’The artist Paul Klee was asked what he did when he was drawing, and he said he took his line for a walk,’ says the calligrapher Satwinder Sehmi. ’Well, I take my line for a dance. I have sex with that line. I have that passion about it.’
Seeing him write just one word proves his enthusiasm. Forget about medieval monks meticulously copying sections of scripture in musty monasteries Sehmi’s calligraphy is physically charged. Sweeping gestures form the structure of each letter, while he darts in here and there to add detail. It’s a dance that is all about pen, ink, paper and motion.
’Calligraphy to me is very three-dimensional. You can feel the ink on the paper, I can layer ink on ink so it becomes textural. My hand doesn’t start where the ink starts and it doesn’t finish where the ink finishes. It’s almost like playing ping-pong you don’t wait for the ball to hit your bat. You approach the ball, you strike the ball and then your hand leaves the ball,’ he says.
It sounds like Mr Miyagi’s philosophy in Karate Kid, and, indeed, Japanese and Chinese art are major influences for Sehmi. However, his love of calligraphy began when he was a small boy growing up in Kenya, copying the masthead of the national newspaper (similar to The Daily Telegraph’s Blackletter).
In 1969, his family moved to the UK and when he left school he tried to study architecture but was drawn back to calligraphy, taking a course at the then Roehampton Institute. For the past 22 years, he has been a freelance aiming to make calligraphy relevant in the world of graphic design.
With clients as big as McDonald’s, Sainsbury’s and The Body Shop, there has been plenty of success, but Sehmi still battles the idea that calligraphy is a dying art. He says, ’Maybe we should come up with a word that’s different from calligraphy. I’d rather tell people I’m a car clamper than a calligrapher. People say, “Oh, so you draw maps?” “No, that’s a cartographer.” “Oh, so you do dances?” “No, that’s a choreographer.” “Oh, so you’ll analyse my handwriting?” They don’t understand what calligraphy is.’
Even in design, some consign calligraphy to jam jars and church posters. Sehmi’s agent Sue Allatt recently started taking him into studios where he does live demonstrations so that designers can appreciate his abilities. ’I’m spontaneous with the marks that I make it’s an eye-opener for the client. Once they’ve seen me, they get me as a person. They get what I do, how I do it and my approach, which you can’t actually put in a portfolio. Now other consultancies have started saying, “Could you come in and do it for us?” ,’ he says.
Sehmi’s unique selling point is that he can quickly create a bespoke mark or lettering to fit the look and feel of any brand.
’With my hand I can adjust things to the eye, whereas with type it’s fixed and you can’t do too much to it,’ he says. ’Depending on the shapes that I’m doing, the space between the letters alters. If I’m doing ascenders or descenders, they vary according to what’s above the line, what’s below the line. It’s like a game of chess that I play when I write.’
Beyond commercial design, Sehmi authored the book Calligraphy: The Rhythm of Writing, and one of his works is on permanent display in the British Library. He teaches workshops in the UK and abroad, and one of his favourite memories is a talk he gave in Berlin. ’They were saying, “Your work’s incredible.” So I said, “All right, let me show you something incredible.” I took a road sweeper’s brush, mixed whitewash and I started to write the word “incredible” on the lawn. It’s funny, I got as far as “incredi” and then I ran out of whitewash. Incredi! It couldn’t have been better,’ he gleefully recalls.