Cora Pearl has been practising the art of calligraphy since the late 1970’s, and now has nearly forty years of experience. Cora works for Portland Community College as a calligraphy teacher, and her classes count towards college credit. I was very interested to discover that lettering arts are being taught at a college level, as sadly there are not too many educational institutions around now where this is still the case.
Although Cora now spends much of her time in Portland, she has travelled a great deal. She has explored different parts of the US and even ventured to Japan. Cora spent five years living in Japan, the culture and experience had a positive impact on her calligraphy skills. You may have come across some calligraphy groups or organisations during your lettering adventures, Cora actively participates in a number of these. Teaching at workshops and events like IAMPETH and Letters of Joy has added to the list of places Cora has explored and gained inspiration from. On top of all the teaching and organisational workshops, Cora finds time to host her own workshops for advanced lettering students too.
It is so clear how passionate Cora is about calligraphy and the lettering arts, and this is reflected within her work. She is able to letter words using calligraphy so consistently that at a quick glance her lettering could pass for a typed font. A skill I admire and would one day like to master. I have been conversing with Cora a little while to work on this interview, and she has already taught and introduced me to many new things, so if you’re lucky enough to be located in or near Portland I can imagine she is a fantastic influence to be around.
Cora has a wealth of information and experience to share, so this interview is a little longer than other interviews I have done previously. There were so many questions I wanted to ask. In the following interview Cora talks about teaching calligraphy professionally, her travel experiences and how they impacted her skills, things that stand out in student lettering work, how to deal with rush projects, nibs for getting started with calligraphy and more.
When you were invited to teach at Portland Community College did you feel ready to teach your calligraphy skills? Was there a point where it was easy for you to distinguish between feeling ready to teach calligraphy and lettering or not?
“When I started teaching calligraphy at Portland Community College I did feel ready to teach those skills. I was already an experienced teacher, having homeschooled my three children for seventeen years, as well as having taught a calligraphy class once before and having taught many other topics as well (childbirth classes, organizing skills, astrology, English language for Japanese students, etc.). In that aspect, I feel like a born teacher—it has always come naturally to me. I also believe that teaching is an art in and of itself, and always prefer to study with teachers who are good at teaching aside from whatever skill or subject they are offering so have aimed to be a teacher like that myself. As far as feeling ready in terms of my lettering skills, I felt ready with that too having done calligraphy since I was 11 years old. I don’t remember a time of not doing calligraphy! So for me, it was a very natural thing to start teaching calligraphy at the college level.”
Throughout your calligraphy journey you’ve travelled around both the US and the world, living in cities and small towns. Do you think there are any advantages or disadvantages to learning calligraphy based on where you live, or do you think it’s a truly universal skill that can be learnt from anywhere in the world?
“Ideally, it is best to take lettering classes in person, because it is such a specific and detailed art form in which the student benefits greatly from personal attention and in the moment feedback. I believe that we are learning two things in the initial study of calligraphy—we are learning to write the letterforms, of course, but also, we are learning to see in a new way. Being able to evaluate your own work can be difficult at first because the beginner doesn’t yet have the eye for understanding what is happening with the letters and spacing. For that reason, having feedback in real time from a teacher who has a well developed understanding of the principles of lettering and the skills to articulate and demonstrate it is, in my opinion, the best way to study this art form. I say this as a mostly self-taught lettering artist and if I could go back in time, I would have taken classes much sooner. However, if there are no good teachers available locally, travelling to take workshops and classes with skilled instructors is definitely worth it. Books and videos are great too, for supplementing in-person options.”
Are there any tools or stationary that you discovered during your time in Japan that you continue to use?
“I do use a lot of pens that are made in Japan, but I have discovered all of those since coming back from Japan. The main thing that I continue to use from my time in Japan is the Japanese sense of design and I continue to have a deep appreciation for traditional Japanese arts and their influence on me.”
Were there any calligraphy skills that you learnt in Japan which have had a long-term impact on your calligraphic style?
“As mentioned in the previous question, the greatest long term influence of living in Japan has been the exposure to Japanese culture and approach to making art. I studied Japanese quite seriously when I lived in Japan and I think that writing kanji (the Japanese writing characters) gave me a strong sense of spacing and stroke order that I could apply to doing calligraphy. In Japanese, each character fits into the same sized square, regardless of the complexity of the character. Also, stroke order is essential in writing Japanese successfully, and that gave me a deep understanding and even a reverence for how important stroke order is in writing the symbols of any language.”
You’ve taught many calligraphy students, and you’ve seen a lot of work. What specific things have stood out to you from past work you’ve seen, and what can calligraphy artists do to make their work stand out?
“For me, there are three things that make work stand out whether it is student work, hobbyists, or professionals, and those are: well made letters that show an understanding of the principles of good lettering, excellent spacing between letters / words / lines of writing, and a strong design. I am generally interested in and attracted to any piece that has these three things clearly expressed, even if it is not something I would be inclined to create myself.”
Lettering artists are often encouraged to take things slowly and exercise patience. This isn’t always possible in all situations though, for example when you only had four days to letter a detailed calligraphed certificate to be presented to the Dalai Lama. What advice would you give to those that end up working on rush projects?
“As a professional lettering artist, I am usually working with tight deadlines. Having a deadline really helps contain the experience of working on a piece. At this point I know more or less how long a particular type of project is going to take, but that sense of time was hard earned through experience. Each artist works differently, so timelines will be unique to each person. However, some things that have helped me with working with deadlines are:
• Creating a Project Order with all the relevant details about the project that I can refer to easily (contact information, project specifications such as size, client requests, design specifications, price, deadline, payment details)
• Create a timeline and schedule of preparation, design, and execution
• Leave plenty of time for designing—this is where most of the hard work takes place
• Take plenty of short breaks while working on the final piece. I define a short break as 5 to 15 minutes and staying within visual distance of the piece itself. A long break would be more than 15 minutes and can involve stepping away from the work. I take less of those.
• Make sure to stay well nourished and hydrated
• Meditate, breathe deeply, and create rituals to help stay focused and calm under pressure
• Listen to relaxing music with a drone quality and no words to fill the sound environment just enough to quiet my thoughts but still be able to concentrate
• Put a sign on the door that says Artist At Work—Please Do Not Disturb
•Hug people I love as needed”
You’re a member of Portland Society for Calligraphy, would you encourage fellow calligraphy and lettering artists to join local societies and organisations? What are some of the less obvious benefits you’ve come across from being an active member of calligraphy organisations?
“I think it is a great idea to join local calligraphy guilds for learning more about what is happening with lettering arts where you live. Guilds are a great resource for finding out about classes and workshops in your area. Less obvious benefits could include discovering the joy of being part of a community who shares this very particular interest, and contributing to the growth of this art form (even as a beginner!).”
Every experienced calligraphy artist has individual recommendations on calligraphy pen nibs that are good for beginners. What do you recommend beginners in your workshops and college classes start out using?
“For broad edge pen calligraphy, I recommend Brause nibs for beginners because they are well made, last a long time, they are strong, and they have a built in reservoir to hold ink. They are on the stiff side and therefore can handle someone who writes with a heavy hand. For pointed pen calligraphy, I recommend the Nikko G nib for beginners because it is good for a heavy hand and because pointed pen relies on pressure and release to create thick and thin strokes, the Nikko G is good for learning how to adjust to changing pressure as you write.”
What are the main ways you’ve noticed calligraphy change and evolve since you started learning in the late 1970’s?
“I have noticed a move toward calligraphy being used as a form of expression in and of itself as well as serving practical functions. I think the work is generally more colorful and there are more examples of abstract lettering and mark making. Legibility is not always important now, depending on the project. Also, there is more gestural lettering and other tools being used like the folded pen and the brush pen.”