When prompted to describe his artistic identity, Mr. Billy recognizes himself as, first and foremost, “a slave to beauty.”
The professional calligrapher began exploring the art of letter shaping and formation as a child with his mother, whom he recalls had beautiful print and cursive handwriting. Upon entering the third grade, Mr. Billy had the opportunity to take calligraphy as an elective and recalls “I wanted the calligraphy class so badly that I don’t remember what my second and third choices were.” However, this would be the extent of his formal instruction, as he would continue his journey in “hand-lettering” largely through self-guided study.
Today Mr. Billy no longer teaches just himself; as a workshop leader at the Center, he now organizes several highly popular introductory workshops, some of which have had waiting lists of up to 80 people.
Although the demand for his course was a welcomed surprise, he says it was— and continues to be— a surprise nonetheless. His workshops have attracted everyone from high school seniors and senior citizens to graphic artists and “a smattering of brides into DIY.”
Here are some of our favorite moments from our interview with Mr. Billy:
How do you differentiate between “hand-lettering” and calligraphy?
I call it hand lettering to try and manage people’s expectations, to kind of lower the stress levels. “Hand lettering” seems a little more accessible, less daunting, and I think that’s important because if you’re all stressed out, it’s more difficult to execute the stroke.
Do you have any signature flourishes?
Well, for my handwriting for my clients, it’s like a cross between a Spencerian script, copperplate, and whatever I picked out of the kitchen sink. A lot of different influences, usually, like the back of carte de visites, old advertisements, 18th century book plates. So if I see a particular letter from an unusual alphabet that I like, I’ll spend a couple of hours trying to replicate it as best as I can. I guess my signature is more of a combination. I don’t do straightforward copperplate or Spencerian.
What is your ideal creative environment?
Well, sometimes there’s no ideal situation. I have to try and create it as best I can. I can’t always work at a desk, since you know, I live in San Francisco. But growing up and being part Polynesian, we did a lot of things on the floor, so I’m used to that. I have a cement floor at home, a carpet, with my light box, and I’ll just work there. It’s not very Western— it doesn’t really emphasize the “right” posture, but that’s what I have to work with sometimes. Because of my Polynesian background, I think I have a little more flexibility in the way I approach things. It’s not so rigid. At hand, though, I like to have some water, a pot of tea, and, depending on my mood, a glass of scotch. And maybe a little snack. And in the background, I’ll have something playing, anything from old school ’80s, new wave, punk rock, to Japanese classical, to Raga, Russian chants.”
What do you think is one of the most important takeaways from your workshop?
By all means, pursue perfection but don’t get hung up on not being perfect right out of the gate. You know, computers are perfect, but sometimes, it’s nice to see that the hand has played a part in making something beautiful. And now, I think we desire something more like that footprint of the soul in a piece. So these are my goals: one, get people engaged; and two, give them a springboard off of which to dive into more explorations.
By Megan Cosgrove
When she is not inhaling Korean food, the Singaporean native can be found doodling, wandering local farmers’ markets, or enjoying a good sunset. Notebook and flip-flops in hand, she is excited to explore the Bay Area and its summertime treasures with The Culture Trip team.