Some might see what the man behind local calligraphy studio, Craft Varies, does as “just writing” and it might be true to a certain extent, but to Clarence Valerius Wee, calligraphy is so much more…
In the beginning was the blank page and lo, the word appeared. And the word was made up of letters, each rune cut into the parchment; look at how the nib tip trails ink. The word sits on the baseline, the descender of a “y” hangs like a cat’s tail; the way the hairline broadens before it thins out to close off the counter. In its violent moments, a stroke, like the swing of a sword, crossbars of a majuscule “F” or its unifying spells, the ligature of letters, the linking of bowls in a minuscule “g”. The descending tail that swoops into a flourish. To watch Clarence Valerius Wee of Craft Varies calligraph is to witness the Big Bang slowly blossom into existence.
The first contact of nib to paper was at Temasek Polytechnic, where Wee was studying visual communication. On track to working in advertising, it was Wee’s final-year paper—the creation of an abstract glyph—that sparked a curiosity about the letterforms. That led to an internship in Eindhoven, Netherlands and the desire to learn about calligraphy took over.
He self-studied, learning from books and online tutorials. He met with other calligraphers. He travelled to the UK and apprenticed under Paul Antonio, someone who factored into his discipline. “When I started learning on my own, during that period of time, I was already very much influenced by [Antonio’s] practice. [Studying] under him reemphasised my understanding of calligraphy.”
What Wee picked up is how the body affects the words. How you breathe, how you hold the pen, the way the bent of your posture might be reflected in the spine of the “S”.
“The name is the thing, and the true name is the true thing.
To speak the name is to control the thing.” – Ursula K Le Guin, The Rule of Names
Wee is discovering his mind muscle connection. “The public’s perception of calligraphy is that you sit down to write, but the more I practised writing, I’m aware of how I sit, how my shoulder moves, the pull of the elbows.”
To further his craft, Wee hits the gym and yoga, concentrating on specific muscle groups. This consciousness of how to move permeated all aspects of his life.
Clients who wish to hire his expertise are always asked this question: “What’s your purpose?” “It’s nice to hear them say that they appreciate my work, but sometimes clients have a preconceived notion of what they want.”
“We’re looking at their intention for their brand; we strip everything down and then we execute based on that. Clients need to understand that when they hire us, it’s to discover something new and not something that they were influenced by, what they’ve seen.”
So, it’s not about what the client wants but what their brand needs. For example: Comic Sans. Designed by Vincent Connare to counter the formalness of Times New Roman, the font was used in speech balloons in a Microsoft Bob software.
“It’s like a bullied child,” Wee says. “People like [Comic Sans] so much they misused it, putting it on corporate notes and other serious stuff. [Connare] was lambasted for creating the font but he actually met the font’s purpose. Each font is created for a specific purpose.”
Wee hasn’t completely abandoned typography. He still dabbles in it during his free time. It’s not something that he can do as a business, especially in a place like Singapore, as the process is time-consuming and expensive.
Wee bristles at being called a “craftsman”. “I came up with the studio name before ‘craftsmanship’ became hip. I picked the name because I believe in the intricacy of understanding the craft, but now anyone can take one class and call themselves a ‘craftsman’.” There’s a sigh sewn into that statement. “I’ll just have to live with it.” (Note: ‘Craft Varies’ also came about from the initials of Wee’s first two names.)
So, Wee doesn’t need a label but if you need to call him anything, call him a calligrapher or a type enthusiast. There’s a belief that names carry power but they are just words, made up of letters, scratched into existence, most probably by the hand of one Clarence Valerius Wee.