Calligrapher Anne Kaese turns words into works of art


Anne Kaese with some of her tools.

Letters are Anne Kaese’s art. Bent over her paper, pressing the nib of a pen – or a sharpened quill – to a pristine page of paper, she lays out lines and curves with the deft care of a master craftsman. Her letterforms meld architectural precision with the flare of an artist.

Anne’s passion for the ancient craft of calligraphy has carried her from her youth in South Africa and on to Fargo-Moorhead. Since she and her family arrived in 2005, she’s brought her love of traditional arts to a widening circle as a teacher, a speaker and an artist herself … and, through it all, a full-throated evangelist for all the traditional arts passed from one generation to the next, each leaving a gift for those still to come.

“I firmly believe that whatever energy you put into the things your hands create doesn’t stop with you,” the sunny Fargo woman explains. “If you do stuff with love, with kindness, with generosity … it doesn’t die, but ripples out into the universe.

“Calligraphy is my gift to civilization,” she adds, smiling widely. “I’m doing it one letter at a time.”

Anne loves the traditional arts – the things you create with your own hands, the traditions that build fellowship and community among those who practice them. “I love teaching people to do stuff,” she says happily, “whether it’s calligraphy, watercolor painting, book binding, pastepaper or whatever. Doing it together connects us in a way that encourages kindness and caring. That goes back into the world, and the world is better for it.”

Born in South Africa, she came to her love of calligraphy and art more or less by accident when her mother, a lay leader in the Congregational church, asked her offhand to letter certificates for the Sunday school. “You’re artistic, sweetie,” she told her 12-year-old daughter. So Anne dived in, innocently unaware of the centuries of technique and traditional that awaited her. “I didn’t even know about pens and nibs. I just drew out each letter with a finepoint pen and filled it in,” she remembers.

But curiosity drew her in. Calligraphy is a long-respected art in South Africa, like England and Australia: “You can hardly kick a rock without uncovering a calligraphy guild,” she notes. Initially self-taught, she began attending conferences and workshops taught by university-trained masters. She added color to the stark traditional purity of black-on-white. She approached watercolor painting as a way to decorate her letterforms with borders and embellishments.

Anne’s fascination with hand-drawn letters contrasts with her profession – computer software networking and implementation for Forbes 1000 manufacturing companies. She established her own MRP company back in her homeland – “heavy left-brain stuff,” she explains, used to manage production planning, scheduling and inventory control systems in manufacturing processes.

The company thrived. In 1985 she sold it to Fourth Shift, a corporate software firm based in Minneapolis that now has offices all over the world. She stayed on. In 1997, they offered her a three-year contract working out of their home office establishing the global division. She moved to Minnesota and never looked back.

When BNSF transferred her husband John to Fargo-Moorhead, she carried on with her high-tech workload. Today she telecommutes from her home for three long days and two short days a week, always bending her schedule around the activities of their children, 13-year-old Arthur and 15-year-old Rebecca.

Anne leaves the digital world far behind when she goes into her home studio or welcomes students for the classes she teaches there on Monday and Tuesday evenings, as well as Thursday and Friday. Together, they honor the art of yesteryear by keeping it alive today – a passion Anne also shares in classes for Moorhead Community Education, including a series next year at Gethsemane Cathedral.

Her upcoming move to Gethsemane is part of the celebration of the Saint John’s Bible, a once-in-500-years project that will be featured in a major exhibition at the Hjemkomst Center next year. Sponsored by Saint John’s Abbey, the international project launched in 2000 is the abbey and university’s gift to the new millennium. “It’s the first entirely new, reenvisioned Bible created with traditional materials and techniques in 500 years, ever since the invention of the printing press,” Anne says. She has been following its progress since shefirst learned of it almost 20 years ago. She conceded, “You could say that I’m a groupie.”

The new Bible – 1,130 pages hand-lettered and illuminated with original illustrations reflected world cultures, history, science and spiritual traditions – will eventually be bound into seven altar-sized volumes, just as the monks did it in the Middle Ages. Twelve sets of pages have been created. Most already are shelved in leading research centers like the Vatican Library and Library of Congress … but for now, three collections of the most beautiful pages are traveling the world. The three-month visit is scheduled Oct. 1- Dec. 31, 2017, at the Hjemkomst.

“We’ll have 68 original pages coming here in huge glass cases, chosen from all seven volumes,” she describes. “They’re the best of the best, and this is one of the biggest exhibits ever in the United States. We’re super-excited.”

Six years ago, the Hjemkomst Center hosted a show of printed pages depicting the special book. When Anne – long a fan — heard it was coming here, she volunteered her services to help explain the traditions and techniques that visitors would be seeing. “We originally planned on three lectures,” she says. “Then the sluice gates opened.” She ended up doing 100lectures requested by organizations, churches, schools and the museum itself.

“The Saint John’s Bible is entirely different from the kind with 1920s illustrations of Europeans in long robes that I grew up with,” she explains. “Its goal is to ignite the spiritual imagination … to provide a visual experience that resonates with everyone from every tradition, especially those on the margins of society like women and children.”

Like the hands-on traditions and techniques she champions, Anne sees the Saint John’s Bible as a message that reaches far beyond the time and the people who helped create it. “This will long survive the people who created it and the buildings that preserve it – even the abbey itself. This is a gift of love, of generosity, of kindness, of community. It is a gift to the future.”