This week I begin teaching a 3-week, online edition of my workshop, “Ben Shahn-ish.” In preparation, I have continued to improvise with Ben Shahn’s folk hand as a basis. I last taught this more than a year ago, but each time I revisit the hand I discover more about it.
Ben Shahn’s folk hand is a wonderful canvas for improvisation in so many ways. As far as I know, we don’t have conclusive information about what tool he used for these letters. Ignorance is bliss in this case: I’ve tried them with a broad-edge pen, a pointed pen, a folded pen, a pointed brush, several pencils, and more. Each tool teaches a little more.
The Ben Shahn lettering continues! In a private Facebook group, the weekly prompt was “one word”. I chose “Nurture”. And because I have just finished teaching two online workshops titled “Ben Shahn-ish”, those letter forms are on the mind and in the hand.
This is not my first post about Ben Shahn-ish letters. You can read more here.
I’ve just been teaching a fun take on one of Ben Shahn’s personal lettering styles. The Ocala Calligraphy Guild explored this amusing but challenging folk hand with me as a one-day online workshop. I’ll teach it again in more depth for a guild in southern California, also online. It’s such a happy hand! Encouraging improvisation and fun, it also introduces the compound stroke and pen manipulation in a low-stakes way. (You may remember that I posted about teaching “Ben Shahn-ish” last year.)
The text is from a poem titled “Impressions” by Alice Ruth Moore. This is the section subtitled Thought. The page design is done in the style of a page from the book *I Am Loved* that Bryan illustrated. Like Ashley Bryan, Moore used her art for social justice. I chose a Ben Shahn style of lettering because Bryan and Shahn led mostly parallel lives in the the social realism art genre, sometimes intersecting in the mural work on public buildings in the 1950s. (Bryan’s “Harpist” in this Tweet looks for all the world like a Ben Shahn drawing.)
I enjoyed teaching Ben Shahn lettering to members of our local guild this month. Well, my take on them, at least. Clear examples of Ben Shahn’s actual lettering in this style have not been gathered into a book that is easy to acquire. In The Complete Graphic Works of Ben Shahn, there are some small images and one large but very faint image.
The renditions of contemporary calligraphy teachers vary widely. I think this is because the way the letters are put together with one another is as important as the letter forms themselves. Ben Shahn delighted to nest letters together, especially “LL”, to enclose one letter wholly or partially within the preceding letter, and to allow adjacent letters to sometimes share a single stem. It is a gently playful hand that is a delight to write.
We also explored the properties of Bister inks, which are similar to walnut ink but made in a range of colors.
Last week a friend pointed out a Facebook post by John Stevens: some “wrong weighted”
lettering, as he calls it, that she was working to emulate. I can’t find an example on his website, but if you’re on Facebook you might be able to see it here. I think it requires some time and enough kinetic familiarity to get a good rhythm going so that the strokes have more life than mine do. In the Facebook post, John calls it the “syncopated rhythm of Ben Shahn mixed with broad pen calligraphy.” In earlier posts here and here, you can see some of my attempts at the Ben Shahn lettering he references. Later, I used that lettering in a book commission of poetry by Madeleine Gomez: