Strokes of genius: Getting a read on the handwriting of famous artists

Mar 24, 2006 at 2:32 pm

What if you could get into the mind of famous artists and tap their inner thoughts and feelings? Did their public personas match the personalities they revealed in private letters?

LEO took an opportunity to address this curiosity when Louisville Free Public Library opened the exhibition “More Than Words: Illustrated Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art,” which has a companion book of the same name.

Both the exhibition and book were organized by Dr. Liza Kirwin, curator of manuscripts at the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. The Archives collects artists’ correspondence, interviews and miscellaneous papers and, of course, the letters. The Louisville exhibition of these letters is the first.

LEO asked handwriting analyst Carmelita Everheart to help give readers insights into the minds of a few of the 96 artists whose letters appear in the book. She examined letters from Dale Chihuly, Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol and Alexander Calder (for space reasons, the analyses were edited), and we then tested her findings with Kirwin.

Dale Chihuly
Chihuly wrote to friends Italo Scanga and Su-Mei Yu in 1995 describing his preliminary designs for an upcoming installation. Arguably the most famous and prolific glass artist today, he has health problems, including being bipolar and blind in one eye.
Everheart: “Chihuly didn’t seem to be very comfortable in public situations. He tended to be shy, a little reserved and may have liked to have faded into the background. Because of his desire for variety, he was seldom idle, always wanting to be doing something. He may have had trouble meeting his deadlines.”
Kirwin: “I do think this rings true. He’s one of the most over-promoted glass artists today.” She also said he “preferred to do faxes” as his way of contacting friends and family.

Frida Kahlo
In 1940, painter Kahlo wrote to artist Emmy Lou Packard inquiring about the health of Kahlo’s ex-husband, painter Diego Rivera. Kahlo and Rivera’s passionate and volatile relationship is the stuff of legend, and shortly after this letter was written, the two remarried.
Everheart: “Unlike Chihuly, Kahlo was a social extrovert, possibly expansive with her movements and usually unwilling to concentrate on the small details. Although she enjoyed being around others, there were times when she wanted to be alone. It seems that Ms. Kahlo may have had little room in her life for the rights or opinions of others. She had the ability to express herself in both the written and spoken word.”
Kirwin: “She usually signs her letters with kisses. We have a number with kisses, but there’re more kisses on this one. She didn’t hold back; some of the letters have salty language. She’s very powerfully expressive.”

Andy Warhol
In 1949, Warhol, broke and living in New York City, received a letter from Harper’s magazine editor Russell Lynes, asking for biographical information. An introvert and self-described voyeur, Warhol worked in many media but is best known for his Pop Art prints of famous people.
Everheart: “Warhol was a bit discouraged with himself and resentful of his situation. He wasn’t sure about his role in society. He did seem to be diplomatic with the ability to deal with others while maintaining their good will. He was also inclined to be jealous and had some an unrealistic fear of others.”
Kirwin: “When Warhol said, ‘My life couldn’t fill a penny post card,’ he could have given that interview 30 years later. It was a kind-of posture that he had. But he was remarkably business-like, doing his job.”

Alexander Calder
The book has three letters by sculptor Calder, including one from 1949 to artist Ben Shahn with drawn directions that resembles one of his famous mobiles.
Everheart: “He was a man of intense feelings. His handwriting shows him to have had a deep and strong passion for bright and darker colors. He seems to have been a dynamic person not afraid to impose his will on others. He had a temper. He had an investigative mind and wanted to know all about everything that was to know.”
Kirwin: “Calder’s friends called him ‘Sandy,’ but he was larger-than-life. He was misbehaving at a reception; he ‘tied one on.’ This was typical of him and his social behavior, and the letter was him trying to make amends.”