Here’s An Invitation To More Beautiful Handwriting

By Ellen Creager
Detroit Free Press

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Calligraphy, the skill of beautiful handwriting, is back in style. It is part of society’s fascination with handmade things in a high-tech world. The services of Michigan calligrapher Vicki Corwin are in high demand as she fields calls from across the country.


Royal Oak calligrapher Vicki Corwin has a hand in many of life’s most important moments. Her calligraphy has graced everything from diplomas at Sacred Heart Seminary and Cranbrook to thousands of wedding invitations, place-cards at million-dollar parties and once even a love letter.

But with computer fonts mimicking the finest scripts, is there really a place for those who still use the old, slow skill of pen and ink?

Actually, yes.

Calligraphy, the skill of beautiful handwriting, is back in style. It is part of society’s fascination with handmade things in a high-tech world.

“The number of people who are eager for this type of learning is just phenomenal. It is really catching fire. The pendulum is swinging,” says Corwin, who learned calligraphy 31 years ago and has worked full time as a calligrapher since 2002.

The reason, she says, is that a computer script, which can perfectly replicate itself a thousand times on a thousand wedding envelopes, just does not have the same look as something handwritten, with its slight differences made by the artist’s scratching nib across the paper.

There’s a warmth to calligraphy that is missing from machine-generated work.

Working at a broad, slightly slanted art table that takes up most of her living room, she chooses her pen and ink, working with the indirect light streaming in the front windows and a white desk lamp.

In her drawer just to the right of her chair are her inks in little pots, each with a white lid: Ziller Midnight Blue, Cardinal Red, Wild Viola Violet, Sweetgrass Green, Buffalo Brown, Northwind White. She also uses walnut inks, Chinese soot inks and gouache, a watercolor type of paint she can custom mix for odd colors a bride may request, like peach.

Perched high on the shelves above her desk are old fashioned ink pots with quill pens. They are just decorative. Her work is done with something called a pointed pen split nib. The nib of the pen is off to the left of the handle. That makes her hand less tired over time.

As she works, her small gray cat Sweet Pea usually curls up in a small bed next to her on the desk.

“She is my assistant; she greets the clients,” says Corwin.

And there is a lot of work to do.

Sometimes, desperate people will show up at her door, asking her to address one single envelope.

“One woman said, I’ll pay you anything you want if you address an envelope for me,” Corwin says. “I said, what is it? She was sending her resume to Kate Spade (fashion house) in New York. So I found a pink business envelope and addressed it for her. She paid me $20, and I handed it back to her and said good luck.”

Once, she was the alter-ego of a young man in love.

“A young man was really trying to impress this gal, so he asked me to write a love letter,” she says. “He typed it and e-mailed it to me, and I transcribed it onto the stationery, and it worked! He got the girl.”

Another time, she transcribed into script an entire 535-word wedding vow. A husband hired her to create it for his wife as a gift for their one-year anniversary. “It was a little bit private, but it was cool,” she says.

Corwin’s sophisticated work finds its way onto poems, proclamations, birth certificates, diplomas, Christmas cards and art mats. She does 60 to 80 diplomas a year for Sacred Heart Seminary graduates in Detroit.

She’s even been hired by New York party planners to attend parties as an emergency place-card writer.

“They bring me on-site so I can make last minute changes, say, if someone’s wife isn’t coming I can make a new place-card,” she says. “They put me in a little closet, and they give me cards, and I bring my ink to match, and I sit there and just make changes.”

Mostly, though, she does the calligraphy addresses on wedding invitations. She does most of them in what’s called “bride’s hand,” traditional copperplate script, but sometimes brides choose something less formal and more contemporary. She has done it for weddings as large as 400 people.

She charges $2.35 per envelope.

“It doesn’t take me that long,” she says. “I can write about 40 envelopes a day and maintain quality and spelling. You figure 40 a day, so I can do a 400-piece order in 10 days.”

How can she keep doing it without her hand tiring? She wears a soft wrist cast every night to protect against carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis. She takes breaks. She takes her time. “I try to do 8 at a time, then I stop. Then I do 8 more. I try not to do more than 24 at a time.”

Her writing is so graceful that it seems effortless.

That is not true. It is due to years of practice.

Corwin comes from a family of artists. Both her mother and great-grandfather were painters. Although Corwin did not inherit the painting talent, she loved to doodle and write words on a page as a young child growing up in Cleveland. But she never thought to make a career of it.

At 20, she moved to Michigan. She married Doug Emig 33 years ago and moved to Royal Oak. Over the years, her world has expanded to include 9 nieces, 1 nephew and 2 cats.

Her first career was executive secretary, and she did that for 14 years. Then she opened a business that supplied and maintained plants for office buildings, and that lasted 13 years.
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But her life changed in 1985 when a teacher friend needed students for a calligraphy class at Southfield Community Ed and asked Corwin to please sign up.

“She was teaching italic, and we used a chisel nib, and I just fell in love with it,” she says. “So I took the next class, and the next class, and learned the historic alphabets: gothic, uncial, italic and the modern historics like Carolingian.
“I found that the key to the whole thing was practice. You build up your muscles and your muscle memory.”

In 2001, she was asked by Tiffany’s at Troy’s Somerset Mall to be a resident calligrapher working with brides. She learned to do the formal script called copperplate most used on wedding invitations.

The handwriting was on the wall. Calligraphy was her new career.

Corwin, whose company is called the Artistic Quill, says that new trends in calligraphy, more free-form, loopy, eccentric styles, are wildly popular with brides, although mothers of brides still go for extremely traditional looks.

The style is changing quite quickly, in fact.

“We’ve gone from a very formal calligraphy to a flourished, more ornate calligraphy. Pinterest and Etsy post a lot of pictures of wacky, funky, fun calligraphy, and more people are jumping in to do that,” she says. She teaches calligraphy in Birmingham, but would like to see more young calligraphers teaching classes in the new styles.

Corwin is the former president of the Michigan Association of Calligraphers, based in metro Detroit, and also is a member of Pen Dragons, a calligraphers group in Kalamazoo, Mich. She’s also a member of the international calligraphy group called IAMPETH, which stands for the flowery “International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers and Teachers of Handwriting.”
“Two years ago IAMPETH had only 250 members. Now they have 1,300,” she says.

Ironically, as calligraphy is getting more popular, the teaching of cursive writing is disappearing in public schools.

Corwin worries that future generations won’t be able to write their own signatures or read cursive, which means nobody will be able to read documents like the Declaration of Independence or even an old letter from their grandmother.

Cursive evolved over the centuries, but is most familiar to people in the U.S. for the “Palmer method,” taught to every school child in America in the 20th century.

Today, cursive handwriting, Corwin says, may seem like a quaint luxury reserved for wedding invitations and plaques. It should be more.

“Your handwriting is an expression of yourself,” she says. “It is unique to you.”

If you never write anything by hand, part of your identity vanishes.

“We have 26 letters, and they come together to form words. If you are not writing them out and enjoying the picture of the words, you miss the way into the story that the words can tell you,” Corwin says.

Does she actually write letters to friends by hand? Yes.

“Now we message and text and Facebook and tweet, but when I write somebody a letter, it’s special.

“I have a friend in Denver who says she saves the letter until she can sit down, have a cup of tea and find out what I’m up to. Writing by hand endears the words to the reader, much more so.”

Corwin has a big, elaborate, fancy diploma on the wall of her living room studio. It says that in 2008 she graduated from a master program in the most complex calligraphy techniques. The final exam? Creating the diploma.

Look around her studio, and you realize that it is just one more part of Vicki Corwin’s script.

Do you have awful handwriting? Join the club. Here are Royal Oak calligrapher Vicki Corwin’s tips for addressing important envelopes or writing Christmas cards or notes, for when you really need your penmanship to look decent:

1. Don’t try to address too many envelopes at once. “Your handwriting falls off. Slow down, relax and enjoy it. Your handwriting is kind of a gift to the person. Try not to do more than 20 at a sitting.”

2. Draw lines with pencil on the envelope to keep your writing even, and never use a pencil eraser to erase them afterward. Buy a soft “art eraser” that gently and invisibly erases the lines when you are done.

3. It’s OK if the envelopes you are addressing don’t all look identical. Many people vary their handwriting day to day or even moment to moment, so be creative. “Only one person is getting one envelope, so they’re not going to show up and compare their envelope with others.” Even Corwin says her so-called identical wedding invitations contain slight differences, like extra loops or flourishes, depending upon how she is feeling at the moment.

4. If you want to learn calligraphy or just improve your handwriting, take a class, watch a video or get a book, but the most important thing is practice. You even can start by using a regular pencil, because it can make thin or thick lines as you are making the strokes.

5. Regularly write letters and address envelopes by hand. It’s good practice for your handwriting, and it shows the recipient that he or she is special. Amid a flood of shortcut texts and boring mail with machine labels, a handwritten envelope always gets a smile.

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