Alibi V.27 No.12 • March 22-28, 2018 

Culture Shock

The Life of a Hand Letterer

Calligraphy is far from dead at Silver Swirl Studios

hand-lettered works of art
Theresa Varela of Silver Swirl Studios creates hand lettered works of art
Theresa Varela
“You have to be ready to put miles in your pen,” Theresa D. Varela explained right off the bat when I asked her to about the foundations of calligraphy and hand lettering. “It doesn't happen in 15 minutes, but 15 minutes everyday, you will see big changes.” Varela—who has been practicing the art since the age of 11—illustrated her point by selecting a smooth swatch of deep purple paper and writing my name in startlingly perfect, swooping cursive letters with Dr. Ph. Martin's bleed proof white ink. An advantage, she continued, to being a calligrapher in New Mexico, is that our ink dries exceedingly fast in the dry climate. This piece was ready for me to carry away with me by the time our conversation at Silver Swirl Studios—that's Varela's business and headquarters—was finished.

Growing up in the little town of Rowe, N.M., Varela had plenty of time to indulge her interests, “there wasn't a lot to do but read and draw,” she elaborated. She was inspired by her mother's handwriting, which she imitated until she was nearly perfect at it. Then, her life changed with the discovery of a copy of The Speedball Textbook, a well-known lettering guide, on her family's bookshelf. She still has it, and pulled down the well worn copy from her own office shelves for me to leaf through. Each page turned with the ease of a book that has been opened and closed many, many times. She taught herself all the basics of broad pen lettering using the book and a set of calligraphy markers.

hand-lettered stuff
Theresa Varela

Her career as a hand letterer, calligrapher and engrosser, however, really took off after she connected with our local calligraphy guild in Albuquerque, Escribiente, and took a class in 2009. “It just took off from there, once I learned how to load the pointed pen and use it,” she said. Now, Varela is a certified professional. She is the president of Escribiente, a member of IAMPETH (International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers and Teachers of Handwriting) and the WCG (Washington Calligraphers Guild). She teaches classes, offers her services for weddings and other events, certificates, signage and more. She's used her skills on everything from motorcycles to masks to murals. For Varela, there's just no alternative to this life. “Lettering is literally part of me, a living, breathing part of me. When I can't letter, I can't do my art work. It's stifling,” she said.

Varela's commitment to this art isn't a singular case of an artist taking to an arcane medium—this is a thriving craft, she explained with adamance. “Hand lettering was really prized from the late 1800's to about 1950,” she detailed. “It was considered the golden age of penmanship, and many penmen and women produced all of the documents, and our currency was all done by hand. … In our age, where we're looking at computers, and everything is done instantaneously, it's hard to believe that even our computer fonts were once hand drawn.” While so much of the verbage we interact with today is computer-generated, the work of calligraphers and hand letters is still very much prized. The White House, for example, employs three full-time calligraphers, the British monarchy employs a few as well. Graphic design firms, fashion houses, large corporations, all require the skills of such artists. “There are calligraphers all over the world making a living,” Varela said. “It is far from a lost art.”

More and more people are sharing their skills, too. Varela credits Instagram and Facebook as connecting aspiring calligraphers to professionals, providing not just inspiration, but guidance as well. (You can find Varela herself on Instagram @silverswirlstudios and on Facebook with the same handle.) There are even new ways to flex calligraphic skills. “One of the things that keeps me going with lettering is keeping a bullet journal,” she said, opening a notebook on her desk, revealing the most precise and photo-worthy fields of text and gorgeous to-do lists. “It gives me an opportunity to be creative, … and keeps me more productive with my lettering, and on track with different projects.”

Typically, Varela uses very smooth paper, black sumi ink, oblique holders and titanium nibs to execute her projects. And a potato to clean the nib (“That's my secret weapon!” She laughed). If she's working with multiple colors, she has a palette to decant each ink into and water, always on hand. Other essentials: music. Usually piano, but as long as it is slow and without words, it works. “I can be writing and hearing the words in a song, and then start writing those songs,” she said—an obvious no-no for such a time-consuming and exact practice.

Varela described a recent project she worked on—a poem of about 1,200 words for an 80th birthday gift. She spent more than 45 hours on the piece—laying it out in pencil, doing test pieces, using a light box to finally lay down the ink. I asked her how it feels to complete a project that requires such time and such focused creative energy. “Oh, it's a tremendous feeling of elation, but there's a tinge of sadness, too. It's done; I have to roll it up and let it go. It's like cultivating a garden and then selling all the flowers,” she said. “But it's really the whole reason you're doing it, to share it with others. It's not to keep it to yourself. Sharing the beauty, those are special moments.”

You can connect with Varela and Silver Swirl Studios on social media, or head over to her website silverswirlstudios.com to see more examples of her work, explore class offerings, and commission work.