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Joyce Teta still has the calligraphy pen that changed her life. She was 11, and her father’s deployment to England had landed her at a London boarding school. Like most

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Joyce Teta still has the calligraphy pen that changed her life. She was 11, and her father’s deployment to England had landed her at a London boarding school. Like most

Joyce Teta still has the calligraphy pen that changed her life. She was 11, and her father’s deployment to England had landed her at a London boarding school. Like most American students, Teta was used to writing with an ordinary pencil or a ballpoint pen. But these instructors made students use a broad-edged pen that they had to dip into an inkwell. “It was very uncomfortable,” Teta says. “But unlike adults, who struggle with their patterns, kids can go, ‘Oh, OK.’ When they’re thrown into [an unfamiliar situation], they learn how to come out of it.”

Calligraphy teacher Joyce Teta

For more than 45 years, Joyce Teta has shared her passion for calligraphy with generations of students in Winston-Salem. photograph by Maria West Photography

Teta emerged with an appreciation of letterforms that, since 1977, she’s passed along to generations of students at Winston-Salem’s Arts and Crafts Workshop, now the Sawtooth School for Visual Art. Unlike Teta’s own boarding school experience, her Intro to Calligraphy students start off with a familiar tool — slightly altered.

Handing each student two pencils taped together with gauze, Teta demonstrates how to place the pencil points onto a sheet of notebook paper, slowly sliding her arm down to form two parallel lines. When connected, those two points mimic the flat edge of a calligraphy pen. “Just feel it,” she encourages, peering over her students’ shoulders as they struggle to keep both points on the paper at the proper 45-degree angle. “It’s in you. You just have to find it.”

• • •

It doesn’t take long for Teta’s students to get the hang of it, and as their notebook papers fill up with their first calligraphy strokes, Teta shows them a photo of Trajan’s Column that she took while visiting Rome. “Here’s the thing that brings me to tears,” she says, pointing to the capital letters chiseled into the base of the column, which was completed in the second century. “These letters are magnificent. You don’t even need to be close to them to recognize the elegance of their shape. We haven’t made them any better in the past 20 centuries.”

The way Teta sees it, the ability to form markings is an intuitive sense. We’re all born artists, she believes, but most of us don’t trust that ability because we don’t develop it. “When you look at any calligraphed italic letters, you see that there are only three strokes,” she says. “If you understand the stroke sequence, you can build on that. That’s how simple it is to learn.”

Just as a musician can look at a sheet of music and quickly detect the dominant beats, Teta can glance at a row of calligraphed letters and see the weighted strokes. “That’s the first stroke,” she says. Her Sawtooth students have already mastered it even before they hold a calligraphy pen.

Calligraphy notebook

Teta is proud when her students write their first words and begin to fill their notebooks with calligraphy. photograph by Maria West Photography

Maybe the ancient scribes could have stopped with that weighted stroke. Their paintbrushes and quills could have formed letters made entirely of thick markings, lacking in width variation.

But they didn’t. “You wouldn’t want to hear a song with the same beat over and over again,” Teta says. “That would be boring and repetitive. The scribes recognized that, too, and they adjusted the weight of their markings.”

Delicate branches connect one weighted stroke to the next, creating a sense of movement that helps a reader’s eye glide from left to right. The second stroke moves from bottom to top, and the third is a push-pull stroke. “Those are strokes two and three,” Teta says. “It’s as easy as that.”

The letters formed by those three markings are rich in harmony and proportion. “It’s extremely intimate to make a mark and then repeat it,” she adds. “It has a beautiful response; it’s like getting to know a child.”

• • •

After a week of practice at home — just 10 minutes a day, Teta says — her students understand calligraphy’s basic strokes. They dip their pens into small wells of ink and experiment with the word “minimum.”

Teta reminds them to breathe. She can tell if they’re breathing by how consistent the spacing is between their letters, noting that the scribe’s inhale and exhale are reflected in the white space that invites rest. “It doesn’t matter which is the inhale or exhale — stroke or space. What matters is the exquisite rhythm in each individual.”

“To me, writing in calligraphy is like yoga. When you’re in breath, it feels divine.”

For many students of form like Teta, the practice of forming letters is akin to meditation. “To me, writing in calligraphy is like yoga,” she says. “When you’re in breath, it feels divine.”

That’s one reason she volunteers to write name tags at Sawtooth’s holiday parties. Teta marvels at the sense of pride that people feel when they’re given their calligraphed name, handwritten in ink, just for them. As she strokes to form letters, Teta feels connected to the ancient scribes whose marks are still revered. In the same moment, she feels fully present. “If I’m writing your name, I’m here,” she says, tapping the page in front of her. “I think that’s so powerful.”

Sawtooth School for Visual Art
251 North Spruce Street
Winston-Salem, NC 27101
(336) 723-7395

Sawtooth School for Visual Art in a red brick building

photograph by Maria West Photography

Sawtooth School for Visual Art

Named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, Winston-Salem’s iconic Sawtooth Building was built in 1911 as Hanes Hosiery’s first factory. Today’s artists are aided by the sunlight that streams through the jagged roofline’s skylights, just as factory workers were before the widespread use of electric lights.

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This story was published on Apr 29, 2024

Robin Sutton Anders

Robin Sutton Anders is a writer based in Greensboro.