Tagged sign painting

Calligraphy by Cristina Acosta

Midlife Transformation – Using Old Letters to Create New Words

Midlife transformation is inevitable for women. Menopause is irrefutable and for most women, a defining experience. Whether a woman has had children or not, reproduction and nurturing as defining metaphors in our lives are now replaced with reinvention and renewal.

And all of that change and midlife transformation requires a new vocabulary of a sort. A reinvention of new words from the same old letters we’ve been working with our entire lives. An anagram for renewal, real and new can define this new phase of our lives if we allow ourselves the opportunity.

I’ve been thinking about this idea of reinvention quite a bit as I’m in the middle of the biggest reinvention phase of my life (so far). Much of my life as I knew it has changed these past few years and I’m starting again. A situation that is exhilarating and energizing as well as depressing and scary.

While trying to  stay focused on exhilarating and energizing this past week, I found myself visualizing calligraphy. For about ten years of my art career, I painted signs, paying for my art degree at the University of Oregon and then transitioning into a career as a billboard lettering and mural artist until the trade ended with the advent of computers. One of the foundations of sign painting is calligraphy, the hand drawn art of letterforms.

I found myself thinking about the twists and turns of line I could create with the motions of my body transforming brush and paint into meaning. There is a lovely sensual pleasure to brush calligraphy, a quality that varies with each letter and each grouping of letters as they form words. Surprisingly, actually feeling the visual forms a word takes enriches the feeling the word invokes, even when the feeling of creating the word with line is counter to the meaning of the word.

Those memories in mind, I realize that the midlife transformation I am going through now offers me the opportunity to reform the letters of my life. Those letters being the skills, experiences, wisdom and attitudes I’ve developed over the years, and re-ordering them into new words, creating new meanings for myself.

New words and meanings denote a new reality. Here are a few examples: I have been making art, painting or drawing for decades, but now I have different thoughts and feelings about the process and different (fewer) expectations . I have been cooking for even longer, filling in for my single mother of seven when I was a young teenager, working in restaurants, then being a homemaker and mother. But now, when I cook I see more than a quick meal or a beautiful spread, I understand the connections and spiritual qualities of food much differently than I have in the past. Life feels richer.

There is an old Zen proverb that goes something like this: Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. Midlife transformation can be a type of enlightenment, a time when the familiar meanings and perceptions of the shapes and forms of our lives transmute into new beginnings.


The movie Helvetica is a documentary about a type-face. Before you yawn-off (or click-out), wait a minute. Helvetica is a good movie. Really. At least for anybody interested in any of the arts, design, architecture and fashion fields.

Back in the mists of time when signs were actually hand-painted, I used to paint Helvetica as a letterform (type-form) on advertising billboards.(I was a billboard painter.) Helvetica was always a bit awkward to paint as it’s roots were not from the brush and chisel roots of all of western languages letterforms, but from the machine age.

For more of an explanation about the roots of letterforms you must see the movie. Besides setting up the history of typography well, Helveticathe film has interviews with a variety of graphic designers who have completely opposite or divergent opinions about design from each other along with examples of their work so the viewer can make their own judgments.

Listening to contradictory opinions and design theories warms my heart. Strange — but it does. I love that artists and critics do have strong opinions. And that they change those opinions. Been there, done that, over it is a credo that sits side-by-side with the purity of obsession over one thing for the rest of one’s life.

About a week after seeing the movie Helvetica I was working with a designer on a logo I recently did for our family business,www.StandUpPaddleFlatwater.com. She was going through her list of fonts when I saw a name that intrigued me. “Let me see the font Switzerland,” I asked her, wondering if what I thought I might see would be something funny.

I did see something funny. Switzerland looked almost exactly liked Helvetica. I don’t know the history behind the Switzerlandfont, but I get the joke. Helvetica is a German made (and owned) type font that was originally supposed to be named after Switzerland. They changed the spelling slightly for the times. It was a marketing ploy of some type (see the movie). In response, somebody made a competing type form they titled Switzerland. A subtle joke tucked into a list of fonts. That’s the kind of meaning in an everyday object that keeps the art world inspiring.