Have you ever heard of Calligraphy.org? If so, then you know our next guest on Meet the Calligrapher. In addition to teaching live workshops, Melissa Esplin, hailing from Draper, Utah, teaches calligraphy online at her website calligraphy.org, and she posts to her social media accounts on Youtube and on Instagram @melissapher and @calligraphyorg.
I met Melissa recently as I was working on another article for this Meet the Calligrapher blog series. I was very drawn to her calligraphy, her business, and her personality through our brief interactions, and I realized right away that she had a wealth of wisdom to share with the community. I sort of felt like I was going out on a limb to invite her to an interview, even though we had just met. But, man. I am so glad I did. She eagerly responded, and you are in for a serious treat to hear from her. I feel so honored to share this interview with Melissa on my blog. Let’s dig in.
First of all, Melissa, tell me about your family.
My husband, Chris, and I have been married for over 13 years. We’ve got 3 adorably sticky children: Penelope is 11, Felix is 8 and Junie is 5. Penelope is our resident animal illustrator and sculptor, she makes the coolest little figurines for us and is currently working on her fox-drawing chops. Felix is our special man, he’s got a severe developmental delay (he’s developmentally about 3). He’s got a black belt in cuddling and smooching. His long luscious locks get everyone’s attention. Juniper is our rapper. She makes up the cutest songs and raps on the spot and dances around the house all day long. Her current favorite song is Dance Monkey by the Tones and I.
Chris and I met in college. We dated for 4 months, were engaged for 3 before tying the knot. When you know, you know! Our personalities have merged even more since then. He knows more about calligraphy than any non-calligrapher I know and has the most abysmal handwriting ever. I can’t code or organize worth beans so we’re definitely each other’s yin and yang. We both are mildly obsessed with both road and mountain biking. And by mildly obsessed, we’re about as obsessed as you can get without quitting jobs and daily responsibilities to do it full-time. We’re slowly indoctrinating our children into the biking world as well.
Your family sounds amazing…I hope to meet them one day. Is calligraphy your “day job” or do you have another career?
Calligraphy is my “day job”, along with email manager, social media strategist, mom, maid and short-order cook. lol. I wish I were doing calligraphy more than I am; the administrating of a business definitely eats into calligraphy time quite a bit. My main gig is teaching calligraphy online at calligraphy.org. I love the occasional odd-job requiring calligraphy: wedding suites, fine art pieces, logos, tattoos, etc.
As a small business owner myself, I totally get that. What types of calligraphy/lettering do you do?
I find myself a jack of all trades with many things, including within calligraphy. I love and do digital lettering, traditional and modern calligraphy, broad-edge and pointed-pen, brush lettering and penmanship. I really lack focus to work on just one type of calligraphy/lettering. I love it all. I should be more focused, but I’m not.
I think that’s the beauty of calligraphy as an art form! There is so much room for expansion and creativity. So how did you get started? What brought you to calligraphy?
I’ve done lettering and calligraphy forever. I have a journal with block letters from when I was 6 years old. I grew up in the era before capable design programs on the computer, so I designed signage, fliers and stationery from 12 and up. I got exposed to calligraphy (gothic) in seventh grade (1997) and LOVED it. I started a stationery company at 15, but it didn’t go anywhere. I think I made 5 card designs and couldn’t quite find a way to reliably reproduce the work so I gave up. lol. I took notes in high school and part of college with a dip pen and ink. I loved the visceral process of taking notes in that way. I didn’t start practicing in earnest until 2009, though.
In 2009, I had been doing all digital design work. In a devastating blow, all the men in my family lost their jobs. It was a very big transitional time for my family. My parents, in the process of a cross-country move, were sorting through their things. My mom found a book she’d been meaning to give me for a very long time: the Atkinson Sign Painting resource book. It was my great- great-grandfather’s. He was a sign painter and calligrapher in Ogden in the early 1900s. It clicked when I got it! It was in my blood, I knew I needed to go back to my analog roots and study calligraphy in earnest. It was TERRIBLE. I didn’t really know what I was doing.
How else did you learn?
I started out self-taught, but didn’t stay that way. There’s only so much one can learn in a vacuum, or without the influence of YouTube, Forums, Instagram, etc. I bought Eleanor Winter’s Mastering Copperplate Calligraphy and then joined IAMPETH (The International Association of Master Penman, Engrossers, and Teachers of Handwriting), Utah Calligraphic Artists Guild, Friends of Calligraphy and eventually Society for Calligraphy and Salt Lake Lettering Club. From there I’ve been able to attend workshops and learn from some incredible instructors: Don Tate, Jake Weidmann, Julian Waters, Kathy Milici, Suzanne Cunningham, Mike Ward, Skyler Chubak, Mike Kecseg and Martina Flor to name a few! My biggest regret is not taking the calligraphy course back in college! I took 2 semesters of bookbinding instead.
Wow, Melissa! You’ve studied with some great teachers! How would you classify your calligraphy (Hobby, Obsession, Side job, Full-time business)?
When I started practicing and learning calligraphy, I made small projects for myself and posted them to my blog. At the time, I had a pretty engaged following on the blog. Having that sounding board (now Instagram is that main sounding board) allowed me to see more clearly what service/product I could provide my followers and I went in that direction. Start doing the work you want to do and the clients will follow.
If I could do anything differently, I would probably have a more focused business plan and try to stay more disciplined with that. Because I’m a bit of a hobby hoarder, I didn’t want to let go of sharing those random side hobbies I was collecting. It slowed down my progress tremendously not having a more specific focus.
I’m dying. Hobby Hoarder!! You just described me and my husband both. And yes, it makes it terribly difficult to figure out where you want your focus to be. With that in mind, what is your favorite type of calligraphy work to do?
I love doing place cards and non-conventional stuff. I really like bringing the analog and digital together. For example, between my iPad Pro and my Silhouette machine and scanners and all that, I can create things that look like they were professionally made. Tee shirts, tumblers, cards, tags, etc. It’s so fun to use all of my different passions to create one piece.
I agree. I think we’re living in the best age ever in that regard, to have all of these tools at our finger tips. So besides the basics, what is one supply/tool you can’t live without?
My iPad Pro! It has streamlined my workflow on many projects in different ways allowing me to work more efficiently.
Ooh, I just got one of these for that very reason. It’s another whole world that has opened up! Does calligraphy have any special meaning or purpose to you? Describe this.
It connects me with my past. I feel it in my bones that this is part of who I am. My great-great grandfather did calligraphy. My mom did calligraphy (she still has gorgeous penmanship, but doesn’t do calligraphy so much anymore). I feel that by writing things down by hand and doing creative things with my calligraphy that I’m living my purpose.
What is your favorite script/style to write?
I love a good engrosser’s script, but I’m currently crushing hard on French Roundhand.
Hunt 99! It’s a bit of an underdog of a nib, but I love it for its juicy thicks and thins.
Pelikan 4001 ink. I love the thinner fountain pen style inks. Walnut is always a great go-to. And the Yasutomo Rich Gold has got to be the best dang gold out there.
Favorite Practice Paper
Onion Skin Paper
Do you have any calligraphy disasters you would be willing to share?
OMG yes! The most notable was on the very first commission I ever did (it’s not good either), I spelled little wrong! I spelled it litte! I didn’t notice it until after I posted a photo on my blog and a reader noticed it. Thankfully I hadn’t shipped it out yet, so I corrected the mistake just in time. All too often, though, I’ll get to the very end and ink will spill and I’ll have to start over. On the bright side, the second one always turns out better than the first!
So tell us about your workspace.
It’s a modest 10×10 room in the main floor of our home. As soon as we could afford it, we replaced the carpet with hardwood flooring. I had spilled sumi ink all over the floor the first week we lived in our house, so that was a welcome change. I have all white walls and a cellular shade on my window to bounce as much light into the room as possible. I also have supplemental artificial light so that I can take photos and videos any time of day. I have two desks set up: one with the computer and a blotter so I can write and design my things and the other side of the room is just all desk space reserved for photos, video and painting. I try to keep it relatively organized, but it is chaos about 99% of the time. Don’t let any photos fool you, I don’t keep it that clean.
My thoughts exactly. Chaos is inevitable if you’re creating good stuff! How do you set the atmosphere for doing calligraphy?
I have to have enough space for my elbows to move freely. Ink is on my right, drink is on my left. Besides that, I can’t be too picky or I’d never get work done. Having 3 kids means I usually only have 15-45 minute windows to get work done. I have a locking door knob on my door so that I can leave it all at a moment’s notice and it won’t be disturbed until I get back.
Give Us Your Top 6 Random Calligraphy Tidbits
1. Taking notes at church on Sundays helps me practice my calligraphy and listen to each sermon.
2. Sakura 10 White Gelly Roll is about the best white out ever.
3. Kishi Bashi makes for great listening.
4. This Podcast Will Kill You is also great.
5. Early to bed, Early to rise is the best way to get work done with small children (bed @8, rise @4)
6. I organize my materials so that they’re all within arm’s reach. Fancy storage that keeps supplies from view makes certain that you won’t use those supplies. The Container Store and Ikea are my BFFs.
What are your other hobbies?
Mountain Biking, Road Biking, Hiking, Photography, Sourdough, Cooking, Painting, Sewing
I love to learn how to do and make all sorts of random things from sewing my own clothing and swimwear to baking sourdough bread. I love it all. My current “new” hobby is mountain biking and honing my technical skills on the trails. Continuing to learn new things was and is a big part of my family growing up. My mom dropped out of college the first time and showed us it’s never too late to go back to college and crush it when she graduated Summa cum laude with her RN at 40. My 95 year-old grandpa still attends university courses with his buddies! Learning never stops.
We’ve had many challenges as a family: postpartum depression, unemployment, training a son with special needs, building a business, a home remodel gone terribly wrong… There have been a couple of things that have helped us overcome each one of those challenges: 1. Finding things to be thankful for, even when it seems impossible; 2. Relying on our Faith to help us on our path; 3. Saying no to the things that don’t matter (and figuring out what those are); and 4. Getting enough sleep and regular exercise. They may not seem that closely related to calligraphy, but I find that if those things are going well, then my calligraphy is too.
My parents. My dad taught us how to work, even when work sucked. My mom taught us that it’s important to make time for self-development, even when motherhood can easily take over.
Is it lame to say I hope to get better? I want to be better focused, better disciplined and have better hairlines. 😉
Lol. I think we all hope to be ever-improving, ever-growing. Do you have a personal story or advice you would like to share?
I started doing work for people far before I knew what I was doing. I know a lot of professionals gripe about n00bs building businesses too soon (I do it on occasion, too). But go for it. Make those mistakes. But don’t expect to stay stagnant. Continue practicing and learning more. Use the business or commission opportunities to learn and grow MORE instead of stay in the same place. Don’t wait until you feel like your work is “perfect” to start. You’ll never start if you think that way.
This is brilliant advice, Melissa. I’m so inspired by your story–how you’ve overcome adversity, how you’ve built your business, how you keep it real. You have such a way with words, and I feel that I just sat down in your home and got to know your family too. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for entrusting your story with me and sharing it with the world. I know many will be encouraged and uplifted by your words of wisdom.
Friends, please help me thank Melissa for being a part of the Meet the Calligrapher series by following her accounts on Instagram @melissapher and @calligraphyorg and giving her a shout out in the comments of this IG post on @kallialitheia. Come back next Friday for our next calligrapher introduction.