§ Journalist

No Ordinary Rock Star: Sheila Waters

by Georgette Freeman

Giddier than a schoolgirl going to her first big rock concert, I packed for the “show.” But neither gum, nor lipsticks went into my schoolbag. It was filled with masking tape, bottles of ink, Speedball “C” nibs, and other tools of the trade. This was no ordinary rock star I was going to see, but the reigning queen of calligraphy, at the end of a five-city teaching tour.

Sheila Waters was coming to Atelier Gargoyle and San Francisco to teach three days of workshops after setting out from her home in Pennsylvania and giving workshops in Cincinnati, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Word had it that Sheila was quite the disciplinarian and I was concerned. None of the requisite Mitchell nibs were in my schoolbag and I had yet to spend the hours of practice needed for an intermediate level of experience. But my concerns were put to rest on the first day of what would be a marvelous and instructive three-day experience.

At the Friends’ request, the workshops Sheila was giving at the Atelier were: “Gothicized Italic and Batarde” over the weekend of September 22nd and 23rd, 2007, followed by “Carolingian” on the 24th. A total of forty people had signed up for the two workshops, and 13 of us were lucky enough to be able to attend all three days. Megan Lucas, Linnea Lundquist, and Georgianna Greenwood provided the necessary aspects of site organization, housekeeping, and Sheila’s transportation. Security was provided by Ward Dunham.

Elected a Fellow of Britain’s Society of Scribes and Illuminators in 1951 when she was only 22, Sheila Waters has been learning, practicing, and teaching her craft for more than sixty years. Her schooling included the Royal College of Art in London and instruction there from Dorothy Mahoney, a former assistant to the legendary pioneer of calligraphy in the English-speaking world, Edward Johnston. Sheila immigrated to the United States with her family in 1971 when husband Peter was appointed Chief of the Conservation Division of the Library of Congress. In 1972, she inaugurated the Smithsonian’s calligraphy program and has been giving calligraphy workshops all across North America ever since. In 2006, the bookseller, John Neal, published Sheila’s beautiful 126-page comprehensive manual, Foundations of Calligraphy.

From the first hour of the first day of instruction at Atelier Gargoyle, Sheila’s life-long study and love of her craft shone through. First there was the 21-page handout, much of it not from her book. Then, echoing the handout, there was a slide show with Sheila’s voiceover, followed by Sheila demonstrating and deconstructing full alphabets on long banners of wide paper taped lengthwise to a wall. (The banners were later raffled off as door-prizes; the banner I have is 18 inches wide and seven feet long.) And of course, Sheila’s work at the board was followed by practice at our stations of what she had just demonstrated, along with her working with each and every one of us individually. This immersion into the intricacies and history of the Gothic Italic and Carolingian hands, which I had never seen before, went on for three glorious days.

Admittedly, I was over my head from the start. Among other things, I needed help in adjusting the reservoirs on my Speedball “C” nibs. Ink didn’t flow, it dribbled, but at no time did I ever feel lost. Sheila was more than willing to show me how to reshape a pen nib’s reservoir with a pair of tweezers. As for the intricacies of compressed, medium-heavy, or very wide Batarde, or Carolingian, there were the board, the handouts, and, if that wasn’t enough, there was her personal instruction at my own station in her own hand, albeit brief—there were at least 20 of us in the class.

I found her patience to be genuine and deep. I know, I tried it. But she never lost her humor, even in the face of my own ineptness. She was encouraging while instructive and, really, what more can one ask of a teacher? If you have the courage to take up the pen, the necessary information to keep you focused, and the time to practice, all else will follow.

Copyright © 2007 by Georgette Freeman. All rights reserved.

Looking to dignify her hand, Georgette Freeman is a student of calligraphy,
as well as a journalist and photographer, book artist, and a retired SEC examiner.

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