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The faces of Cyrus Highsmith

A former student and protégé reflects on seeing her mentor accept the prestigious Gerrit Noordzij Prize.

Cyrus never looked very happy to be teaching our type design class at RISD. When he walked in the door, I’d lean over to my friend Tori and we’d gravely whisper about how he had a look on his face like he’d just rolled up at the end of a long DMV line, or had been told that his cat had a rare dietary restriction to manage.

Panorama view of the “Products of a Thinking Hand” exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague
The Gerrit Noordzij Prize Exhibition, “Products of a Thinking Hand,” at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in The Hague. All photos courtesy of Marina Chaccur unless otherwise noted.

I cared so much about that class. In the middle of the semester, I assigned myself a mini-project to process my getting-dumped-by-my-boyfriend feelings in the form of a typeface. I asked a lot of pointed questions, and Cyrus left me with meandering pencil marks on my proofs from which to reach my own conclusions. I drew an italic to accompany the roman required for our semester-long project, and made a foolhardy attempt to kern them both without any instruction in one coffee-fueled night at my kitchen table.

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A monstrous, but joyful, g. Cyrus painted this directly on the wall at the Royal Academy of Art.

The whole time, Cyrus had on his serious face, which gave no indication that he had any deeper interest in me or my work. Turns out that’s just his face, because a year and a half later I had graduated and was working at Font Bureau in Boston—after Cyrus had urged me to apply and had recommended me to Sam Berlow. I spent four days a week at the Boston office, learning how to develop font families for retail and design typefaces for clients. On Wednesdays, I’d take the bus from South Station to Providence and get off at the Peter Pan Terminal stop, and then walk fifteen minutes to Cyrus’ house, where we’d work in his attic studio. That one special day a week in Providence was where I learned to come up with and execute my own ideas, by talking to Cyrus about his. Faces can be weird like that.

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The larger-than-life wooden tools on display seemed to emerge straight from Cyrus’ sketches. A wall of animal alphabets, from Cyrus’ children’s books in Japanese, got progressively busier and brighter.

It brings me momentary peace in this world whenever I hear someone talk about the person who took a chance on them early in their career, expecting nothing in return. Of course, I think of Cyrus. The night before my first day at Font Bureau, I cried—like really sobbed—over a feeling that probably had something to do with my constant fear of being less than absolutely perfect at anything I attempt or even slightly disappointing anyone, including myself, in any way. The next-best thing to a fix for that has been having Cyrus there to steady me. Despite how junior I am to him and the fact that it was part of his job to train me, he has never made me feel like anything less than his equal. I couldn’t have been more grateful that he turned into one of my biggest advocates, someone who made me multiple cups of coffee every Wednesday as he enthusiastically, if still somewhat incomprehensibly, marked up my proofs.

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In the foreground: Cyrus’ children’s books; in the background, the fruits of Cyrus’ workshop with Type and Media students. Enormous needle-nose pliers leaned against the wall.

A graduate student I spoke with at the Gerrit Noordzij Prize Exhibition opening told me that during the planning phase, the list of the show’s contents gave the group pause. How could they display such vibrant heterogeneity—typefaces, sketchbooks, framed artwork, children’s books—in a way that made sense? As soon as they saw the actual work, though, everything clicked into place—much as it did on the walls and in the showcases of the exhibition hall.

Photograph of framed relief prints by Cyrus Highsmith hanging on the exhibition wall.
Framed relief prints (2016–2017) stretched along one wall.

Art-school professors like to remind us that every drawing, even if you only spent five minutes drawing it, took your whole life until that moment to make. From Cyrus’s typefaces over the last twenty years (displayed in chronological order), to the wall of illustrated animal alphabets that grew progressively brighter and busier, to the inscriptions he lovingly drew in people’s exhibition books at the opening (no doubt glad to have something to do with his hands), you get the sense not only that Cyrus’s work is very much its own beast regardless of medium or category, but also that Cyrus only becomes more Cyrus as time goes on. Personally, I gravitated toward the giant wooden pliers and wrenches and scissors everywhere—recurring characters in his sketchbooks made much, much larger than life, and a cute wink to all of the devoted toolmakers in attendance. Cyrus concluded a brief address to the crowd by thanking his very first drawing teacher for journeying all the way to the Hague to see him accept the Gerrit Noordzij Prize. “Hello, Mother,” he said.

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Cyrus briefly addressed the crowd at the exhibition opening. As he concluded his remarks, he made a point of thanking his first drawing teacher, who was in the audience.
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A showcase displayed Cyrus’ children’s books. On the wall at left, enlarged spreads from Inside Paragraphs appeared; to the right was stacked a cluster of portraits.

At the reception, I wanted to yell “Cyrus taught me everything I know!” at everyone I chatted with. It’s not actually true. But it’s what pops into my head to sum up all of the opportunities, trust, confidence, and grace he has given me. I don’t have words to describe what it meant to watch him receive well-earned recognition, show his work, and navigate being the center of attention with the same lightly pained look on his face that he had at the front of our RISD classroom. To my mind, Cyrus Highsmith deserves every good thing in the world.

Cyrus Highsmith and Victoria Rushton at the Gerrit Noordzij Prize Exhibition, “Products of a Thinking Hand,” at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague.
Cyrus Highsmith and Victoria Rushton at the opening. Photo courtesy of Frank Grießhammer.
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Cyrus gazes up at David Berlow. A portrait of Anna Highsmith appears directly to Cyrus’ left; one of Matthew Carter hovers just above him.

Victoria Rushton spends her days drawing type, thinking about people, and doing her best to be eloquent about both.