James Fazz Farrell is a calligraphy artist and teacher of Spencerian and Roundhand from Buckinghamshire, England. His work was first called to my attention in 2015, by a student who had begun to study online with James through video calls on Skype. Those of you who have taken workshops or lessons with me know the high regard in which I hold James and his outstanding writing ability, and it is my most sincere honor to be able to share this interview with all of you so that we might better know the man behind the pen. You can find James and his work on his site, at www.jamesfazzfarrell.blogspot.it, or on Instagram at www.instagram.com/james_fazz_farrell.
David: Hey James! Thanks for agreeing to answer a few of my questions. I’m a huge fan of your work and approach to penmanship. In fact, I’ve gone as far as to say that you’re my favorite contemporary calligraphy artist. I think it has most to do with your attitude about progressing historical hands, and the risks that you take with both your technical execution and thought-provoking selections.
James Farrell: Heya David, well thank you very much for that introduction, you’re very kind. You are of course more than welcome and I’m happy to be taking part in what looks like a very cool publication. Well, you’ve hit the nail smack on the head there David, progressing the form is all to do with first respecting and learning the historical model and then afterwards one may be able to use one’s skills and ability to process creativity which can lead to innovation? Of course they’ll be risks there about what will work and what does not and there has to be some sort of method which filters out failures of which there are many! Discipline mixed with anarchy certainly helps here, I have found, and the scientific method which comes from my background of studying mechanical engineering. The irrational and superstition are certainly ongoing modes of inspiration and the humour and attitude certainly goes into some of my works, wouldn’t you say that you agree?
I’d definitely agree! Your attitude is one of the things that initially brought me on board with your work! Speaking of getting started… In 2009, you began studying Spencerian and Round Hand after coming across the IAMPETH website. What was it that led you to the site in the first place? Was there a specific piece that caught your eye which made you think: “I’ve got to learn to do this.”?
James Farrell: Yes, I began with the pointed pen in 2009, and in particular, Spencerian. However, I began my studies in the art of calligraphy some time in 1992 at the age of 8. I could do the broad pen hands (Foundational and Italics) but could not work out how the pointed pen operated so went online for advice, I came across the IAMPETH website where I was taken back by the historical examples and studied all of them intensely.
Who were your mentors and inspirations in those early days? Have you continued to be inspired by the work of other calligraphers as you’ve grown into your own unique style and methods?
James Farrell: It was Joe Vitolo and John De Collibus whose work I began to watch and learn from in the beginning and they are both very special in the work they have done for the pointed pen. Brian Walker HFCLAS has given some great advice over the years so even though I’m self taught I owe these guys a bunch! Inspiration comes from nature and the cosmos, music (heavy metal, jungle and jazz in particular) and abstraction (art) and modern calligraphers, Denis Brown and Christopher Haanes are true greats!
You mention on your website that before your journey with the pen, you were studying mechanical engineering. How has that study informed the work that you are interested in creating with through your writing? Are you still actively pursuing engineering as a career, or have you transitioned entirely to penmanship?
James Farrell: Yes, that’s correct, I did study mechanical engineering in my younger days and it is still an ongoing interest. Engineering is the application of mathematics and scientific, economic, social, and practical knowledge in order to invent, innovate, design, build, maintain, research, and improve…so I would really like to think that I am still doing both albeit with letters and symbols used to communicate and excite an emotional response? In other words, art? Interestingly, The term Engineering is derived from the Latin ingenium, meaning “cleverness” and ingeniare, meaning “to contrive, devise”.
What was the thought process around leaving a particularly lucrative field such as engineering in favor of art? Has that decision haunted you at all? What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone considering a similar transition?
James Farrell: In terms of practical mechanical engineering, the company I was working for had gone out of business and production moved elsewhere so it was a decision made for me and have not pursued any other position in this profession, I then got jobs in retail of which I was made redundant (the companies no longer traded at the venue) so I decided to try to make a living just relying on working for myself (who I seem to trust more than any company let me please tell you) teaching calligraphy (my wife Paola is also a calligrapher and teacher) and selling art and it is not easy but is satisfying when you are humbled by the responsibility of passing on your knowledge so that others may improve, that is very important! I would say that it takes many years of study, even decades before being at least an acceptable level of standard to begin venturing into the calligraphy world as a form of living but one has to live their dreams, so if you have the passion to understand the written word and have the willingness and the discipline and dedication to learn the skill, go for it! That’s my advice!
You’re well known for your gestural and expressive writing. In particular, your Black Hole Evolution style certainly turns heads. Was the decision to explore and experiment with the different styles that you’d learned because you were dissatisfied with the ‘classical’ look? How has writing ‘out of the box’ affected your ability to come back to more formal hands?
James Farrell: Thank you! Well, I think it’s similar to music? Did the heavy metal artists do their stuff because of their dissatisfaction with the blues or is it that they wished to do something more likened to their upbringing and to express their social problems and personalities? I think you’ll find that my favourite band, Iron Maiden can still play the blues and I believe their are similarities in my approach to lettering styles.
Okay, I’ve gotta know. These giant, sharp strokes in your work appear in droves. Seemingly wider than a single pen stroke can swell. These are built up, right? You’re not outlining them and flooding them after, are you?
James Farrell: Okay, I’ve gotta tell ya! Correct, they are built up, I wish there was a flexible pen on the market that had tines that could go that wide but at present no such thing exists or is likely to. I do, on occasion draw in a lined shape then finish with a brush for larger work and this is also a valid technique of mixing calligraphy with typography. As you say, it’s just thinking outside the box!
One of the most interesting things about calligraphy artists is why they choose to write what they do. What is it about science, specifically, theoretical physics and cosmology that draws your attention when selecting copy to work with? What are some of the considerations that go into your work regarding other dimensions and astronomical occurrences?
James Farrell: Well, I’ve always had an interest in the sciences and in particular, physics and cosmology in general. I studied these subjects during my formal education that I received in Mechanical Engineering and more in depth by studying on my own.
I’ve been fascinated by myths and legends from childhood and the creation myths found in religions from the ancient Egyptians, the Greek stories, ancient Middle Eastern legends, Christian mythology, the Aztecs and Mayans and their beliefs and superstitions and rituals and so on and still find writing and producing art about those subjects fascinating, especially since in the 21st century lots of people believe that some of them are true.
It’s true that I’ve included my own thoughts about such subjects into my work as a stark contrast possibly to what most calligraphers write about and have included to some degree, my own knowledge which continues to this day about astrophysics and quantum mechanics of which I possess a very basic knowledge of and my information comes from the leading scientists who are engaged in studying and testing this field of science. It is a little different to the calligraphy norm and I don’t think that’s such a bad thing?
Being that there are several different writing systems that are currently popular in the US, what are your general thoughts on movement in writing? Can you explain where your polyrhythmic style comes from and the benefits of practicing it?
James Farrell: Yes, there are many techniques and movements employed for best possible results in making fine letters. Primarily these are, finger movements, movements of the wrist, muscular movement and whole arm movement and body movement. To learn how to do these so that they are almost second nature is most important. Polyrhythm is the simultaneous use of two or more conflicting rhythms usually heard in the drums in Jazz music and Jungle music and we can apply those ideas to calligraphy quite well as the structure of calligraphy is filled with different rhythms in order to write fresh, fluid letters. To do polyrhythmic lettering, the best results are obtained by using the whole arm and body movements in combination. I now call these scripts Jungle Riddim, it’s a UK music mid 90’s thing!
In regards to teaching, I’ve had several friends who have taken Skype lessons with you, and your Instagram profile mentions that you teach online as well as at your workshops (Which I’ve heard great things about, but have yet to attend!). I’ve done a fair amount of teaching, both in workshops and privately, and have personally found that online teaching has a number of complex challenges. Connection speeds, limited visibility, and time differences were three of the reasons that I decided that I liked teaching in-person better. What are your thoughts around working directly with someone online vs. sitting down with someone in person to work on their lettering?
James Farrell: Skype is a fantastic way of being one to one but yes we are in agreement, if possible we should urge everybody to try if they can to seek out and have classes and lessons with their teachers in person. Of course, not everybody is in a position to do this and some may not wish to and prefer the one on one online which is more personal so if that works the best for an individual then OK.
As a teacher, what is the most important concept for you to pass along to students?
James Farrell: As with any educator of any subject I think that to pass on knowledge, which is the familiarity, awareness or understanding of something in this case calligraphy, such as facts, information and skills which are acquired through experience and education by discovery and learning. Not just the learning but how to learn is important whilst also trying to gain more knowledge oneself. By doing this honestly, one does not have to attempt to be humble, being humble is a natural attribute of gaining knowledge. If this is something that I can pass on then I have done my job.
In the US, we tend to get caught up on materials and tools, convinced that better resources will make us into better artists. One thing I’ve always noticed from your posts is that you almost never mention anything about the piece or how it was created. It seems like you like to let the work do the talking for you. That being said, how important is exploration of new materials to you? Are you actively experimenting with new nibs, pigments, or products?
James Farrell: Experimentation and exploration are the bedrock of innovation and attaining skill. Try everything if you have the opportunity!
If you could spend a day with any calligraphy artist, living or dead, who would it be, what would you do, and what would you hope to take home from it?
James Farrell: Albert Taylor, I’d love to spend a day with him and understand if his techniques are how I’m convinced they are and at the end of the day would take home one of his letters hopefully, that he’d kindly write for me.
What are your thoughts on seeking certification or other records of accomplishment in calligraphy? Had you considered IAMPETH’s ‘Master Penman’ program or the CLAS ‘Ladder of Progress’?
James Farrell: The CLAS Ladder of Progress is a very good system of learning calligraphy formally and takes many years of study to complete (although many may not ever wish to) and the high standards that they have in the organisation are to be admired. For me personally, it is not in all honesty, a thing of interest.
I recently saw a photo of a certificate that you had presented to one of your long-term students for his accomplishment in writing. (It was beautiful!) What are your thoughts about certification that way, as a relationship between the teacher/mentor and student directly, rather than an organization?
Above: James with Andrea Arcangeli freelance calligrapher
James Farrell: Well thanks, once again. I think the certificates between the teacher and student can work well as it is for the personal artistic development of the pupil, to see and regulate how they are doing and that they have achieved something , have worked hard and that has been recognised which is important for them. Not to gain titles or to boost their ego from an association, and just like Justin Bieber’s noise, I’m not a fan of that at all!
In regards to health and wellness, what kind of attention do you put towards exercise and it’s role in maintaining muscular control and hand-eye coordination? Do you participate in any type of athletic activity outside of extreme ink-slinging?
James Farrell: LOL, no truly, I did really laugh out loud! Erm, well I used to be a proper Gym Bunny in my twenties but nowadays I walk a lot, cycle a bit and it seems that by listening to lots of music and slinging lots of ink, it keeps the old arm, hand and eye coordination in check.
What’s the most important thing you want your work to say about you when you’re gone?
James Farrell: Respect traditions where they work, always seek to improve yourself and others. Embrace honest, diligent study and practice in the pursuit of knowledge, reject superstitious thinking. Accept our insignificance in the cosmos and enjoy our time in the sun and try to leave it a little better than when we found it.
Thanks again for taking the time out of your incredibly busy teaching schedule to entertain some of my questions, James! It’s been an honor to get to work with you on making this interview a reality, and I’m absolutely in awe of all the amazing work that you do. Really looking forward to getting into one of your classes soon, and until then I’ll be fervently devouring anything you share online!
James Fazz Farrell
James Fazz Farrell is a calligraphy artist and teacher of Spencerian and Roundhand from Buckinghamshire, England. His work was first called to my attention in 2015, by a student who had begun to study online with James through video calls on Skype. You can find James and his work on his site, at www.jamesfazzfarrell.blogspot.it, or on Instagram at www.instagram.com/james_fazz_farrell.