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A Lady of Letters

Jacqueline Moore Svaren ’50

November 20, 2021, in Seattle, Washington.

A leading figure in the revival of the art of calligraphy, Jaki spearheaded a national renaissance of the art form, putting Portland on the map as one of its centers along with England and Germany.

She began her notable career as a student of Prof. Lloyd Reynolds [English and art 1929­–69], with whom she studied for seven years and whom she credited with changing her life. Jaki’s calligraphic works were exhibited throughout the United States and Europe, and her popular caligraphy manual, Written Letters, was reissued this year by Reed.

“Calligraphy is ‘everyman’s art,’” she proclaimed, “a beautiful thing that anyone who wants to work at, can do. It elevates writing, an ordinary, everyday thing, to the realm of art.”

Calligraphy had almost been forgotten as an art form when, in the early years of the 20th century, Edward Johnston rediscovered the square-tipped pen. Since the humanist revival of the 15th century, the handwriting world had fallen into what Jaki called “the quagmire of copperplate.” For hundreds of years almost all writing was executed with the pointed steel pen, which emerged in response to the printing styles of copperplate engraving.

Reynolds’s calligraphy class was one of the most popular electives of its day, spurring a calligraphy revival that directly impacted such diverse communities as the San Francisco Beat poets, including Gary Snyder ’51, Philip Whalen ’51, and Lew Welch ’50, and designers and developers of digital type, including Sumner Stone ’67, and Chuck Bigelow.

Jaki became one of Reynolds’s foremost students. Recalling his influence, she said “The calligraphy got students to come to the class. Then Reynolds took off, talking about the whole of the human condition. It certainly wasn’t the letterforms that kept us entranced. As he made so clear, when you raise a daily activity to the level of art, you begin to look differently at the other seemingly simple aspects of your life. Lloyd Reynolds was trying to open us up to the miracle.”

She finished her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Oregon, and began teaching calligraphy and italic handwriting at Grant High School in 1957—in those days, Portland high school students were required to learn both. After five years at Grant, she moved to Portland State University, where she taught lettering and basic design. She spent most of her career teaching at Portland Community College, where she created its lettering program in the late ’60s.

“Getting into calligraphy is like stepping into the narrow end of a funnel,” she said. “As you go further the medium keeps getting bigger and bigger.”

While working full time as an instructor at PCC, and the busy mother of four, Jaki decided to write a calligraphy manual. She hoped it would enable her students to understand the Western letterforms. In the grand tradition of the scribes of antiquity, it would be done entirely by hand. For two years, Jaki worked nights and weekends to complete the project. Written Letters illustrates 33 different alphabets and provides detailed instructions for writing each letter. It became one of the most popular calligraphy books in America, influencing countless students throughout North America and the world. Jaki also wrote Lojor’s Letters, a space-age story about a boy and a gnome learning italic handwriting.

She retired from PCC in the ’90s, but continued to correspond with and mentor students far and wide until her death.

Jaki curated numerous exhibits of work by Portland calligraphers, founded and hosted calligraphy retreats at Menucha Retreat and Conference Center in the Columbia Gorge, and taught workshops around the nation. She was president of the Western American Branch of the Society for Italic Handwriting. She and her husband, sculptor and fellow PCC teacher Russell Svaren, collaborated on mixed-media projects and exhibited their work around Oregon.

“There are only two bequests we need to give our children: one is roots, and the other is wings,” Jaki said in a 2019 interview. She passed along both to her four children, Lynn Robert Carter, Jo Ann Byers, Eric Svaren, and Kelly Van Hee, who survive her.

Appeared in Reed magazine: March 2022

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