The intimacy of a handwritten letter with a turkey quill and taking the time to create beautiful handwriting is rare.
Yet, this centuries-old tradition is kept alive by Paul Antonio Attong. In this age of high technology where a large portion of the world no longer writes but types, Trinidad-born Attong has made an international name for himself and his craft. Attong told the Sunday Guardian,"There are very few things that are more special than seeing your own name written beautifully." His love for calligraphy(beautiful handwriting) has won him a large clientele.
Among them are some of the many well-known, such as Tiffany & Co, Ralph Lauren and Louis Vuitton. The modern-day scribe who lives in London, told an international newspaper that on a suitable surface, "a squared quill is still the most exceptional writing tool we have ever produced." In fact, he cuts the quills himself and can even prepare calfskin vellum on which he can write. Attong has also just started a stationery company. Each envelope is addressed by hand, as the information for each will be different. The Sunday Guardian was able to interview the scribe.
Q: Where in T&T did you grow up?
A: I grew up in San Fernando.
What school did you attend?
Presentation College. It was here that I had my interest in calligraphy kindled by Mrs Gonsalves. Whenever I visit Trinidad I drop by the College to see my teachers and always end up giving a class on calligraphy for the present art class.
Do you have a large clientele?
I have a huge client list–some of my fashion clients include Asprey, De Beers, Chopard, Louis Vuitton. We do a ton of weddings and have just stared a stationery company. Our tag line for the stationery is 'We Only Print What We Write' so we don't use any typefaces in our work–all of it is done by hand first then digitised then printed in one of a few high-quality print processes. Some of our corporate clients include RBS, London Business School (for invitations and certificates). Numerous party planners include the Admirable Crichton, Atom Events, Freud Communications.
Seeing that you are one of a few, how do people respond to you?
It is hell at a dinner party! I dread when someone asks "So what do you do?" because then all conversation at the dinner table stops. There is a spectacular showcase of skilled craftsmen in July every year called Art In Action. And they get together over 200 craftsmen to show the public how things are done–calligraphy is a magnet. Because we can all write, being able to make something we can all do, and do it beautifully is like watching magic tricks.
Would you advise others to make a career of calligraphy?
It is very difficult to become a professional calligrapher. It requires years of dedication, and not making any money while you come to terms with your skill. It is also not easy to train as there are so few courses running. Getting a good hand is one thing but it is getting it consistent all the time that is the trick. You not only need to know what you do inside out–as you will get asked to write on all kinds of things, but you need to be able to deal with people and convince them that you are what they need! Invariably it is either you are good at art or good at business but you have to be good at both if you want to make a decent living. It is not something that happens easily. It takes time, patience, dedication, application and research.
Is it lucrative?
It is only in the past three years I have been earning a decent living. But what is lucrative? It is not only about making money–it is also about the standing amongst your peers on an international stage. It is about contributing to the corpus of knowledge in one's field of expertise. But then there is personal wealth. Making money comes with much stress and sometimes you need to make a decision if you actually want the added stress. That is a tricky question to answer. A lot of the time making money and earning a living is to the exclusion of research–but one is financially lucrative and one is personally lucrative.
Do you plan to return to T&T?
For vacation? Yes, if visiting family can be called a vacation! But seriously, I have no plans to return for the foreseeable future but nothing is set in stone. I love my family and miss them very much but I also love my calling and it is here the research materials reside. It's a tough call.
Would you call yourself an artist?
I think artisan would be a more apt description of what I do. Apart from the calligraphy there is a historical side to the work where we actually use the tools and materials that the monks used. I grind my own green out of malachite. I use a 14th century recipe to make ink and to lay gold leaf. And we get vellum in (made for calfskin) made using the same method that was used in the fourth century. Apart from the writing and the painting there is an alchemical aspect to the work that is more craft than art.
Do you have another profession or is calligraphy your only one?
I suspect if we get an extra day it would still not be enough time to do all that is going on in the studio! Another profession?