Literary Calligraphy by Susan Loy

Constitution Project Press Room

Frequently Asked Questions
About Susan Loy's Project to Letter and Illustrate
The Constitution of the United States

Why did you decide to letter the Constitution of the United States?

During a nine-month period after September 11, 2001 I was stopped three times in seemingly random traffic stops. By the third time, having been pulled over with the sirens blaring, lights flashing, and my adrenalin flowing and having been told by the police officer that he was curious as to why I had protective barriers behind the front seats of my mini-van, I began to wonder if there wasn't something in the Constitution about this sort of thing. After downloading a copy of the Constitution from the U.S. National Archives, I rediscovered the fourth amendment, which establishes the right of the people to be secure in their persons. Blaring sirens and questions by the police had made me feel insecure in my person, and that's what had bothered me.

So I came to appreciate the fourth amendment, which reads in its entirety: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." I understand the context that supplied the impetus for such random traffic stops; the months after September 11, 2001 were an extraordinary time, a time that tested our Constitution.

At any rate, those were the circumstances that brought a copy of the U. S. Constitution to my studio. Several years later, I picked up that copy for a demonstration at an art festival. As I gave the Constitution a close reading, I fell in love with the document and decided to letter and illustrate it. I was especially taken with the Preamble, fifty-two words that are jam-packed with meaning.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Each word must have taken on great importance to the writers of the Constitution. "Tranquility" stopped me in my tracks - that they thought to mention it "for ourselves and our Posterity," along with justice and the blessings of liberty. It made me stop and appreciate the tremulous times during which the Preamble was written and how the founding fathers must have valued tranquility because of its absence in their lives under the rule of the English monarchy.

I began lettering the Constitution to protect my right to be secure in my person, but as I got deeper into the project my motives evolved to a broader desire to call attention to the whole Constitution and to its history. I have had hundreds of conversations with Americans about our Constitution and have especially come to appreciate the common ground that it affords us. As an artist, my desire has been to create beautiful and compelling settings for the words to our Constitution, words that provide the basis for common ground and the foundation for the blessings of liberty.

Who wrote the Constitution?

The authorship of any part of the Constitution has never been definitely established, and it is believed to have been a collaborative effort. A Committee of Style was named on September 8, 1787 to revise a draft of the Constitution created by the Committee of Detail on August 6, containing a Preamble and twenty-three articles. The Committee of Style included William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut, Rufus King of Massachusetts, Alexander Hamilton of New York, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, and James Madison of Virginia. The actual literary form is believed to that of Morris. James Madison is known as the "Father of the Constitution." Benjamin Franklin was called the "Sage of the Constitutional Convention." George Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention. Thomas Jefferson, although absent from the Constitutional Convention, was instrumental in including the Bill of Rights.

Who lettered the original Constitution?

Jacob Shallus, an assistant clerk of the Pennsylvania State Assembly, was paid $30 to "transcribe & engross" the original Constitution. Shallus used quill pens cut from large bird feathers, and ink made from gum arabic, oak galls, iron, and a colorant such as logwood. Shallus lettered the first seven articles of the Constitution on four sheets of parchment.

What tools and materials did you use to letter and illustrate the Constitution?

I began each of the seven pieces in my U.S. Constitution series with a blank sheet of 140-pound, hot-pressed watercolor paper. This paper is made by the Arches company, which has been making paper for more than 500 years. It is 100% cotton and pH neutral. I used a Pentel .5 mm pencil to lay out the entire design. When finished, I carefully erased the pencil lines. I used transparent watercolors, which have been made by the Windsor & Newton company since the 1830's. I used square-cut brass and steel pointed nibs to create my art work. The technology has not changed much since the early 1800's, when steel nibs became prevalent. I use Speedball C-series lettering nibs, usually #5 or #6, the smallest available, and Hunt's steel "crow quill" nibs; my favorite is #107, a stiff hawk quill. My watercolor brush has a diameter of only 5/64 inch.

How many words are in our current Constitution?

The seven articles of our Constitution, including the signatures, have 4,543 words. The twenty-seven amendments have 3085 words, for a grand total of 7628 words.

How long did it take you to complete the project?

In 2005 for a demonstration at an art festival, I picked up the copy of the Constitution that I had downloaded after September 11, 2001 and that's when the words of the Constitution really captured my imagination. I spent about a year and a half doing reading and research on the Constitution and thinking about the project. I completed The Preamble in 2006, Article I: Congress in 2007, Article II: Executive and Article III: Justice in 2008, Articles IV-VII and The Bill of Rights in 2009, and Amendments 11-27 in 2010. The two largest pieces, Article I and Amendments 11-27, each took more than 500 hours over a six or seven-month period to complete. The other pieces each took about 300 hours over three or four months. Not including research, the total cumulative studio time for the series is more than 2500 hours over a five and a half year time frame.

How did you research the Constitution?

I have a degree in American Studies that has provided an excellent foundation for my project to letter and illustrate the U. S. Constitution. In addition to actually reading the entire Constitution for the first time, I read Akhil Reed Amar's America's Constitution: A Biography, William Rawle's 1829 history, A View of the Constitution of the United States, David O. Stewart's The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution, and Catherine Drinker Bowen's Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May to September 1787. On my Kindle, I have a copy of the U. S. Constitution and Terry L. Jordan's The U.S. Constitution and Fascinating Facts About It. People have sent me information about the Constitution. Someone sent a chapter from Howard Adams's Gouverneur Morris, and I learned that Morris played a major role in the actual writing of the Constitution. In addition, hardly a day has gone by in the six years that I have been working on this project that I have not read an article in the newspaper or heard a story on the radio that has something to do with the Constitution. It has turned out to be a timely project.

I also studied some of the icons of American culture associated with the themes of the Constitution. Ernst Lehner's American Symbols: A Pictorial History, provided a historical survey. I chose the flag, the Congress Building, the White House, the Scales of Justice, a map of the continental U. S., the Statue of Liberty, and the Liberty Bell to illustrate the seven pieces in the series. Originally I planned to use the Liberty Bell to illustrate the Bill of Rights, but my research informed me that the Liberty Bell actually became associated with the abolitionist movement and the thirteenth amendment, so I used it to illustrate Amendments 11-27.

Did you letter the same Constitution that Jacob Shallus lettered?

One of the first decisions that I had to make about the project was what version of the Constitution to letter. I decided to letter our current Constitution, including the amendments, rather than the original Constitution that Jacob Shallus lettered. I used copies of the U. S. Constitution from the National Archives (The U.S. National Archives & Records Administration, and from the Government Printing Office, the Nineteenth (Reprint) 1997 edition.

What are the measurements of the original Constitution compared to your version?

Jacob Shallus used four sheets of parchment to letter the original Constitution, each about 28-3/4" by 23-5/8". I lettered our current Constitution in seven parts, The Preamble, Article I: Congress, Article II: Executive, Article III: Justice, Articles IV-VII, The Bill of Rights, and Amendments 11-27. Article I and Amendments 11-27 are the largest on 22-1/2" square paper. The other five pieces are on 11-1/2" square paper. By comparison, Shallus lettered 4543 words on 2704 square inches of paper, while I used only 1035 square inches of paper to letter the same 4543 words. Shallus used a thin copperplate alphabet with ascenders and descender, I used a simple Roman bookhand with none. Shallus's letter forms took up more space, and I write small.

How did you plan the overall design for this project?

My model for this project was a symphony. The Preamble is like a Prelude where the major themes of the overall piece are established and then carried out in the six movements. The primary theme is "We the people." This phrase forms the centerpiece of my visual rendition of The Preamble and is carried out in each of the six remaining pieces in the series. The themes of Liberty and Justice are also established in The Preamble, represented both in words and icons such as the Liberty Bell, the Scales of Justice, and the Statue of Liberty.

I knew that I wanted to letter the first three articles in separate pieces to represent the separation of powers and to make the size of the project more manageable. I also envisioned the Preamble and the Bill of Rights in separate pieces. Articles IV-VII easily fit on 11-1/2" square paper to round out the quartet, and I managed to fit the 2600+ words of Amendments 11-27 on 22-1/2" square paper to balance Article I.

How did you plan the layout for each piece in the Constitution series?

I spent a lot of time on The Preamble because I wanted to establish the themes that I would carry out throughout the entire series. My first version had the conventional orientation on the square, and although I was quite happy with the piece I wanted it to have something more. So I turned the paper on the diagonal, a technique that I have used before, and I think the second version captured the drama I was trying to convey. I eventually used the square image for my Preamble note cards.

The capitol building was an obvious image to illustrate Article I: Congress. I lettered the 2293 words of Article I in shades of blue, dividing it into 102 lines forming a 12-3/4-inch square. Using color change in the letterforms, I created a glowing landscape for my drawing of the U. S. Capitol Building. A square border in blue and red made up of the names of the fifty states and a large circle, made up of the words, we the people, the general welfare, justice, and liberty, surrounds the words to Article I. The border also includes a definition of "Congress," from the Latin word congress-us, meaning coming together.

I hand-lettered Article II over a background drawing of the White House, viewed from the north grounds, the more public view of the White House. I carried over the colors of black, brown, red, white, and blue and the themes established in The Preamble into this piece. "We the people," lettered in deep red Gothic capitals, looms above the White House. The text of Article II is surrounded by the names of real people who I met at art shows while I was working on the piece and who agreed to help me represent "We the people."

I considered using the Supreme Court Building to illustrate Article III: Justice but decided on the Scales of Justice as a stronger and more recognizable image. I used elements from the Supreme Court Building in my design, lettering the words incised on the architrave above the west and east porticos, "Equal Justice Under Law" and "Justice the Guardian of Liberty." Fragments from Hammurabi's code, lettered in cuneiform, provide a border for the words to Article III. The names of historic law givers, lawyers, and Supreme Court justices fill the arcs on four sides. Carrying over the colors and themes established in The Preamble, I highlighted the words, "Justice" and "We the people."

I lettered the words to Articles IV through VII in watercolors that form a colorful map of the continental United States, surrounded by a background in shades of blue. Article IV defines the relationship between the states and the United States. Articles V and VII describe how the Constitution can be amended and ratified. Article VI establishes the Constitution as "the supreme law of the land" and forbids any religious test as a qualification for federal office. A square border in black and brown contains the names and states of the signatories of the Constitution, and a circular border includes the phrase, "We the people."

I lettered the Bill of Rights in shades of blue over a drawing of the Statue of Liberty. Words from the first amendment form a circle surrounding the Bill of Rights with words from amendments two through eight forming an inner circle, all lettered in black. The colors and themes established in The Preamble are carried throughout the piece, and "We the people" sits near the base of the Statue of Liberty.

It took me seven months to illustrate and letter the more than 2600 words of Amendments 11 through 27, dividing the words into 109 lines forming a 13-9/16-inch square. I lettered the amendments in red and blue over a background drawing of the Liberty Bell in shades of grey. The words, "justice," "liberty," and "equality" in black and the phrase "we the people" in blue, surround the amendments. I chose the Liberty Bell to represent the liberties established in these amendments. The Liberty Bell became an icon of American freedom when abolitionists adopted it as their symbol. The New York Anti-Slavery Society first used it as a frontispiece to an 1837-edition of their periodical, Liberty. Previously called the "State House bell," it was named the "Liberty Bell" by abolitionists in reference to its inscription, "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof," from Leviticus 25:10.

Amendments 11 through 27 cover a range of liberties as well as limitations. Amendment 11 establishes judicial limits. Amendment 13 abolishes slavery. Amendment 14 describes the privileges of citizenship, and Amendments 15, 19, 24, and 26 state that the right to vote shall not be denied on account of race, sex, poll tax, or age of eighteen years or older. Amendment 23 gives presidential voting rights to the District of Columbia. Amendments 12, 17, 20, 22, 22, 25, and 27 describe the process of electing the President, Vice President, and Senators, set terms of office, term limits, and presidential succession, and limit congressional pay increases. Amendment 16 gives Congress the power to collect income taxes. Amendment 21 repeals the eighteenth amendment, which prohibited the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors.

Is there a certain way that you would like the series hung?

First or all, I designed each piece to stand on its own so that any one or more of the series can be hung. I can envision one piece or the entire series hanging throughout a whole house or offices. There are several ways to hang the entire series, and I tried to plan each piece so that they would integrate and flow into the whole. One way to hang the series is in a line horizontally from The Preamble to Amendments 11-27. Another variation would be to hang The Preamble next to Article I with the quartet stacked two by two between Article I and Amendments 11-27.

What alphabet did you use to letter the Constitution?

For the text of the Constitution of the United States I used a simple Roman bookhand in all capital letters. I chose this alphabet because it is legible yet condensed without ascenders or descenders. The letters are only 1/16 of an inch high. For the phrase, "We the people," as well as for other highlighted words and phrases like "Liberty" and Justice," I used Gothic, also called Blackletter, or classic Roman capitals.

What happens if you make a mistake?

That's complicated. If I make a mistake with the lettering, I usually start over again. However, it usually takes me two or three attempts to get the lettering right anyway, so starting over is part of the process. Sometimes I don't make a mistake per se but still choose to start over because the letter forms and spacing get better with each attempt. There are, however, mistakes in my work that I regret, mistakes that I do not catch before printing. These mistakes become part of the art; they are what they are. There are precedents for such errors. I can only hang my head and say I try not to make them with all of my powers of attention; I thoroughly proof my work, and yet the mistakes elude me until at last I or someone else finds them, and then the mistake is all I can see. These printed mistakes are not without irony. One read "woe on to you scribes and hippocrates," instead of hyppocrites and another misspelled "scrutiny."

Do you have any specific plans for this project?

I plan to exhibit the series as much as possible. I have a rigorous show schedule, where I exhibit my Literary Calligraphy art work and feature my U. S. Constitution series. My show schedule is available on-line at I hope to continue taking my project to local schools and talking with the students about Jacob Shallus, who lettered the original constitution, and about my project. Some of my collectors have made plans to donate the series to their local school or court house. I also plan to add The Declaration of Independence to the series.

Have you attracted the interest of the Tea Party movement?

Several Tea Party advocates have visited my exhibit and commented on my Constitution project. I have also had conversations about the Constitution with Libertarians, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. I began this project during the Bush administration but people make the same comments during the Obama administration - Are you going to send a copy to the President or to Congress? One of my favorite things about this project is that the Constitution provides common ground during an era that desperately needs it.

Midway through the project, some people with particular interest in the first or second amendment encouraged me to make an individual piece featuring the first or second amendment, but I resisted because to me it seems important that the first ten amendments remain a unit. We call them the Bill of Rights and as such a single entity. This is where we find common ground.

What is your least favorite part of the Constitution?

My least favorite part of the U. S. Constitution is fortunately a part that has been amended. The original wording of Article I. Section 2 includes "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons." This sentence was changed by Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which states, among other things, "Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State..." It was difficult to letter and to consider apportionment based on three fifths of a person. And yet there's another important lesson here about our Constitution. It is a living document that can be changed and has in fact been amended twenty-seven times.

What is your favorite part of the Constitution?

I have two favorites, The Preamble and the fourth amendment. A close reading of The Preamble reveals the foundations of our democracy. "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." It states clearly and simply the goals of our democracy and stands before us as a measure of our success. To what extent does our government represent we, the people, all the citizens of the United States, meaning everyone, no exceptions? Does our government work to establish justice or seek to circumvent established conventions? Has our government insured domestic tranquility and provided for the common defense? Does our government promote the general welfare or does it promote special interests? Has our government secured the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity? Clearly we are not satisfying all of these goals at all times. Democracy is achieved by the people coming together, repeatedly, for common good - to promote the general welfare and establish liberty and justice for all. The early Americans came together out of diverse backgrounds to form a Union, more perfect as it were than being separate. Indeed, we, the people, are at our best when we come together.

The fourth amendment states, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." I like the fourth amendment because it establishes that we have a right to be secure in our persons. This is very important to me. It's important when I travel around the United States exhibiting at art festivals, and it's important when I'm at home. It's the reason why The Preamble mentions "tranquility," which is a blessing of liberty.

Have you lettered other American historical documents?

The U. S. Constitution is a bit of a departure from my body of work. In the past the themes of my work haven been nature, the seasons, love, peace, and simplicity. I have featured the literary flower and focused on quotations from Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Yeats, the Brownings, the Bible, and American writers including Dickinson, Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. The U. S. Constitution is the first historical document that I have used in my art work.

My art has become a part of American history. In 1998, I was "Artist on the L awn" at the White House Easter Egg Roll. The tradition dates back prior to photography, when artists were often brought in to commemorate historic events. My role as "Artist on the Lawn" was to attend the event and gather impressions. I then had a year to complete my watercolor marking the 125th anniversary of the White House Easter Egg Roll, which I presented to the President and First Lady the following year.

How would you describe your unique style of Literary Calligraphy® watercolors?

My love of longer texts has shaped my style. I discovered that I could fit a lot of words in a small amount of space if I lettered them in a circle. I was familiar with mandalas and thought I would use the circle as the foundation of my work. Mandala is a Sanskrit word that means circle or wheel of life; in some eastern cultures mandalas are used as meditation devices. They are based on the archetypal form of the circle in a square, which is the form of nearly all of my art work. I favor American literature but have also lettered at lot of Shakespeare and the Bible. I always try to find the text in a primary source, and if a specific flora or fauna is mentioned, I try to determine a species the writer would have known. I often use botany books of the writer's time to inform me about details. For the Constitution project I studied the history of icons of America. I love the whole research process.

How did you get started with calligraphy?

I studied art history and literature at Miami University for undergraduate and Ohio State for graduate school. At the very end of my graduate studies in 1978, my friend, Wendy Ban, suggested we take a calligraphy class. She handed me a calligraphy pen, and it was as if she handed me a magic wand. A line from Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo" returned to me, telling me to "give beauty back." I knew immediately what to do; I would create modern western mandalas, using the literary classics of the English language. It took me five years of passionate practice before I could execute my artistic vision and begin creating my unique style of Literary Calligraphy® art work.

In 1983 I started exhibiting at local art shows and festivals. In 1986, I produced my first offset-lithographic reproduction of my Literary Calligraphy® watercolor painting, "The Flowers of Shakespeare." I soon discovered that I love traveling, exhibiting, and selling my artwork. By the end of the 1980's, I was making a comfortable living, participating in twenty art shows throughout the eastern United States, from Miami Beach to Manhattan. In 1990, my husband, Ron Ayers, joined me full time on the professional arts and crafts show circuit, and we added catalog and Internet sales to our genuine American small business.

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