Cursive writing is back?
“What?” you ask. “Where did it go?”
Quick recap: In 2010, cursive writing was dropped from the Common Core for Language Arts (standards for curricula in schools). Penmanship and cursive were no longer being tested. So, the incentive to teach these subjects was removed.
Over the past 13 years, 26 states have passed laws reinstating it. (The list of states is at the end of this essay.)
I’M A BIG FAN CURSIVE WRITING
A flowery paragraph accompanying the “Art of Handwriting” exhibit at the Smithsonian elaborated: “Writing a letter in one’s own hand can be an artistic act. Handwriting animates paper. The bold flairs of calligraphic script shout for attention, while elegant flourishes of cursive sashay across the page...Every message brims with the personality of the writer at the moment of interplay between hand, eye, mind, pen, and paper…Does the handwriting confirm assumptions about the artist, or does it suggest a new understanding?”
This letter is from Grant Wood, the artist who created “American Gothic."
After the city and date, Wood starts with "Hurray! Two paintings of mine in the American show."
His personality jumps out with enthusiasm through the news he is sharing. Doesn’t this letter, simply via the energy in his handwriting, convey an unfamiliar side of Wood’s personality?
Here is an example of Mary Cassatt's handwriting. She is expressing her irritation with the policy of asking artists to curate other artists in or out of exhibits. This practice is called "jurying of the exhibit."
These three images are from the Smithsonian Archives, "Mary Cassatt letter to John Wesley Beatty." 1905 Sept. 5. Carnegie Institute, Museum of Art records, 1883-1962. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
The first page of the letter reads:
...continued to the next page of her handwritten letter, not transcribed here.
Her paintings are sweet and nurturing. Yet we see through her writings that she could be vexed.
"Young Mother Sewing," 1900, Mary Cassatt, from the collection of The Met.
Won’t you look at these two paintings now with a slightly nuanced reaction after seeing these handwritten notes?
Consider the cursive signature of one of our founding fathers, John Hancock. He was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence. His name has become a synonym for signing one’s name to a document. “Put your ‘John Hancock’ there.”
We forget how courageous this act was. He was associating himself, by way of his very dominant signature, with this treasonous declaration, punishable by death. By signing so boldly, with no chance of misinterpreting his name, he showed his fearlessness, defiance, and patriotism.
John Hancock's cursive signature has carried much lore about our US history.
CURSIVE IS THE MOTHER OF SCRIPT FONTS
What is a font? It is a set of letters all having the same design energy and visual attributes that corral the letters together into the font.
Script fonts often appear to be italic because they generally slant to the right. Although "italic" and "cursive" are very different. Italic is simply slanting the letters to the right. The integral form of each letter does not change. A cursive font defines a specific shape and pattern to each letter and number within the font.
Sometimes cursive fonts are quite ornate. Part of their mastery depends on the pressure of the pen to the paper. This was especially true when pens were made of quills, (feathers) or had a nib (pointy metal piece) to suck up the ink and hold it in a reservoir as you wrote.
The ink pen was dipped into a jar of ink and then applied to the paper. The nib spreads wider or narrower with pressure to get a thicker or thinner effect.
It’s laborious and time consuming since you have to wait for each line to dry before you begin the next line. Ugh. Much smearing of ink. And many splats from too much ink in the nib. But, plenty of time for pausing and rephrasing your thoughts.
The letter below is characteristic of an example of Spencerian script.
This letter is from the principal of the Gem City Business College, Institute of Penmanship, Quincy, Illinois, December 1884.
I get a kick out of this example because the letter-writer is a gentleman named D. L. Musselman, and Musselman is my maiden name. I wonder if this fellow with lovely penmanship and I are related? But I digress.
The same effect of broader or narrower strokes can be created from changing pressure with a brush, as in calligraphy.
This except from "Song of Leyou Park," by Zhang Jizhi, was heralded as a superb example of handwriting. As described by The Met, "Zhang was noted for his forceful large-character standard script with its boldly contrasting blunt and sinuous brushstrokes."
A familiar script font that hs been recognized for over 130 year is the Coca-Cola logo. This hybrid font would be a derivative of a Spencerian font as demonstrated by the differences in the width of the strokes.
Frank M Robinson, a bookkeeper with the company came up with the name, “Coca-Cola”, and he designed the logo with the two oversized script “Cs”.
This red logo script is now recognized around the world.
IS CURSIVE RELEVANT ANYMORE?
Cursive is important beyond allowing you to be fancy with your handwritten notes or to design a beverage logo:
- It uses muscles in our hands and arms that have been laid fallow during our love-fest with screens and keyboards. Handwriting and cursive develop fine motor skills.
- It stimulates different parts of our brain to tap into more regions and more capabilities.
- It is a precursor to creative thinking and fosters artistic processing. Cursive writing presents more nuances and emotional clues to our consciousness than the typing the letters or words.
1. FINE MOTOR SKILLS
“Handwriting is a fine motor skill that isn’t innately learned; it needs to be taught and practiced,” Gina Rich
In our grandparents’ day, to develop fine motor skills and hand strength, there was handwriting, sewing, bookkeeping, and woodworking. In the kitchen there was stirring soups, kneading bread, whipping cream, and shelling peas. Even recreation was manual, like playing jigsaw puzzles or card games, or playing checkers or horseshoes, or even jacks or cat’s cradle.
Mellissa Prunty, an occupational therapist at Brunel University London and chair of the of the National Handwriting Association in the United Kingdom has worked with children with above-average test scores in reading, spelling, and vocabulary. But due to a lack of fine motor skills, “those kids, although they’re bright, will write less, and it’s less interesting to read. That’s because their speed is impacted,” she said, attributing the deficit to poorly developed fine motor skills.
2. HANDWRITING STIMULATES DIFFERENT PARTS OF OUR BRAIN THAN TYPING
Cursive, handwriting, and drawing stimulate a variety of neurological processes and connections.
During research by Audrey van der Meer, F. R. (Ruud) van der Weel, and Eva Ose Askvik, different parts and more parts of the brain lit up when involved in writing or drawing, as compared to typing. The researchers conclusion was it was vital “to maintain both activities, writing by hand and drawing, in a learning environment to facilitate and optimize learning.”
3. CURSIVE AS A PRECURSOR TO CREATIVE THINKING
As an artist, the benefit I see the most from cursive writing is its affinity to creating art. Cursive writing for some people, acts as training wheels to the artistic disciplines and to the nontraditional processing required as a creative thinker. Rather than relegating cursive writing to a narrow box as simply an alternative form of writing, it is an on-ramp to drawing.
“Harold and the Purple Crayon,” by Crockett Johnson, 1983, is one of my all-time favorite books. This tiny little book is a perfect example about how thoughts connected by a thread or “cursive thoughts” so to speak, allow Harold to create his own visual world with only his imagination and a purple crayon.
Cursive thoughts go from being a vehicle to create words in a document to stimulating the brain into a form of visual thinking to symbolize objects and concepts in marks on paper. In the brain, is the drawing of an apple so different from the cursive word, apple?
This book literally changed my point of view about connecting a fluid line to our imagination.
The flow of cursive as ribbon-like is similar to the flow of thinking about a composition. The flow itself gives a richness of meaning. The experience is sensory.
As artists know, putting pencil to paper is a sensory experience. It is not only the conveyance of the idea but it is literally the experience of the tool gliding on the paper, (or scratching across the paper), the scent of the paper, and the feel of the shape of the tool in your hand, that form an important part of the experience when creating a visual artwork.
Audrey van der Meer, a brain researcher and Professor of Neuropsychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, Norway, who is also mentioned in other research noted above, says, “A lot of senses are activated by pressing the pen on paper, seeing the letters you write, and hearing the sound you make while writing. These sense experiences create contact between different parts of the brain and open the brain up for learning.”
My mom is he only one who still writes letters. There’s something visceral about opening a letter - I see her on the page. I see her in her handwriting.
CURSIVE AND OTHER HANDWRITING INCORPORATED INTO ARTWORK ITSELF
Patti Smith is a multi-talented artist working in several media. She is recognized around the world. In 2007, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In November 2010, Smith won the National Book Award for her memoir "Just Kids."
Somehow I started introducing writing into my drawings, and after a time, the language took over and I started getting very involved with the handwriting and then the look of the handwriting.
Patti Smith American poet, songwriter, artist and punk-rock musician
Lalla Essaydi, born 1965, is a Moroccan photographer. She “creates a dialogue juxtaposing past and present, as well as fantasy and reality." In this photograph she superimposes text over the face of a woman to convey the complexity of the story, while jumping between realism and fantasy. The artistry of the calligraphic text adds mystery to the story.
Her art is also in the collection of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC.
Roy Lichtenstein introduced comic book-style text into his art and by doing so, he created a new art form, Pop Art. At the time, the actual story panels were hand-lettered in an all capital letter style with the qualities of a draftsman or architect.
The familiar style of the comic book panel with the words tucked within a text-bubble was integral to creating the mood and irony between the visual, the style, and the tongue-in-cheek message of the piece.
The comic book style resonated as a communication form of the common man. It's gaudy bright colors and flattened rendering of space seemed out-of-place in galleries for the most elite art collectors and art critics. This ordinary style associated with cheap, throwaway stories that were targeted at kids was an unexpected, maybe shocking, visual.
The comic book font was essential to creating this dichotomy.
THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE
My Joan of Arc tapestry includes cursive as well as block-style printing.
The wall-hanging textile art was fabricated in wool by an old fashioned craft, rug hooking. It is created of narrow strips of wool fabric and wool yarn pulled into loops through a linen backing.
The words included in my tapestry are actual comments from her. St. Joan of Arc was an actual historical figure who successfully led a French army into battle against the British, and was successful. She was martyred for her power; she intimidated the priests, politicians, and local power brokers who put her on trial more than once. They didn't know how to "disarm" her; how to trip her up using her faith or the soldiers who vouched for her. So eventually they tricked her, so they could put her to death.
Even though Joan was French and illiterate, I translated her words into Latin because it seemed to give them more gravitas. The words are: “I am not afraid. I was born to do this.”
As I was designing this piece of art, I knew that having quotes from the 17-year old Joan reflected my respect and awe for her.
Including her name and words in fonts that I created added a visual harmony with the depiction of her as a battleground hero.
Recently a friend mentioned to me that she was at her child's pediatrician's office and taking notes on the diagnosis and the “next steps.” As she wrote, the doctor commented, “Wow! You can write in cursive.”
Also, this week, I spent some time working with an elementary student. She was so excited to show me that she was learning how to type on a tablet. It made her feel so grown-up: Typing on a keyboard! Working on a screen!
Both of these snippets and this whole essay make me realize, that we are not going back to a day of handwriting and cursive writing as a preferred way to document our thoughts.
But, as I mentioned at the beginning, I’m a big fan of putting a quill pen, or a pencil (or a paint brush!) in one’s hand to write and draw. Even if you are not tempted to start learning Spencerian script, consider learning to draw or paint. Or knit. Or whittle. Or play jacks?
The states that have reinstated cursive writing (as of November 2023) are: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia,