Alice: Lettering, Life & Laughter Lessons

Many of us have arrived at crossroads in our lives, perhaps unrecognized at the time, but clear as crystal when looking back, and if lucky, attended by a teacher or mentor who gave our sails a good gust and guided our way onward. I had such a teacher in 1994 when I met Alice.

That year, I had the great good fortune to attend my first international calligraphy conference at the Claremont Colleges in southern California. My calligraphy skills, languishing while I raised two children, were pretty sketchy and needed sharpening. Since my favorite piece of calligraphy was Roundel of the Seasons, I had signed up for Sheila Waters‘ class, “Fine Tuning of Bookhands.” However, the week before the conference, we were notified that Sheila would not be able to come and teach this class, and our substitute would be Alice. Alice who? No last name, just Alice.

Alice teaching at California Experience conference 1994

After a week with Alice, I had encountered sharpness of all kinds: I had learned how to sharpen my nibs, how to sharpen my eye for LOOKING at letter forms, and been treated to Alice’s sharp wit and intelligence. We soon learned that spending time with Alice was going to involve a lot of laughing, beginning on the first day. She wryly pointed out that the entire classroom was filled with women, and that we were waiting for the “token male” to arrive. She said, “Let’s give him a big round of applause when he gets here” which we did. He took it in good spirit, and we were off and running. We would collectively gasp when Alice, looking over the list of promised bookhands and the pace of the instruction, would mutter, “Who thought up this curriculum anyway?”  But her long friendship and deep respect for Sheila was obvious, and we were equally impressed by her ability to jump in, on one week’s notice, to teach this intensive class. I left with a solid grounding in bookhands, which I have drawn on ever since (any evidence to the contrary is entirely my own responsibility).

Alice Koeth - Artist & Alphabet Title ©1999

Alice is a true blue American scribe, born and bred in Manhattan as were generations of her family before her. Her last name, Koeth, had various pronunciations, so she dropped it early in her professional life. A founding member of New York’s longtime Society of Scribes in 1974, this lively eighty-something-year-old scribe is still active on the board of that highly respected calligraphy guild. Alice was the curator, with her colleague Jerry Kelly, of the exhibit Artist and Alphabet: Twentieth Century Calligraphy and Letter Art in America, a 25-year retrospective co-sponsored by the Society of Scribes, which engendered a book of the same name, published by David Godine in 2000 (Alice’s title calligraphy, above). Every scribe represented in the exhibit works or has worked in the United States, with the honorable inclusion of Donald Jackson (who wrote the book’s introduction) and Hermann Zapf, both of whose contributions to western calligraphy worldwide are incalculable.

The black and red Latin calligraphy (top) was Alice’s page in the Society of Scribes’ 1977 wall calendar, which was the first incarnation of the long-running  Calligrapher’s Engagement Calendar.  I love this calligraphy for its spontaneity and the mark of the maker’s hand – the colored strokes overlapping exactly as they were written on the original, the joining strokes of some of the letters not quite meeting, but so rhythmical and alive it still takes my breath away. In a quite original but truly historic batarde hand, Alice wrote for December, “Gloria in altissimis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis” (“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of good will”).

Alice as MedievalScribe at KeioUniversity, 1996

Alice always stressed that we begin from a strong historical basis. We can modernize a style, but to truly understand it, we need to look at the original manuscripts. This love of history imbues all her work. Alice was among the honored guests invited to teach western calligraphy to scribes in Japan for the Alpha Club in the nineties. She enjoyed her visits there, and was even invited to dress up like a medieval scribe at a series of Keio University demonstrations in 1996 (photo above by Emiko Kinebuchi). Alice’s costume was made by her sister and niece, and the writing desk and chair expertly made by Japanese craftsmen, using as their model the classic illumination of a medieval French scribe in the picture behind her. Alice says the craftsmen who made the desk had no idea what it was for, but copied the painting faithfully, even down to the horn inkwells for the red and black ink mounted into the desk, the holes to place the quills, the lead weight to hold down the paper, the magnifying glass.

Medieval Scribe Jean Mielot

The scribe in the painting was Jean Nelieot, scribe to the Duke of Burgundy, shown in his private workroom. He produced some of the best writing in Europe at that time. One of his self-portraits, above, is taken from the cover of the book Medieval Craftsmen, Scribes and Illuminators, published 1992 by British Museum Press. Alice, the modern-day equivalent of this professional scribe, began freelancing in 1953. Among her most faithful and famous clients was the Morgan Library, for whom she made signage, posters and other calligraphic necessities for thirty years (sample shown below). At age 60 she went to work for Corning Steuben, designing lettering for glassware. She also cut stone with John Benson in the John Stevens Studio. “The object of freelancing,” she said, “is to spend as little time as possible on a job.” By taking historical bookhands and writing them large, Alice showed the subtle beauty of these written forms.

Alice - Morgan Library Uncial Poster

When I asked Alice to come to San Jose and teach the batarde hand for Pacific Scribes, she gladly agreed. Local scribes looked askance at the supply list, which began with the large words “NO TOOL BOXES.” This class would be taught with pen, ink and paper. Alice had learned calligraphy the old-fashioned way, before the advent of easy duplication, or as Alice called it, BX, Before Xerox. In her night classes with Arnold Bank at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, there were no exemplars passed out, no guidelines supplied. Letters were written on the chalkboard and students copied from them and made their own exemplars. Guidelines were always made with pen scales, those ladder-like rows of pen marks fixing the x-height of your letter according to the size of the nib and the style of lettering you were writing. Alice made it clear that she never calls herself a calligrapher, but a scribe. Calligraphy was a showy word adopted by the writing masters of the 16th century. “What we’re doing,” Alice said, “is broad-pen writing.” That may be true, but Alice is certainly elevating writing to calligraphy in this exuberant poster, below, designed for a 1977 exhibit, reproduced unretouched at about 24 x 18 inches. This fine combination of a strong medieval batarde hand with small capitals can be found in Modern Scribes and Lettering Artists, published in 1980 by David Godine.

Alice - The Book Arts Poster


“Blessed are the hands of the copyists,” below, about 13 x 5 in the original, was a piece Alice “dashed off” in my studio in 1996 the night before our batarde workshop. On translucent paper, the ink will make the paper buckle, as you can see, and the light pencil lines and a smear are still there. But while watching her make this small piece of lettering for me with a Speedball C-1 nib, I was transfixed by how slowly and deliberately she drew her letters. There was none of my own “put the pen down, close your eyes, and let fly,” hoping for a good letter; just the stately progression of strokes, rhythmically made, pressing on after an awkward stroke in the knowledge that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the rhythm in the hand coming from the discipline of long years of practice. I hope she will tolerate me showing this along with her finished work.

Alice - Blessed Are The Copyists

Alice makes herself at home in my studio during a visit to San Jose in 1998, below (is that really a slide projector in the background?). She has trotted the globe but always returns to her beloved New York. I am glad to know her, to have been inspired by her career and her skill during the course of my own working life, and hope that I am half so sharp when I grow up. Of the many things I learned from Alice, which I have often repeated to women, young and old, was this: “She who tooteth not her own horn often finds it is not tooteth at all.” So this is me, tooting Alice’s horn, her long dedication to the fine art of broad pen writing, her far reaching influence, her impeccable letter forms, and her continuing example of producing the highest level of work while having fun!

Alice In My Studio 1998 visit
{ 15 comments… add one }
  • Ann Miller 03/01/2012, 2:25 pm

    Cari, this is just wonderful! What a nice look into Alice’s work and devotion to beautiful letters. Thank you!

  • Gemma 03/02/2012, 10:00 pm

    Thank you Cari, I have enjoyed this insight to a very talented lady I have known by name only for over thirty years. x gb

  • Marie Fredriksson 03/03/2012, 3:17 am

    Great read, Cari. I’ve never known who this mysterious (to me) “Alice” was. Glad to know more about her .

  • Jan Hurst 03/03/2012, 7:12 am

    Thanks, Cari! A non-blogging, non-facebook friend studied with Alice at Cheerio and held similar positive views. It’s so nice to see your blog!

  • Katherine Malmsten 03/03/2012, 10:22 am

    Wonderful article, Cari. Alice is a treasure, though she would undoubtedly pooh-pooh that description; I am so glad to have met and spent time with her!

  • Sandy Wagner 03/03/2012, 2:17 pm

    Well done! As Katherine so eloquently stated, Alice is indeed a treasure. Spent a week with her (and Brody) at Cheerio. Never have two more different tutors succeeded so marvelously in rowing a boat in the same direction 🙂 Amazing lady! Amazing week!

  • Michele 03/04/2012, 7:45 pm

    What great stories about an obviously talented and dedicated woman! I love “BX” (Before Xerox), and the photo of Alice at her scribe’s desk with the illustration of the medieval scribe (her forebear?!) presiding on the wall behind/above her is wonderful. The Thomas á Kempis quote is a keeper, as is the advice to “tooteth” 🙂

  • Diane von Arx 03/07/2012, 11:13 am

    Thanks for the wonderful piece you wrote on Queen Alice, and the great
    photos. I’m sure there are many new lettering artists who do not know
    her, now they have a taste.

  • Jane Brenner 03/07/2012, 3:45 pm


    What fun to read this! The examples are so fresh, even though I’ve seen them many times in books. Perhaps Marcia would be interested in sharing this in Alphabet?


  • Sherrie Lovler 03/29/2012, 11:00 pm

    Thank, you, Cari, for writing and posting such a feast for our eyes. I just had the wonderful opportunity of seeing Alice in NYC. What a treat! I used to walk past the Morgan Library and see those amazing signs she did. Magic! One of my first calligraphic heroes, always in my heart.

  • Harvest Crittenden 07/17/2012, 9:39 am

    Cari, what a wonderful job you did paying tribute to a most delightful living legend, Alice. I have learned much from her over the years, especially at Cheerio. She completely changed the way I hold my pen! You have captured her lively, lovely spirit. Thank you!

  • Sheila Waters 06/12/2016, 2:57 pm

    Thank you Cari for this insightful blog about one of my long time and most valued friends. Alice has done so much for the high standard of calligraphy that New York is known for and has helped so many scribes in the USA and abroad to look and to really see solid structure and subtlety of form and detail. When I was ill and unable to go to the California Experience conference in 1994, Alice was the obvious choice to replace me because I knew she cared as much about the historical underpinning of classic bookhands as I did and would serve the students every bit as well as I would hope to do, and of course she came through like the trouper she is. Over the years we have enjoyed a strong friendship of mutual respect and enjoyed each other’s company whenever the opportunity arose. She has such a sharp wit and sense of humor and still never lets me forget that she is sixteen months older than I am! A book about her work will be an asset to our calligraphic book collections and is long overdue.

    • Cari 06/12/2016, 3:10 pm

      Sheila, I agree this planned book is most welcome, and can’t wait to get ordering details to share with my readers. It is an honor to have now also studied with you. I feel so fortunate to have been able to learn from two of “the greats” as Alice likes to say. Thanks for coming by to share your unique tribute to our friend Alice!

  • Edna Porter 10/08/2020, 2:14 am

    Reading your article, the day after Alice died, brought back fond memories of 1994. “Space Science and Counter Intelligence” is one of the many “Alice-isms”. that was recorded that week. I was in that class, also. It was my introduction to the force that was Alice. Thank you for this wonderful capture of the “Alice” experience.

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