My Art: Wendy Russell has special gift for fine writing

By John Lewis

Around the markets Wendy Russell is known as the ‘‘Christmas ball lady’’.

During Yuletide you will find plenty of examples of her remarkable self-taught talent — writing finely wrought greetings in Gothic textura with pen and ink on the surface of a small glass sphere.

It looks fiendishly difficult.

‘‘It’s actually not that hard,’’ she said, with no hint of false modesty.

‘‘You keep the pen going at a 45 degree angle. You work with a chisel-ended nib and never twist your wrist. Light on the upstroke, pressure on the downstroke.’’

Mrs Russell’s flair for calligraphy came late, although she remembers she had good handwriting as a child.

‘‘People then said ‘you have a beautiful hand’,’’.

But it was not until she was married with children, living in Tasmania and playing in a folk band she discovered the art of fine writing.

As a parting gift, the band leader gave her a framed Novalis poem he had written in calligraphic script.

‘‘I’d never heard of calligraphy, but I loved it. It was beautiful and I was intrigued,’’ she said.

A few weeks later when her furniture arrived, she found something strange jammed in between the sofa cushions.

‘‘It was his calligraphy pen. It must have fallen down inside the couch.’’

That was the start of her lifelong obsession with script.

‘‘I started teaching myself. Then we moved to Byron Bay and I went into a shop and got another pen and a book on calligraphy.’’

Mrs Russell practised with her pen for up to five hours a day for four months.

‘‘It was an absolute addiction — I just learned everything from books,’’ he said.

‘‘I found that if you’re prepared to practise you can get really good at it.’’

When she returned to Shepparton she offered to teach a calligraphy class at Goulburn Ovens Institute of TAFE.

By the second term, the class was so popular she was running five classes a week.

It was the 1980s and Microsoft had yet to appear with its instant computerised calligraphy.

Mrs Russell wrote wedding invitations and place cards, life membership certificates, footy tributes and premiership honours — and Christmas messages on glass balls.

She joined the Calligraphy Society of Victoria and became the society’s copperplate teacher, holding workshops in the old Meat Market in North Melbourne.

She also took up book binding and marbling with handmade papers.

From 1994 until 2007, she ran her Shepparton High St shop, Traditions, where people came in and saw for themselves her unique skills and placed their orders.

Today she still takes commissions from her north Shepparton home and occasionally gets a personal request.

‘‘Two weeks ago I wrote a wedding proposal for a young man — that was lovely,’’ she said.

For someone with so many artistic strings to her bow, Mrs Russell is practical.

In her sun-filled lounge she has a box of stick-horse heads made from styrofoam and string.

In another box is a bundle of colourful little cardboard fish with metallic eyes and rods with magnets.

She has made them to use in an intergenerational music group she runs for pre-schoolers and the elderly at Mercy Aged Care.

‘‘I like to have something that accompanies the song. We sing nursery rhymes and sometimes blow bubbles,’’ she said.

‘‘People with dementia can often remember the songs they sang as children. It’s very rewarding.’’

But her pen hand is always on the move.

Letters addressed in fine-flowing script are scattered on her writing desk.

‘‘They’re family invitations,’’ she said. ‘‘I never tire of handwriting letters or special pieces. Every single one is a joy to me.’’