by Carl BowerThe term "calligraphy" comes
from the Greek word
"kalligraphia," which means
beautiful writing. (Photo by
Carl Bower)

Is the Computer Mightier
Than the Pen?
Calligraphers Have Yet to


c.2001 Newhouse News Service


Call it the computerized calligraphic controversy.

There it is, smack-dab in the middle of the rules of the internationally
known Graceful Envelope Contest: Absolutely not permitted is "the use
of scanned or computer-enhanced or photocopied

This has become a passionate debate among those who work with
pens and quills and ink and fine paper: Is computerized calligraphy art,
or not? Computers, friend or foe? Will technology help or harm the
ancient art?

The word "calligraphy" comes from the Greek "kalligraphia," meaning
beautiful writing. It has been practiced as far back as medieval times,
by monks laboring in scriptoriums to produce Bibles -- a tedious,
graceful art, forming lovely letters one by one.

And it's an art that continues to evolve.

"It's been a fascinating process to see how the computer has affected
us," said Annie Cicale of Asheville, N.C., who teaches calligraphy and
works as a professional calligrapher.

Thanks to software and personal computers, just about anyone can be
an electronic calligrapher nowadays. Basic lettering, such as that on
certificates, invitations and greeting cards, can be printed out at home
using all kinds of fonts.

Technology is "one of the hot topics in the calligraphic world," said
Lorraine Swerdloff, president of the Washington Calligraphers Guild.
"So many freelance calligraphers lost commissions with the advent of
desktop publishing.

"On the other hand," she added, "calligraphers have been able to do
so much with computers, so they're a welcome tool."

But then there's tradition.

Take the Graceful Envelope competition. A "graceful envelope" sounds
like such an archaic bit of stationery. Who needs an envelope, much
less a graceful one, in this age of e-mail, voice mail and faxes?

The 500-plus-member Washington guild disagrees. Judges have just
selected the winners in the seventh annual Graceful Envelope Contest,
from nearly 150 entries from around the world. Winners are being
notified -- by snail mail, of course.

"Envelopes, everyone can relate to," Swerdloff said. "It's such a treat
when you get a beautiful envelope in the mail, like a wedding invitation.
It's a treat to see your name hand-lettered."

As in past years, the envelope's address had to be in calligraphy or
fine lettering, and "inventive relationships between the postage stamp
and the envelope" were encouraged. Just no computerized anything.

But computers are indeed assisting calligraphers in many ways,
Swerdloff said.

For one, the artists are designing letter fonts they transform into digital
typefaces. They can scan their own lettering, then alter it electronically.

"It's a tool for refining a final product," Swerdloff said. A hand-lettered
logo can be scanned into a computer and cleaned up pixel by pixel.
"That's much better than using Wite-Out."

Alison Clement, a freelance calligrapher in Apopka, Fla., said she isn't
afraid to "integrate" computers into her art. Computer calligraphy does
have its drawbacks, however.

"It just looks too perfect if it's done by a computer," Clement said.
"People get tired of that perfection. They want something done by a
human hand."

Other calligraphers just plain resist technology.

"No, no, no, the answer is no, I do not use a computer," said Kathleen
McCann of Takoma Park, Md.

She paused to answer questions while working on a formal dinner
lettering project for Coca-Cola International.

McCann thinks of herself as a "penman." In addition to fancy
calligraphy, she does "just plain old nice handwriting. Lots of people
want that."

That's what McCann used when she addressed the invitations for
Tricia Nixon's wedding in 1971. McCann was a White House staff
calligrapher from 1970 to 1977.

And you just can't use a computer to create nice handwriting.

"People thought handwriting would disappear when the typewriter
became popular," McCann said.

"Maybe handwriting is equivalent to the `talkies,"' the movies that first
featured a soundtrack. "Now," McCann said, "there are movies, videos,
DVDs -- and people still like watching those talkies."

Winning entries in the Graceful Envelope Contest will be on display
during July and August at the Strathmore Arts Center in Bethesda, Md.

Dru Sefton can be contacted at