To Have and to Hold

Bleedproof white lettering,  23 kt gold leaf dots, approx. 9" X 12"
Fourteen years ago we welcomed an exchange student from Germany into our family for a year.  It was in every way a wonderful experience, and we have managed to stay in touch across busy lives.  I had always promised my "German daughter" I would be there when she married, and last weekend, I was!  Here's the beautiful bride just before the fairy-tale wedding on the grounds of a historic castle.

But wait, there's more!  I'm somebody adorable's "American grandma"!

My two grown-up "babies" went along and I loved every minute.  It was a happy, happy occasion.

Finding Light in the Darkness

Photo by Steve Johnston

At the little school where I am Director (i.e., administrative staff of one), we have a wonderful annual tradition called the Lantern Walk.  In the weeks leading up to the event, the teachers help the children craft beautiful little square lanterns out of watercolor paper with tissue-paper star-shaped windows.  A little tealight is glued into place and the families search for a Y-shaped stick to hold the lantern.  We practice our four traditional songs (which the children are usually too awestruck to actually sing at the festival) and then all of the families gather just after dark on a Sunday evening as we approach the Winter Solstice.  They are greeted with several hundred luminarias (candles set in sand in white paper bags) showing the pathway.  Being as quiet and reverent as possible with three-to-five-year-olds in attendance, we proceed with our lighted lanterns to a large field, where we stand in a circle around a small bonfire and sing.  Simple, short, meaningful and memorable.

It is my job to "make the call" if the weather is questionable, often a source of agony and stress.  Sometimes I have decided to go ahead, only to be greeted with a downpour moments before the families arrive.  Other years it has been so windy that there was no hope of keeping the lanterns lit.  Usually we manage to get through it with whatever weather northern California provides.

But every once in a while--and this was one of those times--it is absolutely perfect, and just magical.  The night before, there were torrential rains--I mean drenching downpours--and there didn't seem to be any chance it would be happen tonight.  BUT...the weather was progressively clearer, and by the time I had to decide (2 pm) it felt right to say yes, yes we will go ahead.  It turned out there were a few clouds, and a little wind, but a lovely bright three-quarter moon and a little nip in the air.  One of the best years ever.

The last time it was this special,  one of our parents was inspired to write a poem, and I was moved to letter it.  

Poem by Daniel Polikoff
Artwork by Jody Meese

Poem by Daniel Polikoff
Artwork by Jody Meese

Poem by Daniel Polikoff
Artwork by Jody Meese

This was done some years ago, so I don't remember much about the details. I believe it was Doc Martin's bleed-proof white, and I recall sponging on the moon and sprinkling salt on the blue paint to make the starry night.  The little yellow blobs, of course, are the children's lanterns in procession.

West Coast Saga

The first-ever West Coast Spencerian Saga with master penmen Michael Sull and Bill Kemp concluded over two weeks ago, and I'm still digesting it all.

It was a completely different experience from the longstanding Geneva-on-the-Lake Sagas, which are retreat-like in nature, held at the beautiful Lakehouse Inn on the south shore of Lake Erie in October when the air is crisp and the leaves are turning. Platt Rogers Spencer himself lived, taught, and is buried in Geneva.

In April the Berkeley venue, Castle in the Air, is busy, lively, and very connected to the Fourth Street goings-on, with lots of great places to eat and shop during breaks from the pen and ink. Art seems to be in the very air there. And... just a twenty-minute drive across the Richmond bridge from my house!

Both experiences are awesome: the former rich with penmanship history and the latter showing Spencerian's relevance in a contemporary setting.

Bill's digital overhead projector enabled this kind of detail! Sure beat struggling to watch over someone's shoulder. This is a comparison of the Nikko G and EF Principal nibs...

At the top is my final project: My life has a superb cast, but I can't figure out the plot, a quote I love and neglected to attribute to Ashleigh Brilliant. The script is Spencerian, of course, in Dr. Ph. Martin's Bleedproof White with embellishments in Spectralite gold. I used an EF Principal for the text and a Nikko G for the offhand flourishing.

Castle in the Air has published all of our final projects on its blog. I was amazed at the variety and ingenuity as the participants--who ranged from first-timers to twenty-year veterans, hobbyists to seasoned professionals--showcased the variety of techniques we had learned during the week from . It was a fun and lively group!

And the entire week we had the strangest feeling someone was watching us...

Copperplate Goes to Washington

My storyteller friend Anita had a dream: to tell an African folk tale at the Presidential Inauguration in January of 2009. She had been a passionate campaigner for him, and she wanted to do everything she could to get Obama's attention to her proposal. So she asked me to address an envelope to him and do some offhand flourishing on the folder that contained a copy of the story.

I believe the envelope was actually a "Presidential blue" color, not black as it appears here. The script is Copperplate, or Engrossers' Script; the inks are Dr. Ph. Martin's Bleedproof White and Spectralite gold.

I did three different outer envelope styles and let her choose. This is the one that went to Washington...

...but alas, no response! But as Anita's grandma told her, "The only failure is not trying!"

Have Tag Will Travel (Tutorial)

A nice sturdy luggage tag is a big help when you’re trying to recognize your suitcase among all the others. It’s essential if your luggage is lost or misplaced, but it’s not a good idea to have your address readily visible. These tags proclaim the owner loud and clear, but keep contact information tucked inside yet accessible when needed.

Luggage tags were my go-to holiday gift this past season, and people really seemed to like them and want to know how to make them, so here they are.

Materials & Tools

  • black (or any deep color) paper, not too heavy, cut 3” X 10½”
  • x-acto knife and cutting mat
  • ruler
  • pen and white ink or gouache (I used Dr. Ph. Martin's Bleedproof White)
  • ¼” hole punch
  • blank white stickers, approximately 2 ¼ “ X 3 ¼ “ (I used Staples name badge labels)
  • ¼ “ (6 mm) eyelet kit (I used Dritz from Jo-Ann Fabrics)
  • hammer
  • sticky-backed Velcro dots (found these at Jo-Ann’s and at FedEx Office). Alternatively, you can purchase larger pieces and cut them to size, as long as they’re self-adhesive.
  • plastic loops for luggage tags known as “worms” [at office stores they usually come in packs of 25 along with laminating pouches (pouches are too small for this project), but they also are available separately in packs of 100 online at]
  1. Lightly pencil in vertical dotted lines to define writing area. These lines will also be scored after laminating. Do not fold yet!
  2. Calligraph name in glorious Spencerian, slightly to the right in the space to leave room for the eyelet.
  3. Take to office store, (i.e. Staples or FedEx Office) and have laminated with 5 mil film. Three mil would also work but 10 is too thick to fold.
  4. Trim lamination close to paper all around, leaving about 1/16” to 1/8” of film. Optionally, trim corners (I use a corner punch for this).
  5. Score firmly along penciled lines on front (side where name is written).
  6. Fold shorter (2 ½”) side toward back and punch hole as shown through two layers.
  7. Place sticker on back of tag directly opposite name inscription. It will be on the inside of the luggage tag.
  8. Insert eyelet through both holes so that it holds the fold in place. (You may need to widen the hole a little by pushing a pen or pencil through it.) Use tools (“anvils”) that come with eyelets and secure with hammer.
  9. Fold longer (3 ½”) side and tuck under shorter side. It will probably stay in place as is, but will be more securewith Velcro dots attached.
  10. Loop “worm” through eyelet as shown.

End-of-an-Era Envelope

This was the last envelope I sent to a dear old family friend before she moved from her lakeside home of sixty-five years to a high-rise retirement community on Lake Erie---where, by all reports, she is having a blast. I can hardly imagine Findley Lake without her. I would see her during summers my family spent at the lake, and we corresponded regularly the rest of the year thoughout my childhood and beyond. She still writes me long, "newsy" letters, as she calls them, at least a couple of times a month, in hand-addressed envelopes, of course. I try to reciprocate in kind.

The script is, of course, Spencerian, and the blocky lettering is after a style (unnamed?) designed by the inimitable Michael Sull. The ink is Dr. Ph. Martin's Bleedproof White, with the cartouche detailed in Spectralite gold. And of course, the Queen of Hearts stamp is perfect.

Nibs to the Highest Bidder

Seems like for a while there, every school and sport my kids were involved with was soliciting donations for silent auctions. Another successful item was simply offering to address a hundred envelopes--invitations, announcements, or holiday cards. Good practice for me, a little cash for the school. This was the display set up at the fundraising event. The green envelope is done in Dr. Ph. Martin's Bleedproof White, the ecru envelope in J. Herbin Nuages Gris. Both are Italic hand.

Mixing It Up Again

Here's another piece I did for the frontispiece of a family memory book. It is photographed rather than scanned, so the shape looks odd. Again, the contrast of two very different hands, one with pointed and one with a broad nib: this time Spencerian and Blackletter/Pointed Gothic/Johnstonian Italic. The little gold feathery flourishes are done with the pointed pen and Spectralite, a line of paint made for airbrushing. The white is Dr. Ph. Martin's Bleedproof Ink.