Power of the pen

WAYNE BRYAN Staff Writer Published March 4, 2012 at 2:48 a.m.
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— It is not surprising that Shawn Newton, an art teacher at Mountain Pine High School, prefers handcrafted fountain pens when he does his drawings, but he said he also believes students draw and write more, and even learn better, when they use fountain pens.

Newton, who calls Hot Springs his hometown, started making his own pens for economic reasons.

“You can only spend so much moneyon pens,” he said. “I learned to service the pens, and about grinding nibs. You can make them round, or straight stubs that give a broad line, or grind them to a point.”

As a reward for students at the school, Newton has agreed tomake a customized fountain pen for students for each pen he sells. The student pens are a promise he made in response to a grant he received for his pen-making.

“I know I am writing a lot more now. I am practicing my cursives,” Newton said. “If it encourages kids to write more or draw more, then it is worth the time.”

Newton said writing notes by hand helps students better remember their study materials. He said studies show that handwriting builds different connections in the brain.

The teacher is in his fourth year of teaching art and his second school year at Mountain Pine.

Early this year, Newton made a total commitment to making his own pens by selling all the pens he owned to purchase the materials and equipment he needed to manufacture new ones.

He purchased a lathe to make the barrels of the pens out of blocks of polyester acrylic, the same material used for some of the most popular and expensive writing instruments in the world. Newton buys the nibs and some other parts.

“It’s fun to do,” he said. “When I started, it took from eight to 10 hours to make a pen,” he said. “Now I can knock one out in three or four hours, plus another hour to install a clip.”

Adding a clip for use in a pocket takes another cut, some shaping and making treads on the lathe, he said.

“The finishing and polishing is the hard part,” Newton said. “You have to get all the scuff marks out to make it look good.”

Much of the pen-barrel material comes from Cabot, and he orders some parts and materials over the Internet, he said. Most of his pens are brightly colored, and all are unique.

Funds for some of his equipment and materials for pen-making came through a grant from Kickstarter, a Web-based funding organization that supports creative projects.

“When I applied for funding, I was asked how I could reward a sponsor of my project, and I said for every pen someone buys, I’ll make a pen for a student,” Newton said.

“So I waited for news about the grant application. I had hoped to get about $800, but when I was notified that I was getting $4,350, I almost started crying.”

Newton’s love for the fountain pen started on Valentine’s Day two years ago when his wife gave him a $7 calligraphy pen.

“The way they feel on paper is second to none,” he said. “I enjoy using them so much, and [making custom pens] is just the next logical step.”

Newton began to use the pens almost exclusively. He was making drawings with the pens, not inking over pencil lines as many artists do.

“I just go for it,” he said.

Becoming a devoted follower of nib and ink, Newton connected online with the Fountain Pen Network, and his knowledge of pens increased.

He has also gained some customers for his art from all over the world. He has sold a print of a fish to someone in Australia and has traded a print of a wine bottle for a $600 pen.

Newton will not select the students who will receive thepens.

“I didn’t want anyone to say I was picking favorites among the students,” he said. “The faculty gives me names for the next pens.”

Newton also has started making pens for Lakeside High School students in Hot Springs and will make some for students in Little Rock, an arrangement he has made with other art teachers he knows.

Newton studied art education at Henders on St ate University in Arkadelphia. He worked with Ed Martin in the art department, who encouraged Newton to draw.

“For a while, all the art I did was coffee-mug related,”Newton said. “Professor Martin said to draw something, and a mug was on the table. I like the shapes of the mugs, and the coffee implies sitting around with friends and talking or just hanging out together.”

No matter the success of his art or his pens, Newton said, he is committed to teaching.

“Students have asked me if I will quit if this gets popular,” he said. “I tell them ‘no,’ that I am not quitting.”

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.