Julie Wildman headshot

Julie Wildman

When was the first time you picked up a calligraphy pen?

The first time I picked up a calligraphy pen was probably a Schaeffer pen of some sort when I was in high school, but I don’t exactly remember. I know that I drew a lot of letters as I was always interested in writing and was the designated poster-maker in grammar school. I also helped on the high school newspaper, illustrating for the front page and drawing headlines and such.

But the first time I used a REAL nib and holder was in Reggie Ezell’s 1998 year-long class. Once I got the thing to work properly and made a nice, pressurized Roman letter ‘I,’ I put my head down on my desk and cried because I thought the whole process was so beautiful. From that moment on, I was hooked!

What is the best advice you ever received (lettering or otherwise)?

It’s hard to pinpoint the ‘best’ advice, but I can tell you that I received a big word of encouragement regarding teaching from Chicago calligrapher and artist, Rosie Kelly. Rosie always had probing questions, and once asked me–with regard to my work as a calligrapher, and after I had begun teaching locally—“When do you feel most alive?” I responded that it was when I was sharing what I love to do with others, and when I see a face light up when a student ‘gets it.’ She smiled, nodded, and told me to ‘Keep it up!’

Why do you letter? What keeps you coming back every day?

Lettering is a form of expressing myself. I don’t dance well, but I feel like when I write words with my pen, I can ‘dance’ across the page and express my emotions in that space. And as I mentioned in question 1, I have loved letters since before I can remember. I find them to be fascinating shapes, and I love to see what I can do with those shapes. That is what keeps me coming back every day. Exploring new ways to make funky letters, and then to share those ways with anyone who’s interested.

What is your dream project?

I would love to do a large-scale outdoor word project in either metal or some form of heavy-duty plastic or Plexiglas. I can see words written across prairies, in the woods, or in parks or city spaces. Some are horizontal structures and others are vertical. It would also be fun to create them in 3-D so people can sit or climb on them.

What research do you do when learning or starting something new? i.e., a new style or new project?

When learning a new style, I try to find as much as I can about the hand and the lettering artist who created it. For example, right now I am researching the work of Imre Reiner, a Hungarian type/graphic designer and artist whose work spanned from the late 20s through the 60s. I have read as much as I can find and have seen some of his work up close at both the Harrison Collection at the San Francisco Public Library and the Newberry Library in Chicago. I live near Chicago, so the Newberry is a wonderful resource for studying anything about type and lettering.

When I start a new project, the way I work depends on the project. If it’s client-driven and leans toward a more formal approach, then I tend to revert to my graphic design background. I look through books or Google images that are well-designed on a page. I do numerous thumbnail sketches, then roughs. I practice the traditional hand so that I can get into a rhythm.

If it’s more of a looser style, I just start to play on paper with different tools. Many of my pieces are compositions that are done ‘on the fly,’ meaning I make them up as I go along. Once I brainstorm this way, then I may go back to refine them if need be.

Name 3 non-lettering artists who inspire you.

I love the line quality of both Picasso’s and Paul Klee’s drawings. I also love Cecil Touchon’s work, and the way he abstracts type and makes it into new shapes.

What do you aim to say with your work?

I want to express emotion in my work. I want people to feel something when they look at it—whether it’s joy, or the appreciation of beauty, or perhaps even confusion. I think that art is meant to cause people to see something in a new way.

Why do you teach? What is your teaching ethos/style?

As I mentioned earlier, I teach because I feel alive when I do. I have a thirst to learn new things, and I love to share whatever I’ve learned or am learning with other people.

I would say that my teaching ethos is:

Let’s have fun learning together. My students—or should I say ‘clients’—come to me because they want to learn something new from me. I think what I have to offer them is different from other instructors. I’m not the person who will teach them formal hands—although I can teach some—but rather, I will help them liven up the lettering they already know how to do. And I will teach them how to create new hands as well.

I also like to encourage people. It doesn’t matter where one is at in their learning experience. If someone spends an hour, three hours, or two days with me, they will learn something. And I can honestly say that most—if not all—will see improvement from the time they start until the time we end. Therefore, I can always find something good to say about someone’s progress. And that is important to me as a teacher. I want people to enjoy their time with me and be encouraged when they leave.

What is your favorite pastime when not in your studio?

I love to be outdoors in nature; walks and hikes; to be with my family and close friends. And I love to read. A LOT!

What jobs have you done besides being an artist?

Since college, I’ve been a graphic designer and a paper specifications rep for a large paper company. I also do proofreading for small companies. In high school, I worked for a small printing company.

How do you utilize the use of your right and left brain while creating?

I think that being a graphic designer has automatically caused me to use both when working on a project. One not only has to come up with creative ideas, but has to make them work for production. So, when I do lettering jobs or even art for myself, I tend to organize the process before I start. I figure out the steps it will take to get to a finished piece.

Chicago is a cultural hub of the U.S. How has working in and around the Chicago area influenced your work?

A huge influence has been being a member of the Chicago Calligraphy Collective (CCC). Through this organization, I have been mentored by some of the most well-known calligraphers in the world. As I mentioned earlier, Rosie Kelly has always been an inspiration to me. Studying very early on with Reggie Ezell in his year-long class was also huge. I’ve also been inspired by Tim Botts, Mike Kecseg, Pamela Paulsrud, and 
 many others in our guild.

The CCC also has 10 major workshops per year, and because of that, I’ve had the opportunity to study with many amazing instructors from all over the world.

And again, the Newberry Library is a huge part of our world as Chicago-based lettering artists. Each year, the Newberry would host the CCC’s annual juried show. The exhibit drew artists from around the world because the Newberry offered their Purchase Prize award. They would purchase a piece from the exhibit for $2,000, and it would become a part of their permanent collection.

Having a goal of producing up to three pieces each year for that exhibit was always a challenge for me, but it was very worth it. I learned a lot about how to produce work for a show. Just a note: The Newberry no longer hosts our exhibit, but continues to offer their Purchase Prize award each year.

Do you design in your head while riding your bicycle?

I had to laugh at this question! I design in my head while doing most things. I solve problems like thinking of ways to produce something more efficiently; planning my class handouts; getting compositional ideas from things in nature or in my environment; seeing letters pretty much everywhere I look; and imagining words written across the sky, mountains, paths, prairies, water, etc.