Tribute to a Mentor Who Brought Wisdom to Type

Eric May

I’m taking another detour this week to pay homage to a person (as opposed to an art/design project) who has, for a variety of reasons, been on my mind during the past few days. In an earlier post I mentioned one of my graduate school professors, Eric May, and the way he helped me appreciate the nuances of typography. Today’s blog entry is essentially an extended reflection on the significant role he played as a mentor during my time at Kent State University. I was a nervous wreck when I started graduate school. I knew no one, had no connections and everything was completely new. Worst of all, I was weighed down by the fear that I would not be able to perform at the level that was expected. Though art/design are sometimes perceived as “easy” or “easier” areas of study, there’s nothing quite like the challenge of being creative for a living (that is, continually having to generate interesting concepts regardless of whether or not you’re in the “mood” to make your head spin). I was in school to become a better designer and yet somehow, ironically, was too stressed to produce strong work.

So it was with a certain degree of ambivalence that I took Eric’s letterpress class. As usual, I was afraid to show anything I’d created for fear that my classmates, who simply knew me as “the new grad student,” would look at my work and wonder how I’d gotten admitted into the program. Fortunately, this was one of the classes that helped turn things around. There was an emphasis on process, which helped take some of the pressure off of producing a flashy, final product.

And then there was Eric himself. Quiet and unassuming, he was already close to retirement when I got to know him. Yet I quickly learned that if I paid attention and listened to what he had to say, he wouldn’t hold back in his critique of my work. His standards were quite high, though his soft-spoken manner often belied his firm opinions about what did or didn’t constitute a successfully-executed project.

In addition to using the letterpress, Eric taught me how to make paste paper and how to use calligraphy pens—these were all physical activities that required getting my hands dirty. Despite the lack of control that came without the aid of a computer, and the increased probability of making mistakes that couldn’t be undone, stepping away from technology is what enabled me to generate ideas and move beyond the mental blocks I had been experiencing. I was intellectually freed up to create because I knew that mistakes were inherently part of the process.

And of course, in his soft, patient way, Eric taught me how to love type.

He would leave small books or calendars printed via letterpress on my studio space desk, along with anything else he thought I might appreciate. I kept all of his notes, handwritten on scrap sheets of paper that accompanied these small gifts. They were from Eric after all and, therefore, worthy of keeping, not to mention beautifully scripted.

When I graduated and packed up my books and art supplies in boxes, all of Eric’s notes and gifts got packed up, too.

I was heartbroken, then, when into my first semester of teaching at Goshen College Eric passed away. The symbolism wasn’t lost on me given that my first teaching experience was assisting his Introduction to 3D class, and that he was one of the first faculty members at Kent to suggest that I consider a career in teaching.

Months later, I began unpacking some of my boxes from graduate school. I was on the hunt for books I needed for teaching and over the course of a few weeks, came across all the gifts and notes from Eric that I had carefully boxed up with everything else. He was gone and yet I was holding the evidence of his existence in my hands. The thought of throwing those things away hadn’t occurred to me when I initially cleared out my studio space at Kent—I certainly hadn’t known at the time that he would get sick--and I was immediately glad that I had these tangible reminders of Eric, who was a true advocate and mentor and never seemed to doubt that I would succeed.

I’ve been thinking more intently about my work this week, particularly teaching; it’s easy for me to zero in on the things I could/should be doing better or the ways in which I fall short. And yet, just when I’m tempted to fall prey to pessimism, I’m reminded of Eric and how lucky I am to have known him and benefited from his instruction and influence. We all have people in our lives that help shape us, change us and motivate us. On this grayest of gray days, I find myself grateful for one of mine. Through my work, I endeavor to do justice to his memory.