Career Life

5 lessons from a master penman

If “master penman” made you think of some guy in a wig, wielding a white feather over a scroll of parchment, think again. Better yet, watch this video.

Not only will you’ll be swept away by the tactile force and the eloquent vision behind Jake Weidmann’s penmanship, but it will also heal all those painful memories of handwriting drills in elementary school.

The pursuit of the master penman title — one that Jake shares with just 11 other people in the world — has taken him to a level of artistic purity that most creative types only dream of. He whittles his own pens to create his work of art. He carves his own frames to display them. He built his own worktable out of a cypress tree and a torque converter from an antique truck.

Yes, you can make a living doing stuff like this. But you’d better love it, because it will probably consume most of your waking hours. Jake kindly spared one of his to pass along some of the wisdom he’s gained.

Honour the past

To him, “heritage” and “craftsmanship” mean a lot more than wearing vintage bow ties and drinking out of mason jars. They’re the lifeblood of his creative work.

That’s because he views his art as part of a lineage. It makes him part of a community of people who value things that last.

“The thought that the past is made irrelevant by the present is a very old idea, had by very young people. Our world has confused excess for abundance. We look at everything and behold nothing. We like to consume as much as possible, but we don’t ever take it in so much to let it fully sink in and digest. We substitute community with simple connections.”

Viewing yourself as part of a lineage, he says, “gives a proper perspective to how finite we are, that we only hold a small portion of the story for the time we are alive to tell it. It brings to light this proper sense of humility.”

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Be humble about your work

“There’s this overt obsession about changing the world — I believe at the root, it’s very self-serving. When you’re not snapping pictures of yourself to put on Instagram, what are you taking on to better yourself?”

By contrast, Jake admires people of the past — those who spent hours perfecting a skill and creating guilds where they could help each other improve and uphold standards of excellence.

“All the daily disciplines they took on themselves — they were learning multiple languages, taking up multiple craft forms. They’re no different than we are — they still had 24 hours in their day, they still had the same capacity in their thinking, they had the same bodies — but they were far more accomplished because they were focusing on, ‘How do I effect change in myself?’ That’s the part of the world they know they can most immediately change.”

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Give yourself…and your work…time

“In our modern age, we’re trying to take the struggle out of a lot of things. We understand really well the concept of practice makes perfect. But practice also makes permanent. Committing the limited time I do have to those tasks, really giving all of myself to it.”

The time he spends in practice is, Jake says, what makes the work of an artist more than the sum of its parts.

“When I create a painting, a picture of a lion, if I’m a good artist, the lion is the first thing that comes to mind. You forget that it’s paint smudges on canvas — there’s a lion represented there. The paint and canvas become secondary. In its simplicity, it can take us to a greater place.”

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Establish rituals

Artists have a reputation for bucking the system. But Jake has found that creativity flourishes within a set of rules. Don’t get upset — these are rules you establish for yourself. Commitments to time and practice.

“There are things in life that come along and rob the romance out of everything. I’ve tried to put the romance back in this sinking reality.”

For example, Jake starts every morning with grinding his own espresso beans and crafting a perfect cup of coffee from his Italian coffee machine. From there, he goes on to working out, making breakfast, answering only the most urgent emails, then heading down to his garage for wood-carving work. If he has a simultaneous project, he’ll transition to that after lunch. Then he’ll take care of the business side: invoices, emails, the “un-fun mundane tasks.” Though, he adds, “even in those menial tasks, there’s abundance to be found.” At the end of the day, after spending time with his family or his fiancé, he finally comes home to…TV? Internet surfing? Hardly.

“At the end of my day, my routine to calm myself down is, ironically, to do more art. It’s what feeds my soul. It’s a lot more restful, for me.”

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Struggle

“Choose something to wrestle against. I struggled all through college, and it was that struggle that committed me all the more to the task at hand. ‘I am going to do this. I’m already this deep into it, so there’s no way I’m backing out now.’

Even when things started to pick up for him — getting noticed by other professors at his school, receiving commissions from a Hollywood boutique — it wasn’t like everyone immediately respected him as an artist. He faced resentment from his neighbours: “You don’t make a lot friends when you’re carving a moose antler on their balcony.” So, he ended up back in his parents’ house. His entire master penman certificate was completed in their basement, working on calfskin vellum with gold leaf and gouache paint.

Jake expects that no matter how successful he gets, in terms of financial security or reputation, it will always be struggle that calls him to the next level of artistry.

“People don’t have the imagination or the foresight to see all that I have planned inside of me. It’s my responsibility to show them, little by little.”

Photos courtesy of Jake Weidmann

Kona