Barbara Enright can create a dreamy hand-lettered typographic composition in the time it takes you to write your own name. No onscreen cheats required. This Queen of the Brush has been a type wizard since before it was cool—kerning and flourishing for decades. So when Barbara Enright came to Melbourne to run a workshop in her craft, I made sure I was there to learn from the master. (I also got to ask her about her rather charming past and her exciting plans for the future!)
Your career in Ticket Writing is a very lost art form, and as far as a career goes, is now actually extinct! Can you please tell us about your original field of study, and what your job involved?
My original field of study called, Showcard and Ticket Writing, was a three-year, part-time course delivered by part-time teachers working as showcard and ticket writers in retail outlets by day. I attended a Sydney TAFE college in the evenings over a 3-year period for 3 hours a night, 2 nights a week.
My first job as a showcard and ticket writer involved producing showcards by hand advertising store promotions and fashion parades. Ticket writing was the name for the smaller descriptive display cards and price tickets used in window displays, and for store counter tops or point–of–sale merchandising.
Can you recall fond memories of working with brands on great projects?
I very much enjoyed doing business with entrepreneurs and business owners or their managers. It was always wonderful to receive their appreciation and positive feedback after receiving work produced from our studios. From big corporates like McDonalds, the many shopping centres throughout Sydney, to small local shops—they would almost always give me creative license, making the projects so enjoyable.
Which forms of technology or other careers eventually took the place of Ticket Writers? How did this occur – slow transitions or quickly with one invention?
Actual ticket writing, using inks and nibs in penholders, (aka calligraphy), was very popular before felt tip markers or textas came along. Felt tip markers prompted a significant change for our small writing jobs. It meant we could produce the work faster, eliminating the need to dip into inkwells. When time and money was becoming important, this faster technique became most desirable.
One invention that was quick to take off in the sign producing industry was a vinyl lettering cutting machine. The machine could be programmed to cut out vinyl letters that were adhered to cardboard and other surfaces. Traditional signwriters didn’t immediately embrace this technology. And many new sign-producing businesses were able to start up without the owners/operators ever coming up through the professional learning institutions.
What did you do after you stopped working in Ticket Writing?
After working as a ticket writer for department stores including Myer Melbourne in 1969, I started my own sign producing business in 1981 when a former employer presented an opportunity to me. The business was eventually forced to embrace the new technology while still offering the traditional brush and pen skills, as well as screen printing. We retired and sold the business in 2011 to an employee, who still offers the hand skills as part of the business services.
Why do you think people have come to rediscover the art of brush lettering, calligraphy, typography etc? Which new avenues have you seen born out of this rejuvenation for the lost art?
Lettering is one of the very first things you learn as a toddler. Remember those early childhood days when you were given crayons and coloured pencils? As well as trying to draw a picture we all wanted to write our name. How special was that? We did it ourselves, with our own hands. I think today a lot of people want to regain the satisfaction of those personal and visual triumphs.
Renewed interest in the lost art of these hand skills is so exciting.
Graphic designers and lettering lovers can now learn to personalise a style and create something beautiful using their own hand. Combine this with technological skills and imagination and there are so many opportunities for business, artists, and designers. Hobbyists and lovers of letters can also enjoy the therapeutic nature of using paint and water with a brush to produce free flowing letter shapes.
How have you personally maintained your skills through periods where corporate/professional interest was at its lowest?
Due to the excellent reputation of our business, offering hand produced signage as well as contemporary techniques, I was able to keep my skills in business for 30 years.
Which attributes make you a great hand letterer? (Or are required in a person who wishes to be successful in this practise).
Having an artistic flair can be an advantage, however, a passion for lettering or the love of letters is an indication you could certainly be successful. Then it is a matter of perseverance, determination, patience, practice, practice and more practice.
What do you think of the current school curriculum, which places the highest ranking value on subjects like maths, physics, English, and chemistry and marks down (effectively punishes) subjects such as art and visual communication?
I think that the current school curriculum should focus more on the fact that creativity is the essence of life. Visual communication is powerful and learning through art should not be underestimated.
Tell us about your brush lettering workshops. What is your mission in running these?
When I was asked by Carla Hackett, a Melbourne graphic designer, to give her some private lessons in brush lettering, Carla helped me realise there was a whole new generation of people who would also love to learn the skill. This created a wonderful opportunity for me to show lettering lovers and designers how to write with a paintbrush and to keep the valuable skill alive. It is my mission to see the lost art of brush lettering be rejuvenated and acknowledged for its special freehand technique.
What kinds of people attend the workshops? Are they suitable for designers, beginners, calligraphers? What do you teach?
The brush lettering workshops have been attended predominately by graphic designers who are keen to learn something new that will personalise their work and achieve a creative edge. It’s so rewarding for me to see beginners who have never held a brush before and by the end of the workshops are excited by their results and are inspired to practice, leave feeling enthusiastic to continue on to develop their own style.
Where do you run the workshops and how often?
The brush lettering workshops currently run in Sydney approximately every 6 weeks. We have also had enquiries for our workshops to be presented in Brisbane, Perth, New York and London.
What is the next step in your career? What would you like to tackle next? Or are you working on anything now that you can tell us about..?
I would like to continue tutoring and passing on my skills, I find teaching such a fulfilling experience.
We would like to mount an exhibition of my traditional and contemporary hand written showcards. However, ultimately, I would like to come up with a concept where I can combine my current art practice with lettering.