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  • Off a Beaten Path - Artisan Pen Maker Tim Cullen

    Artisan Pen Maker Tim Cullen makes pens that are living history.

    Off a Beaten Path

    BY SUZANNE C. LEE

     

    Tim Cullen employs eclectic and distinct materials for his pens that are meaningful in and of themselves, with long histories, and the final design bears not only the story and experience of its creator, but also the kaleidoscopic world in which he resides. Radiant and layered, his pens are fabulous and function as a palimpsest— each pen is a piece of art that can tell stories, make revisions, add and eliminate minutiae, and yet retain the traces of legend.

    Almost all, if not all, of these pens are built for an individual, and there, too, one can see the work of a skilled scribe, intent on preserving significance, determined to remain a living history. To explore Cullen’s work is to experience a topographical level of metaphor and meaning that is dizzying.

    Collaborations on particular pens incorporate other referential perspectives, and he works with only the best—artists, themselves, who are renowned and even iconic in their respective enterprises. (Like Madonna, when nibmeister Michael Masuyama is mentioned, there is universal recognition of his skill in the pen community, lest the reader suspect hyperbole.)

    Pens created by Cullen invariably sing, a chorus of significant stories. He prefers materials that tend to be “off the beaten path,” as often showcased in an unconventional approach, which is all part of Cullen’s guiding principle.

    “I believe society looks for the newest and latest materials like carbon fiber or engineered plastics. These materials are great, but they’re choking up our landfills and oceans. I prefer to work with more natural materials that are, in a sense, biodegradable: wood, antler, horn, celluloid, and galalith. I have no problem repurposing; it’s been done for thousands of years, and we as a society are just starting to relearn that,” Cullen notes.

    Pens made by Cullen are, in their way, maps, informed by the history of the materials along with the apocryphal, almost magical elements of the stories behind the substance. Nowhere is his love

    for interesting materials more on display than in his 2016 limited edition fountain pen. Its elegant rosewood had once been a tree in Florida that the city decided to cut down. Noting the incredible grain, a wood trader ended up with it and stabilized it through resininfusion of every piece after a long drying process. Several boards fell into the hands of Cullen, who picked the most exquisite pieces for use in this series of numbered pens.

    The pen comes with a U.S.-made Damascus steel ring and a two-piece Damascus steel clip with the logo of Cullen’s company, Hooligan Pens. Included in the purchase is a handmade leather notebook by Paige Tyson that presents the issue number and the owner’s name. This pen also highlights Cullen’s latest innovation— the solid metal-sleeved cap he has begun to use on his wood pens, allowing for greater strength and durability in the pen without compromising the look.

    Damascus steel, itself, has a long history. From around the fourth century B.C.E., the secret of making Damascus steel became, for all practical purposes, lost. However, they were passed down through apprenticeship via armorers in many places in the world, especially Persia.

    When Crusaders reached the Middle East in the early 11th century, Europeans heard apocyphal stories of swords constructed of this material that could split a feather in mid-air, and the blade’s sharp edge resisted dulling through endless battles with Saracen enemies. They were able to recognize the material of the swords by the watery “damask” pattern on the blade.

    A high carbon content was posited by early metallurgists, and the key to successful production of Damascus steel seems to have been lowering the temperature during the forging and hammering phase to a comparatively cool 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit. Once properly shaped, the steel was reheated to the same degree, then swiftly cooled by dousing it quickly in liquid, or “quenching.” Indeed, this is the moment of manufacture wherein the blade acquires its special characteristics, its folkloric significance: The best swords, it was asserted, were said to be quenched by the blood of a dragon.

    In contrast, the NaCullen is an example of the more recent historical movement toward well-made plastics. Inspired in part by Japanese classic pen shapes, the NaCullen, also known as the “Bat Wing Pen,” is made using a little-known but significant material named galalith, or milk stone, the first commercially-made plastic.

    Cullen explains, “It was derived from milk and can be made easily. It has a long history and has been used for many products like buttons, costume jewelry, and even as an ivory substitute.”

    Galalith was patented in 1906 by Compagnie Francaise de la Galalithe in northern France. Coco Chanel and her contemporaries adopted galalith as a kind of precious stone for costume jewelry. Milk stone became hot in the 1920s and 1930s when “false jewelry” gained credibility even among some in higher society. Galalith production was restricted during World War II, when milk became far more essential as a nutrient than as a practical plastic. By the time the war was over, galalith was almost completely supplanted by modern plastics that could be heat-molded.

    Insisting galalith gets a bad reputation as a potential material because of misconceptions surrounding its use, Cullen refutes the idea that the material doesn’t thread or that it will dissolve in water. He maintains, too, that it is not as impossible to polish as people think. He is drawn to the substance in part because of its enormous “depth and variation in color.”

    Pens by Cullen can be made of virtually anything: stainless steel, titanium, celluloid, ebonite, acrylic, abalone inlay, and precious stones. “I am always trying to make each pen better than the one before,” he says. “I am always looking for better ways to make my pens a combination of form and function. Creating all my own clips from raw materials is a long process, but it’s rewarding.”

    All of Cullen’s pens go through an exacting process of construction and review; a perfect example is the new V fountain pen. Named for and made in collaboration with famed calligrapher Dr. Joe Vitolo, the V was borne of their friendship and mutual respect.

    Cullen wanted to create a signature line, and he wanted it to be unlike any other pen he had done previously. Custom purple blanks were made by Jason Olson of Florida, who is well-known for his pens, in addition to his custom blanks.

    Only 20 currently exist. Each bears a “V” located on both the front and back of the band, and the pen comes with a matching numbered stand. All nibs are tuned by nibmeister Michael Masuyama. Cullen also provides a certificate of authenticity signed by Dr. Joe and himself. Most, if not all, of Cullen’s pens are commissioned, and thus tailored uniquely to the individual in every respect, and the V is no exception. Future versions will feature a slew of colors handmade by Olson.

    But Cullen may be most proud of pens he makes with a truly revered material: musk ox horn. Cullen believes the Musk Ox pen makes him the first custom penmaker to use this material. Its lovely grain is very desirable, but working with it is tricky, as it is quite hard compared to resin, and Cullen takes great care in the shaping and polishing stages. The result feels alive, especially given the reverence in which the material is held.

    The musk ox was—and is—hunted by the Nunamiut Iñupiat, a Native American tribe located in Arctic Alaska. Numbers of musk ox in the Alaskan Arctic dwindled in the early 1800s due to increased hunting by settlers in the area. Though the Iñupiat were driven east, away from their traditional hunting grounds, Iñupiat mythology had already incorporated the musk ox into their oral canon. Stories were recorded by researchers in 1951 and 1965 about musk ox hunting, along with rules and taboos related to the hunting thereof. This implies that despite the animal’s practical disappearance from the area for a long span of time, its significance in the Nunamiut Iñupiat culture and economy remained long after the animals were mostly gone. The memory of the musk ox was so precisely preserved because of the fundamental respect for and longevity of the Iñupiat oral tradition and culture at large.

    Today, the musk ox is back in significant numbers due to a large transplant effort coordinated between bureaucratic services and the Iñupiat, but even now, the Iñupiat often will not accept musk ox from non-native hunters; they do not trust that it will be processed in the right way, and their traditions insist that if humans fail to properly revere the musk ox through specific ritual handling, the animal will disappear, once again, as a source of food and subsistence. In this way, Cullen’s Musk Ox pen is divine in its own right, an homage to Iñupiat tradition and reverence for nature, a breathtaking stylus made of air and animal spirit and verite vrai—the truth as it appears to the senses.

    Cullen’s pen histories aren’t always so obscure and are sometimes memorial in purpose. His love for those who have given their lives for our freedom compels him to create wood pens celebrating their efforts and heroism. “I make pens to pay respect to those who did not run away but ran toward,” Cullen says. “[One] pen was made from the teal deck of the USS California. The ship was sunk at the attack on Pearl Harbor. I have the decking from many other World War II ships, as well,” Cullen says.

    A big believer in charity, Cullen donated one of these pens to the Orange County School of Performing Arts to enable a scholarship student to attend the well-regarded school. Both of his daughters, Madison and Bailey-Drew, attend the school, but Cullen says he is always looking for charitable opportunities. If it appears legitimate, he maintains, then he is all ears.

    Since almost all of Cullen’s pens are designed specifically for someone, they are intimate and familiar, distinguishing in a new and profound way. His customers are participants in his vision, and this creates a particular relationship between artist and customer, and eventually between customer and his new pen. Each pen made for a customer includes updates and photographs of the build.

    In general, Cullen uses No. 6 JoWo nibs, but he also uses Bock, and he is entirely capable of catering to any request. If left to his own desires, he seems to value form, function, and simplicity, up to and including the converter system; in the end, of course, everything depends on the customer’s wishes.

    Some pens, however, are made as homages. One such example, a gift for his lucky wife, Tracey, is a glimmering Irish-inspired pen with a scroll of shamrocks. A firstgeneration Irish-American, Tracey’s mother came to the United States from Ireland in the 1950s. The pen barrel is made from a 5,000-year-old bog oak Cullen imported directly from Ireland. Famed carver Ray Cover created the shamrock scroll, and Tracey’s name is engraved in Gaelic on the clip. One can imagine how touched, how impossibly moved, Tracey must have been upon receipt.

    Ethereal hands lend mysterious impressions to Cullen’s pens, suggesting that part of the artist’s truest self remains. The raw history of the materials, coupled with his insistence on a singular, tailored design, are braided with his own experiences and interpretations. For all the celebration regarding his instinct for unusual material, Cullen’s pens also reveal meaningful aspects of his actual biography.He concedes, “My work in law enforcement has definitely influenced my work. I think our past always influences our present. The irony is that I’ve experienced it from both sides of the bars. I worked in [California] jails for almost 10 years of my 27-year career, and my father died in prison. So I understand what it is to be both prisoner and guard, and how both are perceived.”

    A law enforcement career is known to cause unimaginable levels of stress, and Cullen feels that the therapeutic component of penmaking was what he used to positively compensate for the psychic trauma inherent in his chosen career. He urges those with similar difficulties to channel the effects into constructive, creative generation. “Creating one-of-a-kind pens from these materials defies convention, just as I believe I have always done,” he adds.

    This valuation of non-conformity was reinforced by Cullen’s mentor and friend, penmaker David Broadwell, who advised Cullen not to follow the norm, to be unique, and to discover his signature look. Taking Broadwell’s words very much to heart, he decided his pens would be original in every sense of the word and yet retain layers of meaning, of story.

    As all collectors know, we are drawn to objects that reflect, in one way or another, our deepest personal truths. The pens in Cullen’s private collection are often external manifestations of complicated or profound concepts; say, comradery or mentorship. One of Cullen’s most cherished pens is a piece by the aforementioned Broadwell.

    “His work, in my opinion, is innovate, and no other human hand has that level of skill. He creates very organic shapes that flow, and he is able to project the theme of his pens without having to explain them,” says Cullen. “His handmade clips have no equal. The Poseidon pen is the most beautiful pen there is.” He goes on to note that Broadwell remains his most trusted and influential mentor and critic.

    Additional pens precious to Cullen are his Green Celluloid Hakase, which is the work of now-retired Harumi Tanaka, and a Ryo Yamamoto pen. Cullen’s Nakaya Neo-Standard pen—with its distinguished aesthetic simplicity—competes admirably with any flashy contemporary pen. And a pen designed by lauded penmaker and collector Paul Rossi as an homage to the British airforce shows Cullen’s interest in history.

    Admiration for these favorite colleagues’ writing instruments are linked in each case not merely to indisputable skill, but also to the spirit of each creator: Cullen never fails to include details that individuate these artists as humans, with solid values and kind hearts. Even in his personal collection, his pens each couple aesthetic appeal with layers of reverence and signification, sharp and elegant as origami. Cullen never fails to show respect for his co-creators. For example, the aforementioned 2016 Limited Edition and the V use Damascus steel made for Cullen by Randy Haas and his son, Randy Haas, Jr., of HHH Knives. This fatherson team hand crafts Damascus steel for Cullen in small quantities so as not to risk compromising the quality. HHH Knives, he says, make some of the most incredible Damascus steel in the world.

    Cullen seems most excited about a new prospective line that is also a potential collaboration. Though he intends to continue making Hooligan-brand pens, he is driven, as always, to invention, and working with Kobold Expedition Tools, a company with a focus on watches, is next on the agenda. Cullen always enjoyed owner/artisan Michael Kobold’s work and acknowledges the odd serendipity in their forthcoming project—for years, before ever meeting Kobold in the flesh, he wore a Kobold Soarway dive watch on patrol.

    An explorer and a self-made man, Kobold has climbed Everest, and Cullen is always up for an adventure. Symbiosis between the two artists is so remarkable that the result of their unified vision promises pens unlike any made before. “Michael is also interested in history,” Cullen explains.

    “We are talking about making pens using materials from expeditions to Mt. Everest, as well as some materials found in Nepal. Mike has already done that with the pen cases he produces in Nepal. Using the canvas from packs and tents that were used in Himalayan expeditions from the 1950s and ’60s, [and] made by the people in that region to ensure the authenticity. Each one has a story. This is not out-sourcing, it’s direct sourcing.”

    Cullen’s artisanal ambitions are relentless, and he is innovative in approach, but he is determined to ensure his pens retain a profound authenticity. His pens are not pure aesthetic, though they are undeniably beautiful. Nor are they simply functional, though writing with one is a pleasurable experience.

    Incorporating cultural artifacts, his designs are divine reminders that we frail humans elevate meaningful artistic representation to objects like Cullen’s pens because these works preserve our stories.

    For example, writings discovered in Asia Minor say that, in order to temper Damascus swords, the blade’s heat level must rise until it radiates “like the sun rising in the desert,” prior to the process of quenching. Legend and history meet in the writing instruments Cullen creates; they speak, whispering stories from some fantastic savannah or a glimmering desert. A Tim Cullen pen beckons us to write our own story and join the song.

    See the original article in the October issue of Pen World. Also in this issue, artist/writer Nick Bantock discusses all things Griffin & Sabine with Contributing Editor Deborah Basel. Visit penworld.com or email editor AT penworld.com to see how you can subscribe to the best magazine available about the universe of handwriting culture.

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