As I see it, there are many facets to my apprenticeship, much more than just craft alone - such research and scholarship.
Luckily, my teacher Eric is just as knowledgable about the history and evolution of letters as he is in making them, and he has always encouraged me to pursue such lines of inquiry.
To this end, and as a result of a recommendation from Eric, I was lucky enough to take a trip to London a few weeks back to view the I Am Ashurbanipal: King of the World exhibition at the British Museum.
The show, which consisted of numerous Assyrian cuneiform tablets, statuary, and large wall friezes, was a powerful experience.
As a lettering artist, I was excited to see cuneiform tablets in person and up close, as I’ve seen plenty in books and online but never in the real. Cuneiform is really the progenitor of our modern alphabet - the most basic tools our trade - so I felt is was really important to do a bit of research in this area and add to my fledgling lettering scholarship.
The first, and the most surprising, thing you notice about the cuneiform tablets are how small they are: absolutely tiny! Most of them were no bigger than a candy bar or brownie (can you tell I’m hungry?), and the symbols themselves are not only equally miniscule, but incredibly dense. Even if I were able to read it, I would have had to use a magnifying glass! How they accurately made these marks is beyond my comprehension.
But I have to say, my favorite part of the show were the large tablets of low relief carvings. These friezes, some of which were as much as ten feet tall and twenty feet wide, were incredble. They depicted specific scenes of battles or rituals, most during the reign of King Ashurbanipal.
The details and sense of movement in the carvings were exceptional. It was amazing to see what can be accomplished with simple low-relief carving.
What was even more fascinating was how the Assyrians integrated lettering into the carved scenes as captions narrating the action. I don’t think I have ever seen anything quite like it, especially in something this early.
All in all, it was incredible exhibition, and very inspiring to me not only from an artist point of view, but also a craft one, as well. Seeing how craftsmen thousands of years ago, using tools not too different from my own, managed to combine imagery and lettering together harmoniously is very exciting.
I always knew lettercarving had a deep and far-reaching tradition, but it, in fact, goes back thousands of years. Let’s hope I don’t leave too much embarrassing work for people to stumble across thousands of year for now. The Assyrians set a high bar!