When one thinks of graphic design, it wouldn’t be unusual to picture something online. In today’s world, “design” refers to websites, videos, or the next big mobile app.
But as more and more graphic artists use Adobe programs for their work, there are still those in Santa Barbara who are keeping the craft of handmade graphics alive.
Lislee Sipress is a graphic and lettering artist who has been self-employed and sharing her talent of calligraphy with Santa Barbara since the 1970s.
Mrs. Sipress’ work has adorned place cards, logos, signs and diplomas around the city. She can write with either hand in almost any language. Over the years, she has learned 30 alphabets, and has a bevy of design tricks up her sleeve that bring a unique flare to her work.
“I have a lot of possibilities in my toolbox and I pick the one that’s appropriate. People who use me over and over again know what I do, and they will request. Coordinators will say, ‘make this real fancy,’ or ‘they don’t like it real fancy. Just do Italic,’” said Mrs. Sipress.
Mrs. Sipress’ stepfather was a sign painter and display artist who had his children help out. Starting when she was 10, Mrs. Spress painted little pictures and drew with a rapidograph.
When she first learned about calligraphy in an adult education class, she realized she had all the right skill sets — she just hadn’t applied them yet.
“It was like I was always meant to do it. I had it immediately,” said Mrs. Sipress.
As time went on, Mrs. Sipress gained auxiliary skills to calligraphy, such as framing, what paints work with what papers, and various methods of illustration. She says a monk taught her how to do gold illumination.
Mrs. Sipress puts her various talents on display for her favorite commissions, the awards for UCSB graduates.
“Chancellor (Henry) Yang likes my work so I’ve had that job for 15 years or so,” she said.
Each year, Mrs. Sipress researches the winners to find out their interests, and designs their awards with beautiful personal illustrations. An athlete might get baseballs, a botanist some flowers, or a scientist some test tubes. With the raised gold and framing also done by Mrs. Sipress, the awards are truly one of a kind.
“I like awarding. It’s personal and it’s kept,” said Mrs. Sipress.
Mrs. Sipress sees a connection between calligraphy and her other passion, music.
“If music were happening more, I would do calligraphy less,” said Mrs. Sipress.
Mrs. Sipress’s stepfather was a good friend of folk music legends Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and Mrs. Sipress, who has been playing the flute and guitar since she was 5, even had her own brief music career back for a time.
Today she plays flute with the Jazz Duet, harp for a classical duo, and performs on her own with guitar. When solo, Mrs. Sipress likes to play from the Great American Songbook, and gives the audience background on the author and a little history behind the song.
She says, like music, calligraphy can be both rigid and loose. Some commissions require the detailed precision and perfection similar to classical music, while other jobs like envelopes or placards are more forgiving and spontaneous, similar to jazz.
“Frankly, I embrace all of them. I love being disciplined and having to get it right, and I love playing music where it doesn’t matter. When I sing and play guitar, I just wail,” she laughed.
You might not remember the last time you’ve seen traditional calligraphy, but there’s a chance you’ve seen it around town. Mrs. Sipress also works for Santa Barbara Beautiful and designs the plaques that the organization has placed around the city.
If you have a birthday, graduation or wedding and need hand-drawn invitations, place cards, or certificates, search for “Calligraphy by Leslee Sipress” on Facebook.