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updated: 9/25/2012 10:17 AM

Calligrapher uses gifts to celebrate language, faith

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  • "Do for others what you would like them to do for you" from Matthew 7 is one of 360 illustrations in Botts' calligraphy illustrated Bible.

       "Do for others what you would like them to do for you" from Matthew 7 is one of 360 illustrations in Botts' calligraphy illustrated Bible.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Timothy Botts illustrates his hand-drawn calligraphy. The way the color on the edges of the letters soaks into the paper is impossible to reproduce with a computer, he says. For multicolored work, he paints the watercolor onto his chisel-nibbed pen with a brush and then creates the letters.

       Timothy Botts illustrates his hand-drawn calligraphy. The way the color on the edges of the letters soaks into the paper is impossible to reproduce with a computer, he says. For multicolored work, he paints the watercolor onto his chisel-nibbed pen with a brush and then creates the letters.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Timothy Botts mixes watercolors to get just the shade he wants. He uses a watercolor called gouache on paper and acrylics on canvas.

       Timothy Botts mixes watercolors to get just the shade he wants. He uses a watercolor called gouache on paper and acrylics on canvas.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Timothy Botts soon will be cleaning out his office at Tyndale House Publishers in Carol Stream, where he has worked for 40 years.

       Timothy Botts soon will be cleaning out his office at Tyndale House Publishers in Carol Stream, where he has worked for 40 years.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Timothy Botts did the cover illustration for his calligraphy edition of the Bible, which is no longer in print.

       Timothy Botts did the cover illustration for his calligraphy edition of the Bible, which is no longer in print.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

 
 

Timothy Botts has known he was an artist since first grade when a teacher recognized his talents and invited him to take art lessons in her home.

The Glen Ellyn resident discovered calligraphy -- the art for which he is has become known worldwide -- in college. All freshmen art majors at Carnegie-Mellon University (then Carnegie Tech) were required to take calligraphy, and Botts enrolled in the class not knowing what it was. He discovered an art form that allowed him to express his love of language and Christian faith.

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"In elementary school, I remember I was one of those unusual students who loved to diagram sentences. I was always fascinated by the structure of language," he said. "Calligraphy brought together my love for words and the Word of God and my love for art."

Botts said the calligrapher must choose great words and listen to the text.

"I'm translating something that's verbal into what is visual," he said. "I paraphrase it in my mind. I even sometimes mime words as a way of getting inside their meaning."

Botts' work has been exhibited in such places as the Washington National Cathedral and Obernal, France. One of his originals is part of the Newberry Library's permanent collection. A part-time calligraphy instructor at College of DuPage, he also has given workshops nationally and internationally.

His dozen or so books have included "The Holy Bible: Boots Illustration Edition," with 360 calligraphic illustrations; "Messiah," based on Handel's musical masterpiece; "Windsongs," featuring illustrations of great hymns; and "Bound for Glory," calligraphic interpretations of African-American spirituals.

A Botts calligraphic mural is painted on the wall of Wheaton Christian Grammer School and his work can be seen in a score of churches in the Chicago area.

That's only part of his freelance work. For the past 40 years, Botts has worked at Tyndale House Publishers in Carol Stream, where he will retire Oct. 4 as senior art director. A small percentage of his work at Tyndale has involved calligraphy, but Botts credits the Christian publishing powerhouse with letting him use his artistic strengths in designing more than 600 books.

"It's a climate here that encourages growth," he said. "It's been a great ride."

Human expression

Back when Botts joined Tyndale as its first staff artist in 1972, drafts of book covers were hand-painted and changes were time-consuming. Botts appreciates the ease computers have brought to the process, but said he believes his strength lies in his hand work.

"Calligraphy is very human. It's an expression of who we are as humans. It comes directly from our hand," he said.

Botts believes interest in personal expression has led to a revival of interest in calligraphy, an ancient art form. In his retirement, the father of three hopes to do more calligraphy freelance work, teach more and spend more time with his 12 grandchildren.

Barry Smith, a fellow senior art designer at Tyndale House, said he's in denial about Botts' departure.

"It's rare you get to work with someone like Tim," he said. "His work is known all over the world. He's taught me a lot about humility.

"He signs 'To God be the glory' in Greek at every book signing," Smith continued. "His gifts come from the Lord, and I think that's where his humility comes from."

Longtime friend and photographer Gary Irving said he thinks Botts is sometimes embarrassed by the attention he receives. Botts' work is meditative, suggesting a more serious person than some people might guess, Irving said.

"He's unabashed, enthusiastic," he said. "When I go through his work, it reminds me I have a friend who has this amazing talent."

Unlike some designers, Botts does not guard his work but generously shares his knowledge with others, Smith said.

"He's very giving of his time. He teaches," he said.

Teaching is work Botts clearly enjoys. Ruth Anerino of Naperville came to know Botts when they both worked on the arts program at Wheaton Bible Church and later took his calligraphy class at COD. Anerino continues to use calligraphy in her personal life.

"When you are privileged to watch him work, you feel like it must have felt when Michaelangelo was creating the Sistine Chapel ... and yet when he sees other people's calligraphy he is very supportive and affirming," she said. "He is a terrific teacher and an amazing calligrapher."

Identifying strengths

Botts is as honest about his weaknesses as he is about the talent he possesses. A designer rather than a manager, he says he is grateful Tyndale structured his position to allow him to concentrate on what he does best. He claims not to be a good reader and is open to illustrating great words that others may choose.

A nonathlete in school, he remembers the hurt of being picked last for a team. He helped start Masterpiece Ministries, an outreach to high school students who are interested in the arts. Young people from around the country come together for a one-week summer camp in Kentucky to work on visual arts, creative writing, drama and music. Botts said the camp may be expanded to two weeks next year.

"I myself was a young artist and I remember that was actually a lonely time for me," he said.

Botts also has served as curator for "Scribes of Hope," a traveling calligraphy exhibit for Christians in the Visual Arts. A new exhibit that will begin traveling in January includes the work of his son, Jeremy, a graphic arts instructor at Wheaton College.

An amateur pianist, Botts said one of his favorite projects was his book "Messiah."

"By spending time with that great music, but also the words of Scripture, it was a double whammy of inspiration," he said.

His calligraphy Bible published by Tyndale House in 2000 was perhaps his biggest project. Drawing on 25 years of sketches he had made, he spent 2 years putting together the 360 full-color illustrations the Bible features.

"That was really like a lifelong dream come true," he said. "When it was all done, it actually was kind of a letdown. I had a sense of what else is there."

Of course, Botts went on to other projects, as he expects to do in his retirement. Given his 12 grandchildren, he would like to do something related to children that uses pictures, not just calligraphic illustrations.

"My work is usually colorful. It's usually optimistic. I'm always trying to capture that which is spirit," he said.

Botts' work can be found on his website, www.timbotts.com. His books, calendars and cards also are sold at Johnsen & Taylor bookstore, 261 Town Square, Wheaton.

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