do you prefer to create in silence or with music?

When I work in Dublin, my studio faces the sea - Dublin Bay. The view of the bay is a constantly changing tableau, so my very bare, empty studio is in stark contrast. I like to work without other distractions. When I’m in France, my studio is part of a very large open plan space which opens onto a pool and garden, and I do like the sound of water and the rustle of a gentle breeze.

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

My essential tools are brush and pen but I’ll try anything that makes an interesting mark. It’s always satisfying to discover something new. My tools are my pleasure.

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

Virtually all of my work is experimental, out of choice. I love exploring and discovering new possibilities, whether these are interesting outcomes or simply new ways of using materials. I’ve misspent many hours wandering with a brush or pen across fields of white paper. My most challenging work was a design that articulated some of the traditional Japanese aesthetic principles that I embrace. I wanted to distil these ideas into a concertina format echoing the structure of a Japanese screen. The challenge was what to leave out - that proved to be the most difficult part.

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How did you choose the unique title “I flamed amazement...” for your Rendez-vous class? What knowledge and skills will students gain after participating in this five day experience, and how would you describe your style of teaching?

The idea of Shakespeare’s character, Ariel, in The Tempest, throwing thunderbolts and creating mischievous havoc, was, to me, a wonderful metaphor for playful calligraphy. Why not choose a title that describes my perspective of the workshop - where I would anticipate spontaneity and delight. I hope the students will gain more techniques and skills, but more importantly, undiscovered avenues for their own work in an atmosphere of unfettered ‘serious play’.

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How would you describe the calligraphy community in Ireland?

Peannairi (‘Peann’ is the Irish word for ‘pen’), the Irish Calligraphers Association, is a small, dedicated community of scribes based in Dublin. We are fortunate to have two master calligraphers working and living in Dublin who trained at the Roehampton Institute - Denis Brown and Gareth Colgan. And of course, we have the Book of Kells for inspiration.

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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?

Most of my leisure pursuits relate in some way back to my work. I suppose that’s because I enjoy finding connections between apparently unrelated subjects.

One interest with a twist is archery - I love the power of the bow bending as tension mounts and the thrill of seeing the arrow hit the target. Which only happens occasionally in my work!

And I collect shadows…

David McGrail

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