First Person: Barbara Sweet, 60, calligrapher and owner, Sweet Ink Calligraphy


(D.A. Peterson)

Calligraphy had a pull for me in the sense that it was words. Originally it was just to support myself while I was painting.
I don’t paint anymore. I’m not one to be a Sunday painter. [Calligraphy] is easier, because while it’s creative, I’m not starting from scratch. Because you can’t change the words of something. Somebody’s name is what it is. Or a poem is what it is. People say what they want to say,
and you have to figure out a way to both make it artistically interesting or beautiful but also to say what it says. That’s different from starting off with a blank piece of paper and doing a painting and doing whatever you want. It doesn’t have that kind of freedom, so it’s not as challenging intellectually or creatively — at least I don’t think so. But on the other hand, it makes it very interesting, because you have to figure it out. How am I going to make this work? It’s like a puzzle.

When you start, you’re much more fanciful about it. You’re overenthusiastic, and you can do anything. But then the more skill you get, the more you hone in, and it gets very simple. Like you first get into cooking, and you might decide to make some fancy 18-tier thing with roses and whatnot, but when you really get in it, you just want to make a perfect omelet. And once you’ve learned that, once you have the skill, then you can all of a sudden start swirling again. So, it’s like that with me. I love people who have Qs in their name. Qs are a fabulous letter and most particularly in italic. I like Zs, too. You like the letters that you don’t run into that much. You want ascenders and descenders. But give me a Q any day.

Sometimes the hardest thing is explaining to people why I want to do things a certain way. Sometimes people have a definite idea — they want it horizontal and 9 by 12, and then they give you something like an E.E. Cummings poem. You try to explain: “If I make the lettering big enough that it’s 12 inches down, you’re going to have about six inches of white space on each side because there’s about three words in each line.” They should just let me do the thing I think is best.

It is very satisfying to see how thrilled people are when they look at what you’ve done. Knowing that someone is getting this framed saying or congratulations. It’s something real. Don’t you sometimes go to cocktail parties and ask people what they do, and you haven’t a clue after they tell you? I actually produce something. At the end of the day, there’s something there.

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