The weekend after Thanksgiving, Ted Clausen took the bus from Boston to Washington, D.C.
An artist whose sculptures often incorporate text (he worked on the Vendome Firefighters Memorial with landscape architect Peter White), Clausen is also an expert calligrapher.
And this year he was asked to hand-letter the Preamble to the Constitution on a ribbon that would wrap around the tree in the Blue Room, the largest of the many Christmas trees on display inside the White House.
It took him two days. He began at 6:30 each morning, working in the Blue Room at a table by a window, writing out the Preamble in dark blue marking pen on a white ribbon.
We the People of the United States,
The idea of winding the Preamble around the tree had been conceived by Rafanelli Events months ago, long before anyone knew what the outcome of the election would be. They got in touch with Ted last summer to ask him to do the calligraphy.
As he worked in the Blue Room, he thought about technical issues — keeping the pen moving so the ink wouldn’t bleed, consulting his previous calculations while also expanding or condensing the spaces between letters and words to adjust to the contours of the immense tree. And he thought about the words themselves, and the people who had written the Preamble. “You can feel how literate they were,” Ted says. “The clauses are carefully phrased and carefully placed. These people are saying so much in such a limited, formal space. You can feel their bravery and their incredible confidence, how deeply they believed this.”
in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare,
The room — and all the public rooms — bustled with volunteers, chosen from around the country to help decorate the White House this year. “People were making wreaths, hanging ornaments, decorating mantels. Sometimes you’d hear a big cheer go up from a room down the hall, and you knew that the group in there had gotten something hung in a way that everybody liked. It was very democratic, very interactive.”
Ted was struck by the welcome extended to the volunteers and the Rafanelli team by the White House social secretaries. “They told us, ‘This is your house. It’s a museum, an office, a living quarters; and it’s yours.’ ”
and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,
He made a single mistake: wrote “prosperity.” Had to cut out that section of ribbon, and carefully patch in the right word. “Posterity.”
He also hand-lettered 64 ornaments for the Blue Room tree, with messages from Americans to family members serving in the military overseas. “These are people who are serving because they believe in the great idea manifested in the Preamble, people willing to give their lives for these words,” Ted says. “Whatever happens, you feel the weight of time, of our history – of something that endures.”
do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
By the time the tree was finished, late on the afternoon of the second day, Ted felt a sense of personal connection to the words of the Preamble. So did many of the volunteers.
“They would come up to me and start reciting it. A lot of them,” he adds, “knew it by heart.”
Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe.