Ruth Pettis had bad handwriting in her early school years in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
"I was a really good student," she says. "I only got bad grades in handwriting."
Today, she's one of the bay area's most respected calligraphers, making visual art from the written word. She has three upcoming group shows, one opening Saturday at the Clearwater Main Library.
"I discovered calligraphy during a college semester in London (with Eckerd College)," she says. "It sounds foolish but it really changed and reshaped my life. I had rejected Latin in high school, for example, but once I started looking at old manuscripts in Latin, I became interested again.
"When I graduated in 1978, if you said 'calligraphy' you always had to follow it with a definition," she says. "At least now people sort of know what it is, like addresses on wedding invitations."
Pettis, 52, does not do addresses on wedding invitations.
"I used to," she says. "And I would use special colors and illustrations, but people thought they were done by a computer because they looked so perfect. And I had to charge a lot. So I thought, why do them?"
The whole computer issue has caused much soul searching among the calligraphic ranks.
"We're challenged to ask where calligraphy's place is. The same thing happened centuries ago with Gutenberg and the printing press."
Calligraphy resides in that nexus of craft and art. Its origins are in the former, with monks who could spend years hand-lettering or illuminating one book. The skill and creative interpretations of the calligrapher could elevate the work to art, a distinction that holds true today.
Pettis does far more than copy something in nice lettering onto a piece of paper. In her hands, words become conveyers of both visual and literal meanings.
Her tools are simple: brushes or pens with steel nibs, inks or paints, fine paper.
Commercial work, mostly for publishers, pays the bills and gives her the freedom to do what she calls her "esoteric projects." Examples of them will be at the Clearwater library (she gives a talk there on Saturday); in a show of art books opening at Florida Craftsmen Gallery on Sept. 18, and another at the Naples Museum of Art opening Oct. 2.
She's still at work on her most recent project, begun in 2003, a calligraphic version of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets. The idea germinated when she and several other scribes began gathering once a week to work in the same space but on separate pieces. They called it a scriptorium, after the medieval room in which monks worked on their manuscripts.
"It became like a journaling process in the sense of exploring different forms, colors, tools, papers," she says. "My original intent was that the work would always be private."
She compares her working method to "a meditative state, like a chemical change in the room. It's difficult for me to talk. Sometimes I barely know what I'm writing," though she constantly refers to texts she's using.
"Obsessiveness is a known characteristic of calligraphers," she says.
She says that the choice of Shakespeare does not reflect "a lifelong love of him. It's a vehicle."
As she nears the end (she has completed more than 120 of the sonnets), she's thinking of them more as a complete body of work that she would like to exhibit. Some will be on view in Clearwater and Naples. She rarely sells any of her creative work and probably will keep these, too.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.
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Where to see her work
- SHAKESPEARE APPEARS IN A FLORIDA SCRIPTORIUM: Ruth Pettis will present her calligraphic process and methods at 2 p.m. Saturday at a program at the Clearwater Main Library, 100 N Osceola Ave. See her work at the library in the annual group show of the Florida Gulf Coast Society of Scribes through Nov. 1. fgcsos.org.
- SCISSORS: Pop Up:Pettis' work will be in this group show of handmade art books at Florida Craftsmen Gallery, 501 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, from Sept. 18 through Oct. 31. floridacraftsmen.net.
- THE ART OF THE BOOK: Pettis is part of this group show at the Naples Museum of Art, 5833 Pelican Bay Blvd., Naples from Oct. 2 through June 30. thephil.org.