Handing Down the Art of Calligraphy

Clayworks has been hand lettering clay tiles for decades. Most of the work is done for church, school, and nonprofit “name-tile” fundraising projects. My dad, who had some experience in pen and paper calligraphy, learned to apply the technique to clay, and my mom learned from him.

Clayworks Studio carving calligraphy

My mom in the 90’s at her carving desk.

When I was a kid, my mom’s carving desk faced the front gallery window where she could occasionally look up to watch regulars walk down East 6th Street. I would often find her there listing to NPR on her radio, bent over semi-soft clay with her carving tool hovering close to her lettering.

A while back, Angelica, Stewart, and I took a month-long course in calligraphy together from Paula Webb here in Austin. Each Tuesday we sat around an intimate table with a special pen and learned the fundamentals of lettering and, specifically, the Italic script. All of us liked learning something new, but the calligraphic talents of only one of us rose to the top: those of my brother, Stewart.

Not only did his lettering come out looking closer to the “exemplars” than mine or Angie’s, he also had an innate interest in the art form, and he had the vocabulary (think descender, exemplar, serif, ligature) to talk about it with our instructor.

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Stewart’s Italic lettering just one month into steady carving. “The quick, brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” is a sentence that has every letter in the alphabet.

When we moved to clay later, I think my brother Stewart found what I also found: we had internalized years and years of watching our parents’ hands move briskly in and out of their lettering, absent-mindedly picking clay shavings from their tools between strokes.

Inscribing in clay, for both of us, was easier than lettering with ink on paper.

Last month, Stewart got thrown in. The studying and training was over. Jobs were coming in, and my mom is at a stage where winding down her workload is the goal, not piling it on. Someone had to seriously step up and start taking over. As he and my mom sat side-by-side carving together, she reminisced about learning from my dad. For the first few days, Stewart was his own worst critic, but out of that also came his own style–he hews closer to the standards, where Mom is admittedly a little loose at times.

We’ve streamlined inscribed tile jobs over the past two years as we have other areas of production.  Whereas we used to offer 3 clay colors, all inscribing is now done in terra cotta clay. But that was the choice of most clients anyway, and we’re all happy that the tradition will continue.

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