With this book, John Stevens takes you on a lively journey into the world of letters created with pen, brush, chisel, and pixel; his years of experience as a calligrapher, lettering artist, and designer have been put to words. A feast for the eyes, this book presents a master's work in both tradition and exploration.
John's vision as well as his command over tool, form, and design create the beauty in his work and its depth and ingenuity. For him, letterforms are both a means of communication and a subject themselves. He plays and invents with letterforms freely but with the utmost respect for their historical underpinnings, creating works that are vibrant and original.
Beautiful to look at and wonderfully written, this is a book that all lovers of the lettering arts will want on their shelves.
Artist of the written word:
With his art and words, John Stevens provides insight into the ideas and themes behind his work, illuminating a path to excellence, variety, and expression in calligraphy and lettering design. The clear text describes how John approaches projects and opens a view into his creative process. In a gentle voice, allowing his sense of humour to come through, he shares his thoughts on topics such as the interaction of rhythm, form, and movement; chaos and order; and "broad-edged Zen," to name only a few. You are brought into his world as he tells of his experiences with projects and clients, how the digital world has affected the practice of the craft, and why it does not matter if creating letter works is a craft or an art. While this is not an instructional book, you learn John's views on a calligrapher's education as he relates how letter-making and problem-solving can be approached. He discusses what paths can lead to a greater understanding of calligraphic form, providing a glimpse into how he conducts his classes and workshops. You will see letterforms differently as you become aware of the possibilities inherent in the form and the ways of connecting calligraphy, expression, art, and graphic design.
Foreword to the book by Denis Brown:
To say John Stevens is a world-class calligrapher is to fall short of the truth. In fact, John has a depth of knowledge and skill that enables him to fly far above a glass ceiling that is perceived as the generic highest level in the field of Western calligraphy today. He is one of the few who have made unique contributions that have changed and developed perceptions of what may be possible with handwriting. His virtuosity with pen and brush (all kinds) is merely his foundation – a firm platform of skill and a home base from which he dares to depart on far-reaching voyages of exploration and improvisation. John's depth of knowledge is all the more remarkable given his lack of a formal craft or design training, a fact that may be an inspiration in a field where proper full-time education opportunities are all but nonexistent.
This book is valuable in making accessible the thoughts and ideas of an artist who might on the surface appear reticent compared to others more prepared to perform on the world stage. John Stevens shies from any pedestal; he simply carries on doing work at which he excels. He offers no didacticism here, but instead a wide range of inspiring work that speaks for itself. Additionally, his words present a point of view based on lived experience.
I first encountered John Stevens' work in reproduction when I was a teenage student at London's Roehampton Institute in the late 1980s, one of very few places I could go to pursue a full-time study dedicated to calligraphy. The courses there were led by Ann Camp and gave a deep sense of the British tradition of calligraphy, founded on the teaching of Edward Johnston. Now Johnston's work can seem unfashionable to those who overlook his great insights, but without Johnston, certainly the world of calligraphy would be very different today. Johnston's (and Camp's) teaching was based on an understanding of how writing freely with a broad-edged pen could impart letters with a strength and an energy of the writer, basically by freely writing a learned formal structure whilst holding the nib at a fixed angle to the writing line. However, one book in the college's calligraphy bookcase revealed a different approach. That book was The Origin of the Serif (1968) by Father Edward Catich, and it illustrated how a regular twisting of the angle of a flat brush in direct writing may have imparted a subtlety of weighting on ancient Roman letters such as those inscribed at the base of Trajan's
Column in Rome. This book interested me deeply. [see note below for more information on The Origin of the Serif]
About this time, I also saw John Stevens' works in other books and recognized in them a more up-to-date, graphic application of vibrant pen and brush manipulation on letters of all kinds, including but certainly not limited to a mastery of Roman capitals using the technique advocated by Catich. Even then, John had made these brush-written Romans his own, as with all his many styles, and while giving all his various influences their due, he naturally steps back from perceptions that see him as an extension of Catich. John is nobody's puppet and travels his own path through the landscape of lettering. Whatever the style – Roman, Italic, Copperplate, or any informal variant – John has made each his own and excels in an ability to continuously adapt new varieties appropriate for each job in hand. He has carried the traditions forward, and his work is always of now, a combined feat that instantly dissolves any line drawn between "traditional" and "contemporary" calligraphy. His contributions will be of value to all the subcategories of calligraphy, including lettering, design, craft, and fine art. Indeed, barriers delineating such categories quickly dissolve for those who open their minds to a broader vision, as John does. His work has shown a continual refinement over the years since I was first inspired by it in the 1980s.
I have had the pleasure of meeting John each time I have been invited to teach at the Cheerio calligraphy workshops held at a mountainside retreat in North Carolina. These workshops are some of the few occasions that John teaches, as he rarely travels. Yet far from a recluse, John enjoys engaging in lively banter across a broad range of topics, humour liberally dashed in at any opportunity. He applies gestural strokes to a different purpose in a passion for playing tennis, and he is also a virtuoso rock guitarist. In fact, music might have been his primary career path had John been more comfortable with performing on stage. The music world's loss was a gain for calligraphers. As with any artist, John's knowledge of his separate arts expand on each other, and so he applies musical analogies and metaphors in talking about calligraphy.
We live in a time, which may witness the eclipse of handwriting, what with word processing, e-mail, and SMS being far more convenient means of communication by text. Nonetheless, calligraphy has survived more than half a millennium after the widespread appropriation of movable type for making books. Although calligraphy's functionality has been further eroded in recent times, it must be acknowledged that the best calligraphy has always been about creating something that transcends basic functionality; whether that is a historical masterpiece like the Book of Kells or just a beautifully written wedding invitation envelope. It should also be noted that the liberation of a craft from functional chores may be the dawn of its rebirth as art, and many of us are in the throes of redefining our practice and ideals in such circumstances. As in life itself, we seek to find our niche and simply fit in. As the world changes, so too must any tradition; we must adapt to life's changes, or die.
For many amateur calligraphers now, practice may be more important than a "perfect" final product. Calligraphy is a stimulating means to engage, focus, and challenge oneself. Certainly it takes time and commitment to develop, but is that not true of anything valuable? Local classes, calligraphy guilds, residential courses, and international conferences are all a means to share one's passion, and specialist books are a means to drive and inspire it. Certainly, this book will be a valuable addition to the field. To the reader I plead: do not just glance and think it nice or beautiful – look deeper, find inspiration, and act on that to challenge yourself to go a little further. Your aim is not to be a master tomorrow, but might be to engage enough to know yourself a little better from your endeavours. Set yourself achievable targets and thrive on any small success rather than despair on inevitable failures. Bring your other knowledge, skills, and passions to bear on your calligraphy practice. Improve yourself at every opportunity, and share your passion widely. Thus, may the force be with you.
Denis Brown, Dublin, Ireland, November, 2012
Note: The Origin of the Serif is available from www.calligraphity.com in both hardback and paperback editions. Click on the links below for more information:
B0206 The Origin of the Serif (paperback edition)
B0668 The Origin of the Serif (hardback edition)
About the author:
John Stevens is one of the most gifted and original letter artists on the international scene, renowned for his skill as calligrapher, letter artist, and type designer. Starting as a sign painter in New York, his insatiable inquiry into letters and their design led him into calligraphy and lettering with various pens, brushes, and later the computer. By his mid-twenties, he was working for nationally known clients in publishing, packaging, advertising, television, and film. His work has graced book jackets, magazines, newspapers, libraries, museums, and churches.
An in-demand teacher, he has been invited to teach at many national and international letter arts conferences throughout the United States and has made several excursions to Europe and Japan to teach his art. His original works are included in the collections of the San Francisco Public Library; Berlin's Akademie der Kunste; and La Casa del Libro (San Juan, Puerto Rico), as well as in many private collections.
His exemplary work has been published and reproduced in dozens of publications and books in Asia, Australia, Europe, and the U.S.A.
This is truly a cracking book and well worth the long wait. On almost every one of the 260+ pages of this book there is 1, 2, 3… sometimes 6 stunning examples of John’s amazing work. I do not have the time to count them all but there must be well over 500 pieces. The insights he provides in his teaching are motivational and inspirational. He covers his wide range of commissions he has worked on including: letters in the environment, letters cut in wood and stone, book jackets and titling, Typeface design, letters as illustration & with illustration, letters in places and spaces, and many more. Highly recommended
1st edition, 2013, hardback, 264pp full colour throughout and packed with more examples of the author’s work than I have time to count, 22.5 x 29 cm