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A Conversation with American Calligrapher Barry Morentz

Barry Morentz has an enduring love of language, history and art, evident from a young age when he was fascinated by penmanship and Shakespeare’s Classics Illustrated. With a master’s in medieval history, he began his journey in calligraphy over forty years ago. He has traveled extensively to study and teach and has been on the faculty of five previous international calligraphy conferences. Based in Manhattan, Barry creates illuminated resolutions, awards and books and also does calligraphy for luxury fashion brands like Cartier, Rolex and Estée Lauder. Read on to learn about his favourite plays, his “Great Awakening” and what makes the New York City calligraphy community so special.

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Where did you grow up and what first sparked your interest in letters? What is one of your earliest memories around letters and calligraphy?

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. I loved writing probably from the first time I ever picked up a pen or pencil. In public school I always received a grade of “Outstanding” in penmanship and I was always put in charge of the class to teach handwriting whenever a new kid came into class in mid-year and the teacher would take that student to a private room for 30 minutes each day until he or she was caught up. I remember trying to write “Old English” (!) on the blackboard after seeing a history-based film that had credits designed in a Blackletter font. But the teacher was not amused. In college I hated Chemistry and would doodle in my notebook playing with letters and creating my own forms instead of paying attention.

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

I taught myself Italic from Fred Eager’s manual “The Italic Way to Beautiful Handwriting” and after a few months I thought my work was missing “something”, so I started taking classes . Then in 1979 came the Great Awakening when I took my first class with Sheila Waters. The hand that resonates most with me is Gothicized Italic, probably because it so fully embodies my love for all things English — literature, music, history, art. It is a rich and sumptuous style that propels me to delve further into it and to see what alternative forms I can devise. I also adore Roman Caps for their architectural majesty and dignity and for the challenge to get them just right (ha!). Variations of Pointed Pen styles intrigue me for their potential playfulness. And finally, I love Carolingian for its quiet elegance.

Image Title (left) Barry in Christopher Haanes’ class at Cheerio, (right) Dante’s Vision of the Eternal Light

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

First and foremost Sheila Waters, from whom I developed a deep respect for the purity of beautiful letterforms and layouts that reflect the emotional content of a text. Her no-nonsense approach to disciplined study and practice have had a lasting impact on both my private work and the manner in which I teach. Gottfried Pott, for the depth of his intellect and his sensitive fusion of classical and abstract forms. Thomas Ingmire, who helped to expand my vision to see things on a page that are not immediately visible but are subtle and mysterious. And Peter Thornton for the boundless energy and joy so apparent in all his work. The list could go on...

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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 work in a corner of my bedroom, after having had a studio on Madison Avenue for 21 years. Because I continued to work at home despite having had a studio I accumulated many supplies in double, many of which are now in storage, or occasionally donated to schools. I am obsessed with organization and keeping everything to a minimum and easily identified and accessible. My drawing table has a space-saving built-in light box. Adjacent shelves and a taboret, atop which sits my computer, hold all the tools I need. Books, which threaten to bury me, line the walls and spread out into the living room (and closets) as well. Before beginning work I must have an invigorating shower and a strong cup of coffee. I work all hours of the day (and night), but prefer the serenity of the early morning before the phone starts ringing.

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You are known for your love of Shakespeare, shown through your choice of text in your calligraphic works. What first drew you to the Bard and what are your favourite plays in his canon? Do you find that you often return to a certain play or sonnet for text for your work?

I discovered Shakespeare when I was about 8 or 9 from Classics Illustrated. I was drawn to the historical settings (some of which were fancifully re-interpreted or imagined by the Bard’s creative needs), the compelling characters and the challenging situations that engulfed them, and mostly by the extraordinary use of language, much of which I did not understand, and often still don’t. But Shakespeare’s gorgeous rhetoric and turns of phrase influenced and enhanced my writing skills and intense interest in language. I have an extensive library on anachronistic English which is an ongoing source of amusement.

My favorite plays are Antony and Cleopatra for its seductively voluptuous language and combination of deft comedy and high tragedy; The Merchant of Venice for its study of the human condition, warts and all; Love’s Labor’s Lost, for its hysterically funny study of language in all its bizarre forms. This list could also go on… But above all I love Shakespeare for his endlessly fascinating use of language and the unexpectedly beautiful, witty, and tender passages that are not as immediately well-known as the very famous ones.

I often return to the same text after several years to see how I might design it after hopefully having further enhanced my calligraphic skills and having obtained a deeper understanding of the text. This is an irresistible challenge. Admittedly, I read commentary and analysis on the Bard more frequently than I do the plays. Reading Shakespeare is a lot of work! The sonnets, of which I have read all 154, are a lot easier if only because their length is the same (except for Sonnet 99 which has 15 lines, and Sonnet 126 which has 12 lines.

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

Coffee, Japanese stick ink and the music of Edward Elgar.

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You travel frequently to teach and are an active member of your local guild, Society of Scribes. What makes the calligraphy community in New York City unique and what does this community mean to you?

What makes our community so unique is that we are blessed to be in an amazing city that has infinite resources to study calligraphy, typography, and the book arts. There seems to be always something going on of interest to our membership and visitors, between The New York Public Library, the Morgan Pierpont Library, the Met Museum of Art, The Cloisters, Cooper Union, School of Visual Arts, etc. And our membership is comprised of people with diverse backgrounds that often contribute to a project we may be working on. We pride ourselves on being able to help one another whether designing a piece or needing an extra hand to finish a tedious job of addressing 1000 envelopes in 2 days. And because it is New York City, it seems that everyone wants to come here, so we have no problem attracting the most renowned instructors from all around the world.

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You will be teaching two classes at Rendez-vous: Gothicized Italic and Morphing Monograms with Marcia Friedman. What inspired you to create these classes, and how would you describe your style of teaching?

I cannot say that I created the class in Gothicized Italic, which has become my calling card. In fact, I think that having taught it so much for so long that it has created me. It is so subtle and so imbued with nuance that I work very closely with each student to not only see all the details of each letter but to also develop a greater sense of touch and to try out new ways of holding the pen and adjusting one’s speed. And because I was a history major as an undergrad and graduate student, my classes always provide some background on historical, architectural, and literary currents of the period. Studying calligraphy is life-enhancing!

Morphing Monograms is the result of having co-authored a book with Marcia Friedman on this subject. We taught it together twice before, and the experience was such fun and so insightful that we could not resist offering it to Rendez-vous. The class provides some completely unexpected adventures in discovery.

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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 love to cook, to wander around in gourmet food shops, to travel as much as possible and to wander the streets, photographing signs and windows and gates. As an opera maniac for over 50 years I enjoy watching obscure operas on YouTube so as to understand how they merited a well-deserved obscurity. I have often been told that I come across as rather reserved, and students are often surprised to find that as a teacher I can be light and lively and entertaining. The joy of calligraphy has that effect!

Barry Morentz

United States
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