So You Want My Job: Master Penman

by Brett & Kate McKay on November 30, 2012 · 41 comments

in Money & Career, So You Want My Job

Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

Today we have another one of those jobs you probably didn’t even know existed: Master Penman. Yes, a professional penman. In this fascinating interview, Master Penman Jake Weidmann shares the story behind this historic job and title (one that only 11 people currently hold) and how he found his way into it. Made me kind of ashamed of, and want to work on, my own penmanship!

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc.).

I live and work in the beautiful state of Colorado. I have grown up here and apart from spending most of my college career in California at Biola University, I have always resided here in the south Denver region. I love Colorado for the grandeur of the landscape and the moderate, yet active lifestyle of its occupants. It has been a great inspiration to my work as I look out to see the front range of the Rocky Mountains from my studio window. I am following the biblical principle: “bloom where you are planted” and I am finding Colorado a fine place to bloom as an artist.

I settled my roots here after college at the age of 24, and now at 28 I am experiencing great growth. I struggled miserably at first, as most artists do, but choosing to struggle committed me all the more to the task. I was taking on small design jobs, a few commission pieces, and a fair amount of wedding invitations — anything to pay the bills and get me by. In the midst of all my professional struggles I was wrestling with personal struggle as well; I had it set in my mind that I wanted to further my skills and attain the level of “Master Penman.”

2. What does a penman do? And what makes you a “master” penman?

A penman is a vintage title that was given to someone whose career and professional skill sets were in the area of penmanship of various types. Art colleges were set up around the country to train men and women in the many disciplines of penmanship and hand-drawn letterforms. Before the typewriter, this was a booming career path, as nearly every major business needed a competent and proficient penman on hand to manage log books, keep records, write policies, and execute certificates. Many penman would become itinerate teachers of handwriting in grade schools around the country, teaching the fine art of writing to children eager to express themselves in written form.

A Master penman was one who was regarded by his friends and colleagues as the most proficient and prolific wielder of the pen. Such masters included Platt Rogers Spencer, who created the first American style of penmanship — the so-named, “Spencerian script,” Louis Moderasz, who was regarded as the greatest ornamental penman who ever lived and is credited with formulating the script that the Coca-Cola logo is written in, and Francis Courtney who was regarded as the “pen wizard” because of the “magic” created at the tip of his pen.

During the golden age of penmanship (roughly 1860 to 1930) there were several of these masters living and working around the nation. Today, there are only eleven of us who bear this title.

3. Why did you want to become a penman? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I was always fascinated by handwriting as a child. My mother had beautiful cursive and I loved the fluid linking of the letters into one another and the way they looked when they filled a page. As I identified myself as an artist during childhood, I made a personal vow that every time I put pen or pencil to paper, the result had to be a thing of beauty. So, I developed my handwriting incessantly all the way up through college. Anyone that saw it would take notice and almost always comment. I started getting requests from my fellow students in class for tattoo designs and wedding invitations; my professors knew me as the kid who wrote his essay tests like the Declaration of Independence.

And so, I decided that I was going to research the old style of writing and figure out the traditional techniques for executing script, even if I had to start writing with a quill. One fateful day in my dorm room, I searched YouTube for a video on “copperplate script”– lo and behold I found a video of Master Penman John DeCollibus writing the most beautiful script I had ever seen. It was like watching ballet on paper and from that moment I was hooked. From there my research grew and I found the International Association of Master Penman, Engrossers and Teachers of Handwriting, or IAMPETH for short. On IAMPETH’s website, I learned of the rich history of American heritage handwriting and what it meant to be a “Master Penman.” Immediately, I knew it was something I wanted to pursue.

4. How do you become a Master Penman? Is it something you can go to school for? Do you apprentice under someone else?

The road to becoming a Master Penman was a long and arduous one…and I relished every second of it. There are no longer schools for penmanship, so like all the other art forms I had learned before it, I had to teach myself. The learning curve was an awkward one, with a rollercoaster of peaks and valleys rather than a general ascent. Frustrated with the poor and few tools available, I started making my own pens on a lathe. I would practice tirelessly with them to obtain the muscle memory required to execute the perfect letter forms and exquisite flourishes.

My sudden appearance on the calligraphy scene got me noticed quickly. I attended the conferences that IAMPETH put on once a year and I would learn anything anyone was willing to teach me. I was welcomed by the skilled hands of willing teachers. My pens caught their notice too and to this day I have sold several hundred of my pens worldwide.

As my work grew in volume and skill, the existing masters took notice and in 2010 I was nominated by the calligrapher to the White House, Rick Muffler, into the Master Penman program. From there I entered into an apprenticeship underneath him in pursuit of my Master’s certificate. The final stage of the program requires you to make your own certificate as the best of your work to that point. On July 16th, 2011, I received my Master Penman’s certificate, which I executed on calfskin vellum with a pen I forged out of antique ivory and in a frame I carved out of Honduran Mahogany — truly the apex of my work thus far!

5. What job opportunities are out there for penmen? What kinds of things do you get hired to do, and who are you clients?

There are various jobs penmen are asked to do; the most common is invitation work and certificates, but there are a wide variety of special commissioned works that the Masters are asked to do. Many penmen do work for very high-end clients such as celebrities, the President, and even the Pope.

The work that I do now lives in the realm of fine art. Because of the many different mediums in which I work, I do all kinds of art for an array of clientele. Everything from designing lettering pieces, painting murals, creating original works to be sold in limited edition prints, and carving in wood, bone, and antler.

6. What is the best part of your job?

The best part of my job is being able to do what I love and see the work of my hands take solid shape in front of me. There is no greater adventure or better thrill than working real material into something that it could never be without my influence on it. A man wants to know that his life and his work will count for something — that his existence has tangible impact on his environment. Art is my impact and I am spoiled by its immediate effect.

7. What is the worst part of your job?

Like any other job, mine has its dull aspects. I have inventory to keep track of, orders to fill, taxes to file, bills to pay, and emails to answer. In the midst of the magic that is creating art, I have reality to deal with. Being a professional artist means that I have to live fully in both the art and business worlds. What I create in my studio may be sacred, but once it leaves the door it is a product — I am learning to deal with this duality. Artists are notorious for being poor business people, and I do not want the same to be true of me; I wrestle with it constantly, but I am determined to be good at both.

8. What is the work/family/life balance like for you?

At this stage in my career, balance is very hard to maintain. I can quickly get buried in my art and forget the ones that I love. I have to tell myself that people always come first. When art separates me from my relationships rather than bringing me into them, then I know that I am out of balance. Of course art requires much time spent away from others in order to accomplish what I need to, but isolation is only good for so long. When I spend time in the company of others and talk about my work with them, I often have moments of epiphany that speak into my work.

To combat this, I keep interests in other things outside of my home studio, like natural bodybuilding. Pumping iron is a polar opposite of writing calligraphy and I have found it as the perfect daily discipline to pull me out of my art. And when I have a healthier balance in my life, my art is all the better because of it; I am able to return to my work with a renewed perspective and greater motivation and focus than before.

9. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?

The biggest misconception people have about my work is that they assume I am doing it all on the computer. Because we live in a modern world of technology, the fact that I am doing everything by hand is almost a foreign concept. I get inquiries from other designers who ask me what programs I use to create my pieces, and especially my calligraphy. While I am flattered that people perceive my accuracy on level with a computer, I need to do a better job of explaining the “human factor” in my art. I am not a minimalist and I do not have a personal vendetta against technology, but I have found that the hand is still the greatest romancer of the eye. Though the average person would not be able to pick out the imperfections within a well-executed piece of art or calligraphy, the eye recognizes it as a result of the hand and is attracted to what they both have in common: the human element.

10. Any other advice, tips, commentary, or anecdotes you’d like to share?

I’ll leave you with two pieces of advice: Choose to struggle with something — we live in a culture of the quick and easy and it has made us impatient and lazy. When you commit to something that takes work and see it through to the end, it will develop you as much as you develop it. Second, invest in art — I am not just suggesting my art, but any art that you like. We are a society that looks at everything and beholds nothing. Good art is something to behold and will bring you a sense of peace and stillness in a world in constant motion.

 

 

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Andrew November 30, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Badass. As a graphic designer I am quite envious and would love to be able to incorporate a skill like this into my typographic work.

2 Roel Gaertner November 30, 2012 at 4:29 pm

This is absolutely stunning! I actually believed that writing by hand was extinct. This makes me want to improve my cursive handwriting even more.

3 John W. A. November 30, 2012 at 4:31 pm

What an inspiring article! A true artist and master. Thank you for sharing!

4 Ben November 30, 2012 at 5:25 pm

Great article. Inspiring

5 Gracie November 30, 2012 at 8:02 pm

I’m amazed — so amazed, in fact, that I almost commented to the effect of “OMG MARRY ME” and then thought better of it. ;)

Beautiful work.

6 Ken November 30, 2012 at 10:16 pm

Another great article! As a history buff I have often wanted to learn to write in script. As it is my handwriting looks much like my doctors.

7 James Armstrong November 30, 2012 at 10:25 pm

Wonderful! I have long thought that bad penmanship is the written version of a stutter. I would love to see more. Perhaps an article on penmanship? Or really great pens?

8 Gar9y November 30, 2012 at 10:52 pm

This is so awesome!!! As great as technology is, doing all this by hand really ensures each piece is a one of a kind and won’t be reproduced.

Check this site out…another artist doing what he loves:

http://www.zenpencils.com

9 Brian December 1, 2012 at 7:54 am

A breath of fresh air. That is, to see someone actually using pen and paper in a world in which it’s a dying art. And the fact that a skill like this can be used in a professional setting. I am sure there are many designers that are envious they can’t do this more. Hopefully, some will see this and use it as inspiration. Really cool to share a city with a gent like this. Cheers!

10 Bob December 1, 2012 at 11:32 am

The first thing I have to say is wow. I didn’t realize there were still people doing this kind of thing by hand, it’s amazing work. The second thing is, where is the super awesome piece that AoM commisioned? It would be epic and you know it.

11 Stever December 1, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Jake is as supremely well spoken as he is well scribed; his prose was a delight to read. It would seem that he is as concerned about what he writes as how it is written.

12 Matthew December 1, 2012 at 3:54 pm

What an impassioned reminder about the value of slowing down and creating quality, not mere quantity. America is on the right path if professionals like Jake call the United States home.

13 Casey H December 1, 2012 at 6:34 pm

“We are a society that looks at everything and beholds nothing”

Thank you for that and the rest of this wonderful article. It came at the perfect time as I am halfway through another master penmans home study course on American Cursive and needed another boost of inspiration. I hope we will find that as the world becomes more computerized there will equally rise a demand for things done by hand. Your work truly is impressive and you are fully deserving of the Master Penman title.

For the other readers you can find Michael Sull’s home study material for American Cursive at http://www.spencerian.com/

14 Janet Weidmann December 1, 2012 at 10:45 pm

What an awesome article, Jake! Everything was so well stated. You are so impressive. I couldn’t be more proud of your amazing accomplishments! Keep up the great work.

15 Isaac December 2, 2012 at 8:50 am

It’s great to see master craftsmen in this age of mass production. I’m a Hebrew-language scribe and most of my work involves copying texts the long and hard way by hand in one of three fonts so I was really impressed by the artistic side of your work. Keep it up!

16 Jessica December 3, 2012 at 3:37 pm

So much wisdom and beauty in this post and in Mr. Weidmann’s work.

“I have found that the hand is still the greatest romancer of the eye” , such poetry.

17 Jameel December 3, 2012 at 4:31 pm

Amazing article! AoM does it again.

I’m in IT, and have terrible penmanship (I’m sure there’s some relationship, lol). Jake’s work is inspirational! I think it would be amazing to design my own creation for a tattoo or something.

Thanks for the inspiration!

18 Alex December 4, 2012 at 1:43 pm

That Indian piece is amazing. Is there anywhere I could purchase a copy of it?

19 Dennis December 4, 2012 at 3:53 pm

How about thinking “outside the box”?

My cursive handwriting skills never developed into anything that could be called……… ah, beautiful? Using drafting as a springboard for my career, all of my writing was done in a printed format. But here comes the twist. Fluid Printing! Yes, as my printing speed increased, it morphed into a very unusual style of printing that now might even be called attractive, if not beautiful.

20 Mary Celeste December 4, 2012 at 4:45 pm

Nice – a beautiful story about writing, so beautifully composed. Thank you for educating us!

21 Jake Weidmann December 6, 2012 at 9:49 pm

Thank you everyone for taking the time to read my interview. Thank you also for your kind and encouraging comments, whether they were directed at me or not. I am glad to see this art form so well received. Blessings to you all in the struggles of your own choosing.

22 Brent December 6, 2012 at 10:40 pm

Great interview, and I especially love the insightful advice: “Choose to struggle with something…it will develop you as much as you develop it.”

23 Stompie December 8, 2012 at 3:19 am

Brilliant stuff Sir!

For those who think penmanship is dead have a look at the Fountain Pen Network forum with over 70 000 members!

24 Nate December 10, 2012 at 9:27 pm

The piece of the Arapaho Warrior is in the front hall of my high school. His work is even more breathtaking in person. My hat is off to you Jake. Your work truly captures the essence, beauty, heritage, and tradition behind our school’s strongest symbol.

25 Bill December 11, 2012 at 9:53 am

Jake’s work is special. He is a favorite of my boys – introduced to him by their grandmother. We had an opportunity to see some of his T-shirt designs, they are inspried.

Jake- you did an awesome job of representing all the Master Penmen.

26 Michael Lunsford December 12, 2012 at 1:32 pm

Impressive all around. Thanks to Casey H for sharing the link to the Spencerian page. All would do well to improve their own handwriting. It is, to many of us, the only art form we will ever have.

27 DIO December 13, 2012 at 7:26 am

The link to Jake’s site needs a minor correction. If you click on the link, you get sent to: http://www.jakeweidmann.com/index2.php?v=v1

His home page currently is: http://jakeweidmann.com/

28 Darren December 16, 2012 at 5:53 pm

“Choose to struggle with something — we live in a culture of the quick and easy and it has made us impatient and lazy. When you commit to something that takes work and see it through to the end, it will develop you as much as you develop it. ”

Worth it just for that quote.

Thank you, sir.

29 Matt December 20, 2012 at 1:06 pm

I don’t know how or why I have never heard of this. I always had the impulse when I was younger to put pen to paper–That’s right, the act itself–and had an interest in calligraphy, but never thought it could go anywhere productive. I wish I’d've known about this in my teens, but I suppose it’s never really too late.

30 T December 23, 2012 at 3:58 pm

That Native American piece is the nuts.

31 Jake December 25, 2012 at 4:40 am

I’ve been looking to take up calligraphy for quite some time now. I’ve always put it off because I’m not sure where to start and because I tell myself being left-handed will cause great trouble. I think I just found a reason to start now.

32 James December 28, 2012 at 2:22 pm

A well written interview. I applaud you and your decision Jake and I hope to have the same struggle and able to stick through it this time. Keep it real

33 Anh-Viet Nguyen December 28, 2012 at 9:54 pm

You have no idea how much inspiration this is for me. My roots in calligraphy, though not nearly as extensive as yours, is very similar. I have always been complimented for my neater handwriting and started actual calligraphy after seeing a YouTube video of Hamid Reza Ebrahimi writing copperplate script (yet another similarity). That was roughly 5 years ago. Although I’m not striving towards a career in calligraphy, I am always looking to improve and expand my knowledge on calligraphy. It’s just amazing that you could become a master in a relatively short time!

34 Courtnie Finkell December 29, 2012 at 2:18 pm

whats the webaddress to get some of your art please? kindly email me if you would. Thank you. Court

35 Jake Weidmann December 30, 2012 at 4:38 pm

Thank you everyone very much for turning this interview into a conversation. I appreciate so much all of your comments. Courtnie, my website is JakeWeidmann.com and you can purchase artwork through my shop (link below). http://jakeweidmann.com/shop-2/ I hope you all have a very Happy New Year!

36 Jim January 14, 2013 at 12:43 am

As an aspiring calligrapher/artist, this article has given me such hope and has imbued my spirit and willingness to choose to struggle with my passion. I use IAMPETH for resources all the time so I know I’m headed on the right track. Because of AOM, I have found new sources of inspiration and knowledge which I implement in my daily life. Thanks AOM for introducing me to my new favorite artist.

37 Brian January 23, 2013 at 4:31 pm

I am very fascinated by how perfect, flowing and just beautiful good penmanship is. Maybe it’s because I know that it will be something I will never be able to accomplish myself. See, ever since I was old enough to pick up a crayon I was told that my handwriting was atrocious lol. That’s alright though. I can accept that not everything is for everyone. Sometimes it is good to not be able to do things as I have a greater appreciation for it that way. Just like with music for instance. There were songs that I used to love very much until I learned how to play them myself on the guitar. Now, I am no longer impressed with them as learning it more-or-less ruined it for me somehow. Hard to explain I suppose so it makes sense. Regardless what I envy the most is that you love what you do for a living. They say if you love what you do for a living you never work a day in your life. Unfortunately for me I never experienced a day I didn’t work lol. God Bless you for recognizing, pursuing, and mastering the gift you were given. Nothing worth having comes easily.

38 Jack Zhang January 26, 2013 at 10:49 pm

Absolutely amazing work! I totally agree with the first tip and that is to commit yourself to a challenging endevour!

39 Steve January 29, 2013 at 2:17 pm

Great article, and amazing work. I just learned something new & was very impressed by the mans passion.

40 Gregory March 18, 2013 at 7:03 pm

I read it and what is funnyis that I am also known “as the kid who [writes] his essay tests like the Declaration of Independence” in college, although I don’t master penmanship as a Master Penman.

41 Tommie Lutz December 29, 2013 at 11:10 pm

Amazing talent. What you said about cursive writing being fluid and beautiful is something I have said ever since I started using it, in 3rd grade. Unfortunately, it’s not even taught anymore and is starting to throw younger people (I’m only 25) for a loop when trying to read it. Out of every job article I have ever read, none have ever been as desirable as this one. I didn’t even know it until I read this. I’m going to check out your website and share it, for sure.

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