Ink and patience

Calligraphy runs in Catherine LaRoche's blood

Special to the Union Leader
April 11. 2014 3:14PM
Calligrapher Catherine LaRoche sits at the desk in her Peterborough studio. She's one of only a small number of professional calligraphers in the country and was taught the craft by her grandfather. (MELANIE PLENDA/Union Leader Correspondent)

PETERBOROUGH - The scratch of the pen as it delivered its inky payload in strokes, sometimes swift and furtive, sometimes long and elaborate, but always precise, always purposeful.

The tink of the pen on the glass inkwell; the deliberate, rhythmic dip-daub pattern of the reload.

The little girl would watch with fascination as the curls of the letters came together to form her name. Finally, J. Arthur LaRoche would hand the small slip of paper, the finished product, to his granddaughter.

"The ink would be shiny wet and you'd have to be careful to let it dry, not to let it smudge," Catherine LaRoche said. "And I just remember watching him and hearing the scratching of the pen and seeing the ink flowing and it was just so beautiful, but I never thought to ask him to teach me."

These are the sounds and memories of Catherine LaRoche's childhood as she sat for hours watching her grandfather, a professional calligrapher, in his studio producing letters in scripts and techniques with magnificent sounding names: Spencerian, Gothic, Illumination. Years later she would ask for lessons. And at a smaller version of the same desk, Arthur LaRoche would teach his granddaughter everything he knew and inspire her artistic life in calligraphy.

LaRoche grew up in Peterborough in a family made up of equal parts musician and artist. Her father, Roland LaRoche, was a major developer in Peterborough, but also a master penman in his own right.

"My dad was taught to do it by my grandfather along with his brothers, to help out my grandfather do diplomas at home after work," LaRoche said. "They would fill in the dates and then my grandfather would do beautiful Spencerian Script and do the names, very fancy. He was an expert in his profession."

At 15, she was working in the kitchen at the McDowell Colony, Peterborough's famed artists' retreat. She often would notice and comment on the fountain pen her friend Penny "Pen" Jessop used to write checks and make notes.

"So, she gave me one of these pens for my birthday," LaRoche said. "And I thought, well, what do I do with this?"

LaRoche showed her dad the pen and he in turn encouraged her to ask her grandfather for lessons. Her grandfather of course, was delighted.

"He set me up at this little desk. He had his main desk and a little student desk," LaRoche said. "He set me up with some lessons and taught me the style of italics… And I studied with him a few times and then he said, OK, you're all set."

But she wanted to know more. She went back. He proceeded to teach her Gothic lettering. Now, now she was all set, he told her. He said her friends should be mightily impressed that she has two different kinds of handwriting mastered.

"But I wanted more," LaRoche said. "I just kept going back."

J. Arthur LaRoche was exceedingly patient and kind as a teacher, LaRoche said. She recalls one day when she, not used to using a new kind of plastic ink bottle, spilled it everywhere. Her grandfather didn't get angry. He simply quietly cleaned up the mess and told her it was OK.

The next day however, he had glued cardboard to the bottom of the bottles so it wouldn't happen again.

"That's just sort of how he was," LaRoche said. But, in all the lessons in letters, LaRoche's grandfather also taught her something else: "Well, you can't make a living at this," he told her.

So, she went off to find her fortunes elsewhere. She ultimately got her degree in computer science from Mills College in Oakland, Calif. She also got married and landed a job at Hewlett Packard.

"Through all this time, I kind of put calligraphy on the back burner," LaRoche said. "But it didn't want to go away. So I was doing correspondence lessons with my grandfather and over the phone, we'd talk about it and send things back and forth. " She also discovered in that time that, true to her grandfather's advice, there was a world full of calligraphers out there.

But then it all started to fall apart. Her marriage wasn't a happy one and she wasn't happy with her job. She and her first husband ultimately split up. Faced with a mortgage payment and a job she didn't like, she decided to free herself from both.

"I figured out if I let go of my house then I could let go of my job, and then I could let go of California," she said. "And after that a whole lot of options opened up to me."

Once back in New Hampshire, she struck up a love affair with her childhood friend Michael Wakefield and started studying calligraphy again.

Since then she has built a business and a life, both of which make her happy. Over the years she has studied with many artists and world-renowned calligraphers. She's also taught calligraphy at the Sharon Arts Center and Franklin Pierce University. Her work has been exhibited in solo, group, faculty, and juried shows. She is a member of Masscribes of Massachusetts, the Friends of Calligraphy in San Francisco, the Washington (D.C.) Calligraphers Guild, International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers, and Teachers of Handwriting, and Cyberscribes.

LaRoche is also past president and a current member of the Board of Monadnock Art / Friends of the Dublin Art Colony, and has participated many times in MA/ FDAC's annual Open Studio Art Tour.

Her grandparents and her father are all gone now, but they are never far from her. Her studio is filled with photos of them, and copies of their work line the shelves directly across from her work space. So as she continues the long tradition and love of letters they passed on to her, they are there, watching over her, guiding her hand.

"I feel like (they) are still very much a part of my studio, she said."


Catherine LaRoche has an upcoming solo exhibition at Sunflowers Café in Jaffrey running from May 27 to July 1.

LaRoche works out of her home studio in Peterborough. For more information, call 924-3186, email or visit

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