Watching Susie-Melissa Cherry in action might make your eyes droop and your jaw slacken. Literally.
It’s not that her work is uninteresting; in fact, it’s far from it. It’s beautiful and fluid. Graceful and elegant.
But Cherry is a professional calligrapher, and, for whatever reason, her work is strangely hypnotic and incredibly relaxing to watch.
Cherry knows this and has her own theory on it.
“It is like therapy, seriously, because you’re just concentrating,” she says. “It just doesn’t take a whole lot of effort.”
This statement shouldn’t be misinterpreted to mean Cherry doesn’t work hard. She works longer hours than a lot of people, arriving at her office between 6 and 8 a.m. and sometimes staying until 8 p.m. She also works on the weekends and teaches calligraphy classes at her office on Central and at SMU.
But the 54-year-old, who’s lived in the same duplex in our neighborhood since 1976, doesn’t mind the hours because she has a passion for her work she can’t suppress.
“I love it. It really does make a difference when you get up in the morning, and you’ve got something to look forward to, and it’s something you’ve generated yourself and haven’t really waited for somebody else to make the work for you,” she says.
Cherry discovered her love of hand-lettering early, at the age of 13.
“There was a window of one week that we did lettering (in school),” she says. “And I thought: How cool this is.”
She took to it so quickly and so well that she used to get called out of class to help principals and teachers with some sign or other project on which they needed her help.
After high school, she attended the University of North Texas , majoring in art, but after a couple of years realized that they weren’t “teaching what I really wanted to learn.” So she left school and got her first real hands-on experience working for Mobil Oil, where she did hand lettering for two-and-a-half years. She then was hired at Dallas ISD as its graphic artist.
In the early ’70s, Cherry decided to branch out on her own and, whether she needed a sign that she was doing the right thing or not, she received one.
“Three days into my new career I got a call from the school district and made a month’s salary in one day (doing signs). It was like: Oh man, this is great … thank you, this is all I needed.”
Since then, Cherry has been self-employed as a professional calligrapher and is now known as one of the top in her field in Dallas-Fort Worth, if not the nation. Her most challenging project to date was a 29-by-38-inch resolution, done on vellum (calfskin or sheepskin sanded down to resemble a very thick paper) in the late ’80s and presented to the then-chairman and CEO of E Systems Inc. (now Raytheon) upon his retirement. It took her 104 hours to complete and is illuminated (which means illustrated in the world of calligraphy) and gold-plated. The resolution now hangs in her office; she bought it back for $100 after the chairman and his wife passed away.
While she does plenty of certificates, place cards and resolutions, her portfolio is more diversified than that.
In her early years, she did private-party menus for some of Dallas’ best restaurants (she once did all of the menus for Blue Goose), and she has done plenty of work for national advertising campaigns. Some of her more recent projects have included the lettering for the American eagle gold coin and the Dallas Holocaust Memorial.
Through her work, she also comes into contact with some big names. She has created place cards for the Queen of England, Duchess Sarah Ferguson (better known as Fergie) and Bill Clinton. And through her work, she has met Theo Faberge, jewelry designer Paloma Picasso and Charlton Heston.
“The Christian schools were a client, and they wanted me to come to their cocktail party,” she says, laughing. “So as I’m shaking hands with him (Charlton Heston) and I said: This is just like talking to Moses. He said: A lot of people say that.
“For somebody who sits at their desk, I’ve just had some real opportunities,” she says.
Cherry’s client list reads like a who’s who of the Dallas business world: Kimberly Clark, Neiman Marcus, Horchow, the Adolphus, the Crescent, the Mansion, JCPenney.
“You could name three-fourths of the high-profile companies (in Dallas ), and I bet I’ve had an opportunity to work with them,” she says.
But Cherry says she’s no snob, and she doesn’t hoard all the good clients and primo assignments to herself. She teaches about 75-100 calligraphy students a year and, for the more dedicated and serious learners, offers a portfolio class, which helps them set up their own businesses.
“There is a revival in calligraphy,” she says. “More people who are changing jobs or in transition want to find new careers. I have attorneys who come through and go: I’m so tired of this. It’s all walks of life … whether it’s professionals or housewives or whatever.”
After her students have completed the portfolio class, she often passes work their way if she’s too busy to take on a project.
“If people have an interest, I get really charged that they want to do this of type thing, because it is a lost art form,” she says. “And Dallas is big enough for all of us.”
Other than her own calligraphy business, Cherry’s other passions are rare books and documents that have been — of course — hand-lettered.
She has a collection of books from the 1800s and early 1900s and some framed missals (pages from a Catholic Mass book) on vellum from the 1300s. She’ll pull the books out and shove them under the nose of visitors and students, encouraging them to flip through the pages and study the details in the lettering and illuminations.
“This book … this is too cool,” she’ll say enthusiastically, flipping through the pages of a one-of-a-kind book dating back to 1874. “This is just an incredible presentation. Each page is different, but there’s continuity to it. It’s incredible whenever you look at the artwork. I wish I’d had even five minutes there.”
It’s obvious Cherry likes finely crafted objects, and that goes at least part of the way in explaining why she has lived in our neighborhood for so long, even though she didn’t think she’d stay.
“I love the homes,” she says. “The quaintness of East Dallas , it’s just so much neater than all of the modern things out in, like, Frisco. I’m not saying that’s bad, but I feel like the homes were made better back then, and obviously I like things that have been around.”
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