Over the last year, my interest has shifted towards a more rounded and historical approach to penmanship and script lettering as it was done by the penmen of the past. During this transition, I’ve felt myself endeared to a style of penmanship that had eluded my intrigue for some time: Business Penmanship.
Amidst this refocusing, I’ve found myself drawn to those with a distinctly technical, yet philosophical approach to their writing. One figure that stands at the forefront of that list is a gentleman named Michael Gebhart, a penman since 2015 living in Nashville, TN.
In addition to his inspiring discipline and thoughtful nature, Michael has cultivated the unique disposition to become an exceptionally relatable teacher, explaining complex concepts in a way that can only set the most timid student at ease. His methods and approach have made him one of my favorite individuals to catch on the occasional Instagram Live stream, and his Youtube is one I frequently check for new videos.
Michael has graciously accepted my request for an interview with him for the journal here at Masgrimes. I’m honored to humbly present the following dialogue and images of his work as the fifth entry in the Splitting Tines with Masgrimes series.
You can find more about Michael and follow his outstanding work on his Instagram account, and learn more about his methodology and approach to movement writing on his wonderful website: inpursuitofpenmanship.com.
David: Hey Michael! Thank you so much for being willing to do this interview with me! I’m really excited to continue to add to this column, and I know that having a penman like you on the roster can only help to legitimize what I’m going for with these interviews. You know, you’re on the very short list of people who has ever gotten me really excited about business penmanship, and I’ve gotta say, when I look at your work, or I listen to your streams, I instantly reach for my pen and get lost in hours of whatever you’re working on. So let me start off by saying thank you for being a personal inspiration of mine, and thank you for doing what you do. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Michael Gebhart: Wow, David, it’s so great to hear that my work has been an inspiration, thank you! I’m a big fan of your Splitting Tines column and it’s my pleasure to be featured in it!
I love to write along with friends’ livestreams, even if they happen to be writing a completely different script, and it’s certainly a great feeling to hear that viewers are practicing things along with me and getting something worthwhile out of listening to me talk at them.
To get us started off, I’d love to know a bit more about you and your background with penmanship. Most people have an origin story of some kind, whether it be a parent that valued fine writing, or an embarrassing experience in school. What got you excited about penmanship, and how long from that initial exposure do you think you started to ‘get it’ when it comes to understanding the motion and anatomical control that underlies the more superficial ‘learning the letters’ approach?
Michael Gebhart: I was a bit obsessed with my penmanship as a kid. I always had pretty artsy interests and I think handwriting was just part of that. I also remember admiring both my parents’ writing. Learning cursive in second grade was my favorite part of the school day and I would spend hours over the next few years writing in a journal, doodling with letters, and finding different ways to write my name. I also got really into some basic calligraphy (broad pen) that I learned from the instruction booklets that came with those fountain pen calligraphy sets. I started to neglect my cursive after sixth grade, when all of my teachers required everything to be either handwritten in print, or typed (which is fine, because I do all my composition and note-taking on the computer, believe it or not.)
A few summers ago, on an annual family vacation, my uncle gave me a set of different pens and pencils that he had picked up at a yard sale. I think it was probably one of those things that was advertised on a late-night infomercial, bought impulsively by someone, and never used! I had always enjoyed writing with fountain pens and I decided to play around a bit with the one in the set, trying to see if I could remember how to write in cursive after 10+ years of neglect…the result was absolutely awful, (there is evidence of it somewhere on my Instagram feed) but doodling around with that pen was strangely addictive and familiar…and I couldn’t stop!
It was endless discovery after that point (as it continues to be!)—hours spent on YouTube and in forums, falling down the vintage fountain pen rabbit hole, finding IAMPETH, figuring out the pointed pen, then the broad pen, movement writing…!
I’m not sure I could say exactly when I started to ‘get’ the movement aspect of writing. It was certainly a long and continuous process from my early crude attempts at ‘whole-arm movement’ to the point where I understood the concepts enough to explain them to others, which was probably six or seven months later.
Along the lines of grasping concepts…In your recent article, Building the Writing Engine, you take a critical stance on the way that historical books present ‘beginner exercises’. In your article, you use the travelling oval drill as an example of “…trying to run before you can crawl.” I’ve always appreciated individuals who can see past the shortcomings of the materials that they learned from and distill new solutions that might make more sense for the contemporary context of writing.
At the risk of putting words in your mouth, I have often felt that historical manuals fall short by presenting rather complex skills, willfully omitting the techniques and exercises that are required to get to that point, and labelling them ‘basics’. This is certainly present in shaded writing, but it seems to be the case in many instances when it comes to the movement-based writing as well. Would you agree? And if so, how do you, personally, identify when a skill actually has underlying parts that should be learned before putting too much time into it? Do you follow a consistent rubric? Is it a combination of experience and common sense?
Michael Gebhart: Yes, I completely agree with that statement.
I think identifying those skills is definitely a combination of experience and common sense. Teaching something requires a knowledge of how it works, which in turn comes from being able to do it yourself. For me, a realization of how to break down a certain technique comes from lots of practice and experimentation, as well as plenty of reading and pondering away from the writing desk.
There are about as many different systems for movement writing as there are individuals historically and presently practing them. Do you have any advice for someone interested in improving their penmanship on the topic of selecting a system? It would seem to me that you ‘walk between worlds’ in the sense that your writing has influences from different sources.
Being inexperienced in the subject, I wonder if you might confirm if that’s accurate, and, if so, why have you decided to use what you do from one place over another? Is there an overarching theme that you draw techniques from historical sources into? Arguably this would be considered your own system.
Michael Gebhart: Fortunately, for those wishing to learn early-twentieth century style business writing, the various systems aren’t actually all that different. Letterforms and aesthetic details vary from one author to another, but the technique behind the writing is the same. That said, some manuals are better than others for a total beginner, with respect to how clearly they articulate the basic techniques (I have some recommendations for these on my blog.) My advice would be to not try to learn this style of handwriting by working from any one single book, but rather take the time to absorb everything available to you—if you are working mainly with Zaner, read Palmer and Mills, and study original specimens of business penmanship critically, even the ones that aren’t to your taste.
To answer your other questions, Yes, I would say that my writing has a number of different influences. In terms of style, I think it comes down to taste, mostly. And that is constantly in flux. In terms of technique, I adapt those things that work for me and that produce the visual result I desire—at the end of the day, it is practical penmanship, however historically informed my approach is on a general level.
Being that we do have the luxury of being able to be influenced by various penmen of the past, I wonder if you might elaborate on what you think that you’re doing best with your approach to movement writing, and what makes your approach to script unique to that of, Zaner, Palmer, or Mills?
Michael Gebhart: I think something I do well is figuring out why certain techniques work the way they do. This process feels a bit like taking apart a machine and tinkering with it to learn how to build your own version. It’s definitely more experimental and less regimented than the approach of historical penmanship manuals—then again, how do we know that these penmen didn’t also ‘tinker’ with their own writing?
For better or worse, my practice tends to be rather ‘improvisatory’—lots of stream-of-consciousness experimentation, trial and error, etc.—occasionally to the point of being disorganized. I think that in some cases, however, impeccably organized practice has the potential to turn into mindless practice. If you are focusing on filling exactly three lines with this letter or five lines of that drill, the activity becomes about the larger act of practicing for the sake of practicing, rather than what is actually happening between the time your arm and hand move to when the ink touches the page. That’s why I believe an awareness of technique is so important: it gives you access to what happens at that critical point of execution, even though it may occasionally take you off in an unexpected direction.
Our readers might not know, but you’re actually an organist and pianist as well as a penman. I wonder if the underlying theme of rhythm present in your work and essays is directly related to a musical mind? I often think about rhythm as a substitute for quantification. It allows what normally must be counted or measured to migrate elegantly into the subconscious. Do you feel that your experience as an instrumentalist has benefitted your work with the pen? Are there other aspects of your life outside of penmanship that have crossed over to be represented as strengths once you begin writing?
Michael Gebhart: The way I conceive of rhythm in penmanship is absolutely related to how I experience music. As a musician yourself I’m sure you understand that deep connection, though it can be tough to explain sometimes!
In fact, I think my experience as a musician has, more than anything else, benefitted how I learn penmanship and calligraphy. The way I think about healthy and efficient practice is a big part of it. Whether at the keyboard or the desk, I try to always be aware that what I am doing is a physical, even an athletic act, as well as a feat of muscle memory, and trying to be conscious as much about how writing (or playing) feels, as how it looks (or sounds.)
One of the most significant influences from my life as a musician has been a research-based approach to learning. Classical musicians by nature spend a majority of their time playing music and instruments that are centuries-old. We want to know as much as we can about how J.S. Bach played his music, what kind of piano Mozart played his concerti on, or how Beethoven’s symphonies sounded to his audiences for the first time. What you and I, and countless calligraphers do every day is the lettering equivalent to what is known in the music world as ‘Historically Informed Performance,’ but asking instead questions like, how did Louis Madarasz really write his script? (Incidentally, I have played with the idea of promoting a branch of HIP called #HistoricallyInformedPenmanship…!) For me it’s a beautiful and seamless translation of learning from one medium to another.
When you’re considering penmanship, are you interested in learning calligraphy and/or lettering as well? I suppose I assume that you are not, but I thought I would ask. If you are, what have you done to help yourself stay focused on movement writing? I know that a lot of people struggle with maintaining focus on difficult styles when encountering plateaus, which I am sure you have met and surpassed multiple times, by now.
Michael Gebhart: Calligraphy and lettering? Absolutely. Letters in every form have always fascinated me and I have had a curiosity about graphic design and typography since I was young. I am thankful that my Instagram feed has since the beginning of my journey exposed me to a tremendous variety of lettering art, though I can say that my interest in non-pointed pen work has grown dramatically only over the last year or so.
And yes, I know all about the difficulties with focus and plateaus! It’s interesting that you ask what I have done to keep up with the movement writing…lately I have spent most of my time exploring broad edge lettering and I am particularly loving the chance to discover the technical and expressive capabilities of a greater variety of tools—pens, quills, brushes, etc. (and you are a big inspiration for this!) Fortunately, my “Foundations of Business Penmanship” column on my blog has helped me keep one foot in the movement writing world, and I always find myself going back to my desk to try out an exercise or two as I am drafting posts. I am convinced that teaching is the best way to learn, so I know I am getting something out of the time I’ve had to take away from regular practice.
If you were to see yourself a year ago, what would you tell yourself to ease some of the pains that you undoubtedly experienced while climbing to your current level of dexterity with the pen? If you saw yourself a year from now, what question would you ask of yourself to help you climb further?
Michael Gebhart: A year ago I think I was probably trying to start (and continually failing to keep) a serious and regimented study of Engrosser’s Script, while continuing to practice my movement writing. I would tell myself to not be too concerned with branching out right away, because I will soon find a real niche for myself by delving into penmanship from an historical and pedagogical standpoint. Expanding one’s ‘repertoire’ takes time, and I know there’s no rush for me to do so.
To be honest, I’m not sure I would want to ask my future self anything. I don’t believe we need to know our ultimate goal in order to enjoy the journey, so I think I’d just continue working hard and exploring whatever exciting turns presented themselves along the way.
What motivates you to cultivate excellent penmanship? Do you ever encounter situations where you’re happy to scribble something out? Or have you adopted fine writing to be a part of your identity or self-respect? Furthermore, do you care more how your penmanship looks, or how it feels?
Michael Gebhart: I ask myself this question often, mostly because I don’t think I know the answer! I think my motivations are primarily artistic at this point, though I have always wished to be respected for having fine penmanship.
In terms of identity, I think there is a subtle difference between ‘that’s Michael who has beautiful penmanship’ and ‘that’s Michael who has the ability to create beautiful letters.’ It’s the difference between someone looking at my writing and seeing me—my inner self, versus seeing my craft. Though some may see it as rather impersonal—an observation of mechanical skill—I think the latter identity is ultimately more satisfying to me.
I must admit that because I spend so much time practicing my script, I find I don’t use it as often as I used to, as if I am holding off, waiting until it looks exactly as I want it to. I admit that’s a terrible attitude to have and it’s something I want to work on! I am happy to, as you say, scribble something out too often, I think. In an ideal world I want the perfection I seek in my practice to be a permanent part of my outward identity, and I suppose I try to write nicely (even if it’s just clear printing) in cards, letters, etc., but I definitely don’t do it enough!
I would say I used to care more how my penmanship looks, but have had about equal concern for look and feel since really getting interested in technique and movement.
What’s your favorite discovery you’ve made while studying historical samples? How has that discovery translated into your practice, and how has it affected the way you analyze and approach historical precedent?
Michael Gebhart: I think my favorite discovery was of some absolutely stunning Ornamental Penmanship by E.C. Mills on the IAMPETH Rare Books page. Mills is almost exclusively credited with his skill in business writing but his achievements as an artistic writer are all but forgotten next to figures like Madarasz and Courtney.
This got me thinking about how we absorb information as students and how we tend to accept the facts, anecdotes, and narratives that are given to us. We like everything to fit into neat little boxes—for every historical figure to have an easy-to-remember title and ‘thing they are famous for.’ We want historical periods to have a definite beginning and end. We want Italic to be Italic and Spencerian to be only Spencerian.
As students of an historical art form, isn’t it way more fun to play with the past while accepting all of its messiness, uncertainty, and utter lack of boxes? I am of the belief that there are always new divisions to draw or strip away, new timelines to construct, and paradigms to reevaluate. That’s what makes this hobby so rewarding.
What can we look forward to seeing from you in the next year? What are your goals with that fantastic website of yours?
Michael Gebhart: I hope to continue my ‘Foundations of Business Penmanship’ series, and maybe do a similar series for Ornamental Penmanship.
I also want to start a column that will follow some of the research I have been doing and maybe engage my fellow history geeks in some discussion about the last few centuries of writing. With any luck, I’ll end up with more questions than answers…
That’s wonderful to hear! As a fan of your writing, I’ll be sure to keep an eye on your website and gobble up anything you put out. I have no doubt that with your personality and uniquely dilligent mind, you’ll be leading the pack in many of those discussions. I can’t wait to see everything you come up with!
Michael Gebhart is a penman, musician, and researcher on the subject of penmanship from Nashville, Tenessee. His column, Foundations of Business Penmanship, can be perused on his wonderfully informative website: inpursuitofpenmanship.com, and you can keep track of his progress as a leader in the discipline of movement writing on his Instagram account.
Portrait of Michael featured at top photographed by Scott Scheetz Photography