next page


The dance of the pen



You held nothing, or maybe a match,
in your hand, could open
Tibet like Texas with a few words
or by a glance that let a cat out of your eyes.
I sat helpless while the world shimmered
like a drop of oil. If you said
“Now!” I would be afraid but ready.

from “To a Teacher of Calligraphy”
by William Stafford



You can read the poem
But that is not the poem.
Watch the white paper
Between the lines.
Look through that white
As through white snow
To see what buttercups and lilies
Are pushing up from below.

from “How to Read a Poem”
by Lloyd Reynolds


"A dance of the pen.” That is how the famed British calligrapher Alfred Fairbank described italic handwriting. The dance began on the Reed campus in 1949, and ended in 1984. The music was the small sound of pens scratching on paper, and the roaring symphony of a world opening up. For 35 years, no single class—certainly no one-credit elective—held more Reed students enthralled. It was forever standing-room only, the toughest ticket on campus.

Almost two decades after the final class was held, passions still run high among the Reedies who were there. The rise, reign, and fall of calligraphy at Reed is a tale of charisma, discovery, Zen, jealousy, spirituality, body vs. mind, the hand linked to the heart, a Trappist monk, the white paper between the lines—and, yes, above all it is the legacy of one brilliant, caring and cranky teacher: Lloyd J. Reynolds.
But this article is much less about Lloyd Reynolds himself than it is about what he wrote — sometimes on paper, but more often directly upon the minds and hearts of his students. Calligraphy at Reed. . . .that story we’re going to write in 26 letters.
Chemistry, it might be said, gave calligraphy its official start on campus. A new chemistry building was completed in 1949, and when the department moved out of Eliot Hall, a new form of chemistry moved in—Reynolds took over a former lab on the third floor for his studio and his printing presses. That was the year he first taught (for credit) the graphic arts workshop, a course in the history and evolution of written and typographic letterforms.

Reynolds (blood-brother of the Chippewa nation, child of poverty, lover of books, former forester and high school teacher, master of English literature, lifetime disciple of his “three Bills: Blake, Morris and Shakespeare,” refuser to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee) had come to Reed in 1929 to teach English literature. Eventually he also taught creative writing and art history. His interest in lettering dates back to 1924, when he went to work, briefly, for a greeting card and sign company.

“I couldn’t stay there,” Reynolds once said. “I asked questions about the letters and got no answers. There was technical skill there but no substance. There had to be more than empty mechanical knowledge.”

There was—much more—and Reynolds found it all. He studied calligraphy, schooled himself, picked up a few bucks in the ’30s and ’40s lettering and illustrating bookplates. He corresponded with many of the world’s best-known calligraphers. Eventually, he became one of the best calligraphers in the country. For Reed, the writing was on the wall. Reynolds began to teach calligraphy informally to Reed students and others. And then, in 1949, good-bye Table of the Elements, hello element of surprise.

next page