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

I had dabbled a bit before on my own with a fountain pen, but my very first experience with a Brause nib dates from May 1990.

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

“Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort.” 

I came across this (abbreviated) quote early in my career and it still rings very true for me. I’ve always believed in hard work, but apparently that’s not enough, you also needs to muster up the intellectual courage to severely question the result of your efforts.

Calligraphic work by Yves Leterme

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

That depends on the kind of lettering I do. While I draw capitals it becomes a meditative thing: I have to slow down and that allows me to think quietly about introducing smaller variations, enjoy the music on the background, ponder about life’s issues, the state of the world and my place in it, etc… When writing gesturally, there’s more energy involved, I can still feel the excitement at seeing an interesting series of strokes appearing on the paper. I guess I’m addicted to both these aspects of lettering.  

What is your dream project?

When I was younger I had a few of those and I was lucky to be given the chance to realize some of them. Now, I’ve given up on dreaming about big and meaningful installations or projects, I’ve come to realize that my poor brain is not geared for this – I don’t have the skills nor the vision or the energy for that sort of work. That doesn’t prevent me, however, of daydreaming about a big solo exhibition in my hometown, one in which I could illustrate the road I traveled, the different aspects of calligraphy I tried to master.  

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

We have so many search tools at our disposal: Google, Pinterest, Instagram, websites,… we can make collections, mood boards, journals full of notes… though I realize that this should be the way to go, I hardly do so myself. I prefer to play for a while with colors and lettering styles until I hit upon something that seems to work well with the topic and the message it wants to convey. 

a Sample of work by Miroslava Rakovic and a piece by Yves Leterme

Name 3 non-lettering artists who inspire you.

I remember being swept away by the work of Kevin Tolman, Miroslava Rakovic and Rebecca Crowell (all three can be followed on IG). I feel they’re kindred souls when I’m working on my own gesso-pieces.

What do you aim to say with your work?

To me the visual impact of a work is very important. I hardly notice or pay attention to the words/message of the piece, which I find surprising myself as I have a background as a philologist. So, I mostly want my work to give visual pleasure to the viewer. I want him/her to enjoy the lines, letters, colors, technique, composition etc… not because it’s all expertly and flawlessly executed, but because it’s (hopefully) interesting, rich, rather uncommon. Also, I like to appeal to the intellect of the viewer by choosing thought provoking or even contradicting quotes, hiding a reference in a corner, cutting off sentences, thus inviting them to experience a bit of the chaos in my mind.  

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

I’ve always loved teaching and I take great pleasure in helping students on their way with whatever knowledge, insights or skills that I’ve acquired over the years. Having had great teachers myself, I know how much and how lasting an impact a good teacher can have. Teaching also helps to get a clearer picture yourself of what it is that you want to do with your own calligraphy. 

In class, I try not to come across as He Who Knows, I try to keep an open mind, but on the other hand, I also fully realize that as a teacher, I should not burden my students with all the doubts and confusion I experience myself. 

What is your favorite pastime when not in your studio?

Finally an easy question! I read novels, lots of them. 

What jobs have you done besides being an artist?

I was a Latin and Greek teacher for 25 years.

Many decry that handwriting is dead, but you argue that it is still relevant today. Any words of encouragement for your fellow calligraphers?

Well, this will be like preaching to the choir, but one could argue that apparently so many people still enjoy the act of writing and even more people appreciate the personal touch of a handwritten letter. There’s the awe and excitement one feels when seeing the scribbled notes of a Great Mind. We probably would not experience that feeling in front of a printed email. Same thing with a logo: one can make wonderful logos while using only typography, but when a skilled hand enters the game, it becomes more human, it touches the heart directly.

You are known for both your accurate historical forms and your gestural forms. How do you mentally switch between both styles?

Well first off, I’m not sure I deserve to be known for my ‘accurate historical forms’ ;-). Like everyone else at the start of a calligraphic journey, I spent time on getting acquainted with some historical hands, but already at an early stage I was driven into wilder waters and that’s where I can be found now most of the time. But you probably refer to my Trajans and my ongoing obsession to get them exactly right. How do I switch between the wild stuff and the exacting Trajans while staying sane and in balance? I don’t find that a difficult thing to do, I must say. One can get the impression that my gestural stuff is all about freedom, but it’s not, it also requires a lot of thoughtfulness and precision, so it’s closer to Trajans than you might think at first sight. Practicing Trajans does require a different mindset though; one has to rely mostly on skill and memory, so it can become a meditative job since you don’t have to be creative, only very disciplined. For gestural work on the other hand, skill and a high degree of familiarity with some strokes is necessary, but one also needs to make a thousand quick decisions on composition if one doesn’t want to repeat oneself all the time. To put it this way, I can listen to a book while practicing Trajans, but I can’t when writing gestural. 

Brush Romans & Gestural Calligraphy by Yves Leterme