when i found out that rajiv surendra – the actor that played kevin g, the infamous mc/math enthusiast in the hit movie mean girls – was currently working as a chalk artist and calligrapher, i was immediately intrigued. after scoping out his phenomenal work, i knew i had to interview him. the actual interview was a long time in the making, but when i finally sat down to chat with rajiv, our talk quickly turned into an in-depth hour-plus discussion that was easily one of the most fascinating interviews i’ve ever done (and i’ve done a lot). i’ve never met someone so innately passionate about their craft, and rajiv’s craft results in some incredibly intricate and inspiring art. more than just beautifully written words, rajiv’s ink and chalk work is an astute reflection of times gone by – a nod to centuries past that you just can’t create with a font on a computer or a graphic design. working primarily in ink and chalk, rajiv has started his own lettering company called, appropriately, letters in ink, designing everything from logos to signage to calligraphy, entirely, pain-stakingly by hand. a native of toronto, rajiv is now based out of munich, germany. i caught up with rajiv to talk about beauty in art, his favourite letters, the challenges of the digital age, and making mistakes.
what is it about pen and ink that has kept you so fascinated since elementary school?
writing is something that everybody has to do. we still correspond by text, even though now it’s mostly typed on a computer or onto a phone. but everyone communicates with words and letters, and i’ve found that beautiful writing has made the impact of those words much stronger. in an age where art forms like this are accomplished electronically, writing down words with a pen makes such a bold impact, and that’s what’s kept my passion for calligraphy alive. the fact that it’s becoming almost a novelty is very inspiring to me.
so, i know that you adapted 19th century calligraphy as your own handwriting when you were younger. what does your everyday handwriting look like today?
it varies! i feel like i’m a paranoid schizophrenic sometimes! i’ll open up my notebook and be like “what?! who wrote that?!” [laughs] i’m actually really good at copying people’s handwriting. in high school, my notes would all be different because they would reflect the teacher’s writing from the board. but my every day handwriting can be very beautiful or it can be very messy.
what about your signature?
my signature is pretty messy. it doesn’t look great, but just this year i thought i should create a nice signature, so now it’s really a beautiful version of the scribble that it was before!
i guess being able to copy people’s handwriting came in handy when you wanted to forge your parents’ signatures in high school, eh?
it was actually! shhh… [laughs]
can you walk me through the creative and technical process of your art? how do your designs go from idea to paper (or chalkboard)?
for the larger projects, i’m normally asked to show the client a draft. but to be honest, i can’t really work that way. i’ve tried, you know, i sit at my desk but nothing comes to me. it’s when i’m at the chalkboard that the inspiration really comes to me. i just let ideas come to me. if i can’t do it right now, i can’t do it. if i don’t feel like doing something, i just won’t do it. i was the same way in university, if i didn’t feel like studying for an exam…i just wouldn’t. i couldn’t! and somehow it all worked out.
i know a lot of people that had the same mentality in university. i think i’m the opposite.
well, for me, it’s not about the finished product. it’s about the process. my goal is not to create a beautiful painting, it’s about doing it. i do it to love doing it, or to experience something while doing it.
so, how do you ensure that your that the messages you’re writing retain your own voice?
the thing about text and lettering is that it has to serve a function. it has to be legible, it can’t just be beautiful, and that’s something that i’m always struggling with. when i’m left to my own devices, i sit down, and do it until i’m happy with it. i think i’ve set a standard for myself that i think the public can trust. i’ve created a certain look, which is a look that i’m happy with. i’m not going to put anything out there that i don’t like. working with a client, they have to like it too…so if they don’t, i’ll redo it until they like it, while still maintaining that mandate of me liking it.
i read that your career as an artist really took off after a year you spent living abroad. what was the experience like for you? what do you think the experience taught you about yourself?
i moved to europe a couple years ago, and it was only after living there that my artistic sensibilities changed. in europe, the art is rooted in so much of the culture there…the architecture, the churches, the way the streets are laid out, the way that they live. it so affected me. i never felt compeltely at home in toronto, where i grew up, and i kind of had this feeling of being an outsider there. when i moved to europe, it was strange because it really felt like wow, this is home. that affected my art, and my taste for art. i love old things! i love classical art and architecture…so to be surrounded by it in europe is so motivating.
awesome! so, what has been your favourite project to date?
i think my favourite project so far has been this cutting board that i made. it was a copy of this bread board from the early 1800s. someone had cut down this tree, this really old tree that was about to fall over, you know, so they cut it into these boards and let them dry out for two years. i then took one of those boards, plained it by hand, sanded it with this foot powered machine and then spent three months carving the decoration. it said “the staff of life” in gothic handwriting, with these wheat shoots around it.
wow, that’s incredible. and it was a copy of a design from the 1800s?
yeah, it was common in the 1800s for people to have these really ornamental bread boards, and most would have words from the bible on them, so “the staff of life” or “our daily bread,” things like that. the board took half a year to make! i love so much creating something that i’m going to use every day. it’s not necessarily a piece of art but it’s created with that passion, and it serves a functional purpose as well. i cut my bread on that board every day!
every day art.
exactly. actually, another thing that was really fun to make was this sweater vest [laughs]…it’s called fair isle knitting, it has all these different colours. you know, like old navy has these kinds of sweaters. like mister rogers, grandpa kind of sweaters. i made one…and i started with shearing the sheep. i pulled apart the fleece, washed the wool with soap that i had made, spun it on a wheel…i then collected plants and turned them into dyes, to make each individual colour for the sweater.
[speechless, unattractive gawking face]
[laughs] but by then i was sick of the wool so i had a friend knit it up. but that was a really fun project, a very memorable experience. i think there’s something so wonderful about wearing a garment you’ve created from scratch. once you’ve done that, you look at all clothing in a different way.
what about something calligraphy based?
well, something that i’ve done more recently is…for his wedding anniversary, a man wanted to give his wife their vows written out in calligraphy. this was one of those projects that i really didn’t know what i was going to do with them or how i was going to make them look beautiful. so i used these very old documents as inspiration, sort of to get the layout of the vows right. then to add to the visual interest, i made this big wax seal on the bottom. i was really happy with how they turned out.
being that we’re in such a digital age right now, what has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome since choosing a more traditional method of art?
the biggest challenge has been pushing myself to make my work clean and perfect, but not going too far. finding the happy medium. with everything so accessible now, i can pull up a font on the computer, and i can draw it by hand. i try to stay away from the computer as much as i can, and to rely on other things to inspire me. the challenge is to make the work look like it was hand done but keep it clean and beautiful looking.
for example, when i had done those vows, i wrote them out and they still looked a little too perfect, a little too clean for me. i didn’t want them to look contrived or planned. so i splashed a little ink around them, and it turned out almost as if they were mistakes.
speaking of mistakes, i’ve read that the quote “the absence of flaw in beauty is itself a flaw,” has been a strong inspiration for you as an artist. how do you think hand-drawn work redefines the concept of ‘perfect’ as we’ve come to understand it?
i go back to what i said about the way that i work. it’s about process, not end result. if i approach this work with the mindset of making everything perfect- if i formed every letter perfectly – it becomes so technical that part of the passion and inspiration is lost. you’re drawing the letter, at that point. it becomes so detached from the spontaneity of actual writing…the process has changed. it’s gone from, you know, kind of a dance, to more of a rigid, technical exercise. i don’t want it to ever be that way. if i stay true to that, i think that i stay true to naturally following that expression. flaws are going to be there, and it’s going to be beautiful because the inspiration and the process is beautiful.
so, would you liken “mistakes” to a kind of artistic signature?
i would. i would also be very careful to say that the artist must also have the integrity to know when they’re being lazy or sloppy, and when they’re allowing that looseness or freedom to shine. i need to have the discipline to understand when i’ve created something where the imperfections are part of the aesthetic, or when i need to go back and fix them.
if you were a font, what would you look like?
hmmm…i would look like my favourite kind of writing, which is called copperplate script. it’s what my handwriting is based on. it’s what was taught to gentlemen in the 1700s to the mid 1800s. my favourite form of that script is what’s generally found in old hotel ledger books, or old receipts. i have a book on jewelry from south india from the 1800s, and they have a ledger book from cartier. so they have this photograph of a receipt that says what these maharajas ordered from cartier. and it is so beautifully written, but it’s so casual. that’s the font that i would be. casual copperplate.
if the alphabet was on a sinking ship, and you had three life jackets – you could only save three letters – what letters would you save?
i would save W, because that’s my favourite letter. i love writing it and i love the form. i would save A, because it’s another one of my favourite letters, and you know, it’s the beginning of the alphabet. and the third letter i would save would be O. it’s just a shape but there’s something so beautiful about the way that it can be written.
have you got any cool projects lined up for 2013?
i try not to line things up too far ahead, projects just come to me, often the deadline is like tomorrow, so i don’t really plan ahead, no.
anything you’d like to add?
i so strongly feel that it serves people to stop every now and then, to take the effort, to write a letter to somebody. anybody. it is such a wonderful feeling to open that letter. it really is like they’re right there, beside you because their handwriting is a part of themselves that’s now on this page. you only understand that feeling once you do it, so i really encourage everyone – i’m really just bossy – to just take the time to write a letter.