Calligrapher’s Corner:Consulting with the Experts, Volume 13: Carl Rohrs
Describe how you began your love of lettering and how you started your career in calligraphy.
Most of my cartoons as a kid would have hand drawn lettering titles — I was looking at Mad magazine and Rick Griffin’s cartoons in Surfer magazine, so I guess I loved letters before I was even thinking about them. Then when psychedelic posters and album covers came along, it was the lettering on them that was the main draw for me.
So when I went off to college at Humboldt State in 1973 and first found that there was a lettering class — called calligraphy (never heard the word before) — I lined up before dark to get my name on the waiting list for that class! It felt great from the first moment. I was very lucky that I was at a school that offered it in the first place, and even more fortunate
that my teacher was such a wonderful one, who also had a bit of a quirky vision about it as well. So I learned the classic hands, but was also exposed to the idea of following your own path inside this world that can be more than a little tradition-bound in more conservative teachers’ classes. His name was Reese Bullen, and he definitely had a gigantic impact on my life in just two academic quarters. Gigantic isn’t even a big enough word, although it was such a gradual discovery that this was so.
Out of college, I began my career as a sign painter, also in Arcata. There was (still is, I think) a wonderfully creative sign artist in Eureka named Chuck Ellsworth, whose work I admired all through college. After graduating, I came back for a visit and saw him painting a window sign. So I asked if I could watch and ask questions, to which he graciously agreed. So a one-day crash course in that led to my own little on-the-job, self-taught, in-training-forever existence. I kept my calligraphy mostly to myself for a few years before I started shyly offering it as a service for old and new clients. I started painting signs to make a living, expecting to move towards fine art eventually, but then it turned out that making letters was enough — way more than enough — to satisfy my creative urge, and that has never let up. All this time later and I can see that there will always be lettering mysteries to solve for the rest of my life. The more you find out, the richer the undiscovered stuff becomes.
What would you consider to be your area of greatest expertise?
With whom did you study, and who were/are your biggest influences?
As for influences, that’s akin to asking me my favorite song — I would never be able to stop adding to the list. I suppose I am known somewhat for the classes I teach about inspiration from previous generations — Georg Trump, Alfred Linz, Rudolf Koch, Old?ich Menhart, Villu Toots and many more, but really, I may have been influenced more by calligraphers my own age. My stock answer is the three Js — John, Julian and Georgia (Stevens, Waters and Deaver). I do have to add Rick Cusick to that list — not only the spectacularly natural earthy exuberance in his letterforms, but his active reverence for calligraphers from the previous generation — books written about, and even with, people like Ray DaBoll, Warren Chappell, Lloyd Reynolds and Hermann Zapf — hit me deeply and probably has had more influence on me than anything else.
What products can you not live without?
You’re going to love this answer — Horizon Pens are the best I’ve ever used, hands down, no question. Don’t know what I’d do without my 5/16″ Horizon. Also, even though I love many of my natural bristled pointed brushes, I do pick up a Pentel Color Brush first for more jobs than anything else.
What advice would you give a new calligrapher? Patience and cultivating a sharp eye. Fill up your career with the well-made letters that are produced carefully — it’s one job, one letter at a time and that begins to add up before you know it.
What is something people would be surprised to learn about you? I don’t know, I think I’m pretty much an open book. How about this — just about every letter I’ve made calligraphically is filtered through the sensibility of psychedelic poster art.
What do you enjoy most about lettering work?
I’m a sucker for the way a line moves, and it’s kind of an amazing thing that there is this opportunity for a beautiful line in every stroke of every letter and then on top of that, it can carry the meaning for every thought that’s ever been written down. It can be so lovely in every writing system in the world, too — Roman, Cyrillic, Arabic, Asian, etc., and all those flavors can be mixed into each other. Has anything been more important to civilization than the written word? Isn’t it cool that it can be so beautiful, too?
When you are not lettering, what do you enjoy doing? See question # 2