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CAZADERO — Across the valley from Rick Paulus’s home atop a Cazadero ridge, a small winery pokes out from the tree-covered hillside.

It’s Flowers Vineyards & Winery, visible from the backyard of his home off King Ridge Road where he and his wife Julie Guibord moved in October 2014.

For eight years, under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Paulus served as chief calligrapher of the White House, where he spent countless hours hand-lettering programs, invitations and menus inside his East Wing office. Ten years later, the final versions of many of those elegant designs are stored inside a clear plastic storage bin beneath the ink-spattered desk in his home studio. Two of the menus, the now-57-year-old realized, featured a pinot noir from Flowers.

“I was kind of fascinated, actually, that I ended up out here, and the only building I can see across that beautiful valley from my studio happens to be a vineyard (whose name) I wrote at the White House,” he said. “It was pretty cool. I was like, ‘Boy, what a small world.’”

The first menu that featured Flowers’ “Camp Meeting Ridge” pinot noir was for the White House celebration of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty, held April 23, 1999. Wine from Flowers was poured just one other time at the White House, for a holiday dinner later that same year. Paulus lettered that menu, too.

Michelle Forry, member concierge for the winery, remembers the occasion well. She’s the one who answered the White House’s phone call. A copy of Paulus’s first menu was sent to the winery after the dinner, and still hangs on a wall inside the administration building, she said.

“For us, to have it, it’s a great honor,” she said. “You feel so proud, really. Proud of what you do. ... It’s pretty interesting that he would end up out here.”

The White House calligraphy office creates thousands of menus, invitations, programs and place cards for social events each year. A typical menu can take up to four hours to design, Paulus said, and calligraphers place a high importance on etiquette and elevating the utilitarian items they produce into personalized pieces of art.

“Probably 99.9 percent of people look at the alphabet, look at what they’re reading, and they don’t consider the design of the shapes, but it’s something that we calligraphers do,” he said.

Paulus’s journey to the White House began when he was 10 years old and bought his first calligraphy set from a five-and-dime store near his family’s home on Cape Cod. The Speedball calligraphy set cost him $5, and sparked a self-taught passion for lettering that only grew as friends and family members realized his talent, requesting personalized textbook covers and designs featuring Paulus’s elaborate penmanship.

His first job as calligrapher came at age 23. After a four-year stint with the Navy where he never quite found his place, Paulus was staying with a friend in Washington, D.C. who found a job listing in the Washington Post seeking a calligrapher to letter certificates for the city’s plumbers and pipe fitters. Knowing Paulus’ ability, he convinced him to apply. It took more than a few reminders before Paulus culled together a few samples of designs, applied and got the job.

D.C.-area calligraphy contacts led to an ensuing job as the State Department’s calligrapher — called the Engrosser — where Paulus worked first as a temp, filling in while the staffer was out of town. When she left the position a few months later, Paulus took over fulltime.

And then, the White House called.

His first White House task was a menu for the Governors’ Dinner in 1998. Under the Clintons, the office was very traditional in its designs, he said. That shifted when Laura Bush took over, her office just down the hall from the calligraphers’.

“She really got involved in our design work, and saw what we were doing,” he said.

Laura Bush embraced Paulus’ interest in diversifying the design of invitations and menus, welcoming those incorporating more artistic elements, including sketches of their dog Barney, bright colors and nontraditional fonts — called “hands” in calligrapher speak.

“It’s important because, I think, in hospitality you want to put forth as much individual attention to who you’re trying to impress as possible,” Paulus said, relaxing at his dining table. “I was not going to make a bread this morning, but I figured you were coming up here for this long drive, so I made a bread. If I had done a nice place card for you, you probably would have been more impressed.”

After seeing that other countries printed materials in English and their native language, Paulus proposed it for a dinner with then-Mexican President Vicente Fox. Laura Bush agreed, and on Sept. 5, 2001, for the first time, the White House’s formal dinner menu appeared in both English and Spanish.

“They spend a lot of time selecting the foods, the wines, what place setting you’re going to use, what tablecloth you’re going to use, what flowers you’re going to use, how it ties in with the person you’re entertaining both personally and culturally,” he said. “You take all of that into account ... and so I put a lot of effort into designing things specific to the event.”

The desk in Paulus’ Cazadero studio is the same one he used at the White House — taken when Laura Bush sought to replace the calligraphers’ desk during an office remodel.

“To them, it’s just a piece of wood, but it had been at the White House for 50 years,” Paulus said.

Ink pots and cups of old pens surround the desk. His favorite pen, a custom, handturned wooden one with an oblique nib holder, is 30 years old.

The desk’s slanted white slab is patterned with smears and drips of ink, and faces a window, from which Paulus can see the rolling hills that separate his home from the Pacific Ocean. Paulus still takes on high-level freelance jobs — just ones that no longer require a top secret security clearance. Outside of those, nature provides much of the inspiration for his work these days. It’s reflected in the artwork that lines his studio’s walls, featuring quotes from John Muir and poems about the ocean.

He also occasionally gives classes and presentations about his work, when asked. Recently, he participated in a show at the Gualala Arts Center that featured some of his work, in collaboration with and alongside other local artists.

“It’s a long, laborious process,” he said of his craft, standing amid stacks of tracing paper and coffee mugs filled with pens, his two dogs darting in and out of the quiet studio. “But if you like the process, that’s what it’s about.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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