Callligraphers Engagement Calendar cover
The Calligraphers Engagement Calendar, edited by Eleanor Winter and Carole Maurer, published by John Neal, Bookseller, 7 x 9 inch desk calendar, paper.

The calendar was last published in 2004. Back issues are still available from John Neal, Bookseller.

The Calligraphers Engagement Calendar

by Cari Ferraro

On many a calligrapher's bookshelf, dwarfed by instructional manuals and larger collections of contemporary calligraphy, are the small, spiral-bound books known as the Calligraphers Engagement Calendar. The lucky archivist will have managed to collect all seventeen or more (there is some argument as to how many official copies there have been) since it began publishing in 1978. There can be precious few pages bound between covers that are as packed with good design, impeccable lettering, and inspiring quotes as the Calligraphers Engagement Calendar. Many times have I reached for these gems when I need an idea for a letter style or a layout. It was in looking at these calendars that I first began to really understand such concepts as personal variations in hands, or the difference between positive and reverse layouts. Teachers of calligraphy often show editions of the calendar to their classes to illustrate design. Printed almost exclusively in black and white since its inception, the calendar's artwork gives clear examples in design and letter forms. The list of contributors for the cover art, calendaria and informational pages reads like a Who's Who of calligraphy.

Besides outstanding lettering, the hallmark of each year's calendar is its theme. The theme of the 2001 calendar is Animals. It is unlikely that a calligrapher will have something on hand on a given topic in the correct format, and so will put out the best effort to do a piece especially for the competition. Over the years the theme has ranged from the obvious choices like art or nature or love to more challenging ones such as sports and games and the challenging theme of color (for art printed in black and white). Occasionally an identical quote will be done by two calligraphers, giving an opportunity to see different interpretations of the same text.

Perhaps more than any other publication, the calendar has served as a unique vehicle for communication among calligraphers. There are many calligraphy books and exhibition catalogs now, but twenty years ago there wasn't much to look at. There were a few basic instruction books with fewer examples. The annual calendar showed what was going on in the calligraphy world in a grass roots sort of way. Annie Cicale lived in Montana and was ecstatic when she and a friend, Gwynn Mundinger, had artwork accepted into the 1984 calendar. They thought all the best work was being done in the big cities. The calendars helped her to understand design, that it was "much more than just ruling up and slapping some letters down," but that all the parts had to work together. She remembers thinking that some of the early calendars had some very conservative designs, not realizing until years later how very difficult it is to do a simple, elegant layout.

During the late seventies, calligraphy was "red hot," says Alice, who has been a professional scribe in New York City for over four decades. Donald Jackson, scribe to England's queen, had made a sweep through the United States in 1976, leaving in his wake scores of scribes enamored of the written letter. In 1977 the seeds of the engagement calendar were planted with the production of a 13 by 20 inch wall calendar, designed as a fund-raiser for the recently formed Society of Scribes in New York. The moving force behind this project was Paul Freeman, a dynamic fellow described affectionately as an "an absolute monarch." Paul Freeman artworkHe picked twelve contributors for the wall calendar, but by 1978 so many more people had joined the society that the 52-week desk calendar was born. (With the synchronicity of all great ideas, a very similar engagement calendar was also produced in 1978 by the Society for Calligraphy in Los Angeles.) Because of the number of submissions for the 1978 calendar, a jury picked the pieces to be included, though the forward by Paul Freeman does admit to inclusion of artwork by some scribes based on their years of contribution to the craft. Not too surprisingly, the theme of the first calendar was calligraphy and lettering.

In 1979 Paul Freeman worked with Taplinger Publishing Company to publish the Calligraphers Engagement Calendar as a Pentalic book. For the next three years he produced a larger slicker calendar, printing in two colors (red and black, then brown and black). These early calendars are filled with small gems, as well as awkward early pieces by "the greats" and the "never heard from agains," and the idiosyncratic calligraphy of Paul Freeman himself. The calligraphy in these early editions is distinguished by its simplicity of presentation and its conservatism; it would be some years before many people submitted things done with screens, reverses, or even brush writing.

The Society of Scribes had continued to publish a guild engagement calendar in 1979 and 1980, but only published one more Calligraphers Engagement Calendar in 1983, after Paul Freeman's death and the lack of an edition in 1982. Distribution, however, was an enormous job for the society, so Eleanor Winters approached Taplinger to pick up the calendar again for 1984. Taplinger agreed, since they had no work but the printing and distribution, an unusual arrangement for a calendar publisher. Most publishers have an art department, but in this case the editorial team has always provided everything, delivering it completely ready to print.

The calendar stayed with Taplinger through 1987. In the summer of 1987 everyone's worst nightmare happened: a fire in Eddie Francolini's studio (art director for the calendar since 1983) destroyed all the artwork for the 1988 calendar. Some artwork was salvaged, but it was a soggy mess, and too far gone to even tell whose work was whose in some cases. Taplinger used the catastrophe as an excuse to stop publishing the calendar, since they were cutting back on publishing anyway.

After the fire, Pam Shilling (Johnson), owner of Pendragon Calligraphic Supplies, jumped into the breach and published a onetime calendar for 1988. Under the gun of an almost impossible deadline, she managed to put an invitational calendar together. Of the same size and format, the Pendragon Calligraphic Calendar was not the official calendar, but sufficiently filled the 1988 slot with a quite respectable edition on the subject of children and childhood.

In 1989 the calendar acquired a new name, The Artful Letter, and a new publisher, Universe Books of New York, a top publisher of calendars. Faced with the potential demise of the calendar after losing Taplinger, Carole and Eleanor contacted dozens of publishers before finally signing a contract with Universe. They ultimately put out eight of the calendars until finally dropping it after the 1996 issue, after they were bought by Rizzoli International. Carole Maurer said, "We were small potatoes, not worth their while financially." Some of the museum calendars have runs in the 60,000-70,000 range, so the calligraphy calendar with a run of 5,000 to 10,000 was too small. "Even so," Carole said, "they always sold out and I would end up scrounging around trying to fill orders, year after year, but Universe wouldn't commit to a bigger run."

In a step toward quality and sophistication, the new publisher began to print the cover in four-color. John Stevens, one of the world's best-known calligraphers, was asked to do the cover the first year with Universe because he was experienced in four-color design. Alan Blackman's cover for 1996 was memorable for his trademark vibrant colors. Other cover artists have included Dick Beasley, Raphael Boguslav, Timothy Botts, Robert Boyajian, Larry Brady, Emily Brown Shields, Christopher Calderhead, Marjorie Corbett, Reggie Ezell, David Mekelberg, Charles Pearce, Marcy Robinson, Guillermo Rodrigues-Benitez, Rene Schall, Julian Waters, Sheila Waters, Patricia Weisberg, and Jeanyee Wong. The cover for the new 1999 calendar was created by Michael Kesceg.

The current team has been working together since 1989 when Marcy Robinson became production coordinator. She does all the production (paste-up) completely by hand. Carole Maurer, who has been with the calendar for fourteen years, does much of the day-to-day managing work, as Eleanor Winters lives half the year in Holland. Eleanor, a contributor since 1978, has been with the calendar the longest, and has been an editor since 1983. Nan Johnson artworkSo it was to Carole and Eleanor that John Neal broached the subject of bringing back the calendar, as he has the marketing and distribution capacity to reach the calligraphy community. The editors are enthusiastic and grateful to be working with John, a true calligraphic insider. Working with a large publisher, they never quite knew who they were dealing with. The calendar has been 9 by 7 inches since its beginning, except for three 8.5 inch square calendars published from 1979 to 1981. In 1983 the calendar resolved itself into its current 9 x 7 inch size, with a wire spiral binding. Except for a couple of early editions, when the calendaria and end notes were typeset, "the calendar has a carefully-nurtured tradition," said Eleanor, "of every mark, every line, number, and word being done by hand. There is not a computer mark in the whole production, except as it's used for reproduction purposes by some entrants. It's lovingly produced by everyone involved." Art for the cover is rewarded by an honorarium only, as are the contributors of the extra pages, such as the contributors, acknowledgments and calendaria.

The judging criteria of the editors are strict. They are sticklers for letterforms, and letters take precedence over illustration. They urge entrants to read the directions carefully. Entries may be rejected if they are not submitted in the correct format (such as horizontal instead of vertical), or the text is not relevant to the theme, or color photographs are submitted instead of camera-ready artwork (photostats and artwork are notCari Ferraro artwork returned after being submitted). If scribes submit more than one entry, the editors prefer to use work by two different people, but if both entries are truly outstanding, they will take them both. There's no guarantee that if you were in one year that you will be in the next. The judging is done silently, and can take days to complete. The names of the artists are on the back, so the jurors don't see the names until afterwards. Many first-time contributors are included in every edition.

The new calendar has returned to the original name, The Calligraphers Engagement Calendar, dropping The Artful Letter. The calligraphic community is glad to welcome back the engagement calendar, as a way of seeing what's current and of showing off some of our best to the rest of the world. As the years have passed, the calendar has grown up with the field of calligraphy. Pieces that were in the calendar years ago might not be accepted now, as the overall quality and quantity of calligraphy has improved. By submitting a piece to the calendar, artists attempt to join the ranks of published calligraphers, to leave their mark in the greater world. There are new faces and old friends among the offerings of the new Calligraphers Engagement Calendar.

Available from John Neal, Bookseller

Artwork by (from top): Alice, Paul Freeman, Nan Johnson, and Cari Ferraro.

Article originally written in 1998, revised since