The Interwebs are delightful rabbit holes, even if you can’t quite recall how you got from there to here. Eyekons.com is a Grand Rapids, Michigan gallery, printmaking artist agency owned by Phil Schaafsma. Eyekons recently shared publication of a 2017 calendar commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation containing Martin Luther’s quotes and scripture featured in his 95 Theses of 1517. It caught my eye because the whole of Martin Luther and the Reformation has been receiving much interest in the art world.
I have a habit of scanning. It’s a bad habit because sometimes you miss little nuggets. This day, I happened to notice this particular calendar had been beautifully illustrated with the calligraphy of Timothy Botts, an artist and calligrapher I have previously much admired. And not only was this artwork added as complement, it also included historical notes and references.
All well and good. Can you imagine for a moment what it would be like to interpret that massive work into visual form? Tim Botts lent his expressive calligraphy as interpretation of pivotal Reformation Scriptures & insightful portrayals of Martin Luther’s most memorable quotations? That’s no small feat! Well, read a little further oh fast one and what’s this? Botts has ALSO rendered illustrations for Christmas? And more biblical scripture? And workshops on lettering? And a lifetime’s worth of work putting words to art form?
So, I had to ring him up. Over a poor telephone connection, I first asked Botts about his art studio practice. He shared he is momentarily in the upstairs bedroom of his home where he spends about 20 hours a week concentrating on art, and the remainder of the time managing a full life with 14 grandchildren and the care of an infirm father. He said he recognizes the power of the image and he often forms an image first or adds to an image after the fact to help with the mood.
Botts has a beautiful website which mentions Stonemeadow and when I asked him about this, he explained Stonemeadow is an older name for a ministry he participates in, now known as Masterpiece Ministries. It is an art camp held each summer for two weeks and inclusive of all arts. Botts has the role of artistic director, where he oversees 40 students in Kentucky who arrive for workshops, lectures and art development. Botts previously held many of his own workshops at esteemed institutions, which he says have of late slowed down along with the teaching. Whether teaching in religious or secular environments, he has always had the unique ability to explain his thought process through demonstration. He pauses, and suddenly adds that it’s hard for him to let go of legibility.
He explains that in contemporary calligraphy circles or decorative lettering arts, there is an aesthetic divide between those who train with traditional methods for legibility at core, and those who are more expressive and interpretive in calligraphy as an art form. He feels his personal directive is for language and while he holds no contempt for more abstract interpretations of quotes, he is not driven by them.
Botts’ journey to calligraphy is unique. He studied at Carnegie Mellon where in his first year, calligraphy was considered foundational as a requirement for a fine arts program. He immediately fell in love with it and gave it a strong focus; it was always there in his thinking. Although his major was graphic arts, he was compelled to understand how to make beautiful letters and then, exactly what to do with them. After graduation, he and his wife went to Japan to teach English for three years. He then realized that Christian publishing would be a good fit for him, and he shortly joined Tyndale House Publishers where he remained for 40 years, and where he retired about four years ago.
I found Botts’s level of discipline to be inspiring. His slow, methodical way of considering a question and then speaking demonstrated not only an exceptionally well-read literary love, but also a consistency and commitment that is increasingly rare. He spoke of his time at Tyndale with respect. While Tyndale kept authors separated from artists, he was always free to work on his own personal books after hours at home and received royalties over and beyond his salary. He never felt torn between producing art for self or for commercial production, and said that while he authored and compiled his own works, he was always treated as an author in his own right. He credits Tyndale with a work culture of invested teams, a 40-hour work week, and a concentration on family values with minimal overtime. In fact, he still speaks with friends and colleagues from his professional career days.
I asked Botts about the effect of music as a transformation vehicle in his works. He shared that he seldom listens to music as an aid because he finds he has to concentrate solely on the work or the music, and so often he works in silence. When asked if he receives inspiration or divine thought and promptings from the meditative nature of his calligraphy, he said no. In fact, he receives (and prefers) his inspiration from traveling, which he does quite often. He finds exposure to new places, rich sites, pivotal and great literary works, and passages from the Bible serve as his testament to the greatness of the Bible.
As Botts continues doing primarily commissioned pieces at this stage of his art career, I asked him where he looks for influence or inspiration in the calligraphy world and he immediately gave me two names of people he believes are intent and firmly rooted in the practice. Donald Jackson, the notable Queen’s Calligrapher of the St. John’s Bible Project, is especially esteemed because of his work in international conferences in the field. And then there is Thomas Ingmire who doesn’t use the word “calligraphy.” Ingmire found that calligraphy was a prejudiced form of art in the secular art world and set about crafting his work as abstract and painterly. This approach has yielded Ingmire much success, particularly in the major west coast galleries.
Our conversation turned to the issue of art marketing, branding and making a business of this thing called art. Botts says he is not focused on marketing his own work, preferring those he trusts to take the bulk of that load (honestly, at price points I found astonishingly low). Today he is freelancing and executing commissioned works. Many of his books are still out in publication as portfolios, although his last book was published in 2008. He finds he does not presently have a lot of energy to pursue what he wants to do or might like to explore, but quickly adds that he does find working for others satisfying in itself. Once a year, he treats himself to a calligraphy workshop where he can play and explore and he greatly enjoys that. He’s often surprised at the result from these workshops, yet when he returns home is apt to settle back into the predictability of what’s worked so well for him all these years.
Botts is, if anything, an honest artist. He said he had been digging for quotes all his life. Every major quotation he’s been moved by, he’s done. And now, there is not much passion to do new things. He’s struggling with a way to find a new vehicle to do the same words over and over again, yet remains open to the possibility of explorations and findings. He quotes Chaim Potok to me, “It is the death of an artist to repeat himself.” Botts finds himself not so interested in mere production, but rather, finding something different.
I asked Botts what he thinks of this new fangled digital world. He remembers Tyndale when they had teams of twenty or so designers, support people and art directors, and at the time the computer was a big part of that. In spite of his graphic illustration background, it was still hard for Botts to keep up with the sophistication. He laughs as he notes that now, commercial calligraphers and graphic artists seem to long to return back to hand skills. There is a limitation he says, on what you can do on a computer. Humans recognize the organic quality of what’s produced in real life, which often is NOT perfect and holds much more life. There’s a special beauty in what we do by hand, which cannot be perfected.
We spoke too about how I am always surprised at the way language is communicated in newer contemporary music and I asked Botts whether he looks to emerging writers for thought or notable expression. He says embarrassingly, no. He’s a slow reader although he does have friends who do this regularly and he taps into their perceptions. He mentions poet Christian Wiman as being interesting. There is a price Botts explains, even if you find someone who’s saying something unique, you then have to seek permission or possibly pay them for the use of their words. He doesn’t mind the monetary exchange, but the process holds him back. Botts is thankful for the computer for alleviating much of this exchange delay, where in the past he would render color sketches and mail them off for spec or approval, he is now able to scan and attach in email.
We close with my asking Botts what’s next. And he shares he would like to do another book, perhaps an alphabet book for children that would be visionary in style and execution where each spread would be rendered with a different approach. In fact, he already has two of the 26 letters complete. Perhaps using gold leaf which is a big part of his work and a carryover from Medieval times, since the gold never tarnishes.
In the end, my impression of Botts is in appreciation of understanding just how important words have been and are to him. How language and meaning have been the defining elements of his life … to which he has lent (and lends) nearly all his talent and energy.
So much so, that I’m reminded that artists who have gone full-immersion often lose sight of details; memory is funny that way. When you’ve produced a treasure trove of gorgeous works over and over and over again, you forget how long the road has been. I innocently trigger a memory for Botts, that oh yes there’s a gallery out there that still has some of his works, for which he’s not seen renumeration nor communication.
He makes note that yes, he should really set about calling them up, and says this in an almost trivial or offhanded manner. Botts has an evangelical background and would love to work more in worship spaces in the future, which is desirable to him on many levels. He sees such a need for the marriage of language, meaning, art and church, and so many congregations where there simply is no vision. Vision, as I reflect the next morning, is most assuredly achieved by working, slow and steady, determined and disciplined, committedly and thoughtfully.