A Conversation with Canadian Calligrapher Heather Held

We’re back in Canada today, as we speak with faculty member Heather Held! Heather comes to calligraphy from a background in floral design and specializes in pointed pen scripts, illuminations and offhand flourishing. She currently serves as an advisor for IAMPETH (International Association of Master Penman, Engrossers and Teachers of Handwriting) and was the organization’s president from 2013-2014. Heather’s work has been featured in numerous books and publications, including the Speedball Textbook, Bound & Lettered, Somerset Studios and Copperplate Script: A Yin and Yang Approach. In the following interview, Heather gives us a peek inside her studio and shares her love of pointed pen and the Victorian era.

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Where did you grow up and what first sparked your interest in lettering?

I grew up in Brantford, Ontario. My first interest in lettering came when I was in grade 4 during our daily penmanship lessons. I remember that we had to apply for a “license” so we could transition from pencil to pen. I struggled with my penmanship but I wanted to achieve the beautiful Palmer style penmanship that my teacher was demonstrating. It took me quite a long time to be granted that pen license, but once I had it, I enjoyed being able to use a fountain pen for my daily work. I remember using Peacock blue ink and trying to make my assignments as beautiful as possible.

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In addition to a background in floral design, you have a longstanding love for the Victorian Era. How long have you been drawn to this time period, and how has it impacted your calligraphy?

My parents named me well. Heather reflects my passion for the floral world and Victoria, while being my mother’s name, also firmly roots me in the Victorian era. From the time I was a small child, my parents were always frequenting antique shops. I saw beautiful china patterns, gorgeous embroideries and lots of Victorian paper goods that attracted my attention. I was also given books that had profuse Victorian engraved illustrations in them. The Victorian era of opulence and ornament was always within my view and still draws my notice. The Victorian flair for opulent décor and adding ornament to anything they could has influenced my calligraphic work. Their love for including small floral details is intrinsic in my own work. The ornamentation and intricate designs go hand in hand with offhand flourishing. When I discovered offhand flourishing with the pointed pen, it was as if all of my design worlds collided together.

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What is the first hand that you learned, and which hands resonate with you most today and why?

The first hand I learned was Spencerian Script. It has now replaced Palmer style penmanship as my correspondence hand and has a rhythm and pace that is very much in tune with my daily writing style. Spencerian Script, Italian Hand and English Roundhand are the three hands that resonate with me the most. They have an underlying commonality as well as distinctives that make me appreciate each of them for specific tasks. Italian Hand has a whimsical and playful quality that brings me so much joy when I am writing. English Roundhand tends to “sing” and can leave a more vivid impression when used in a piece of artwork. Spencerian Script whispers its gentle message to the reader. When I am writing letters of correspondence it is Spencerian Script that seems to flow naturally from the tip of the pen and is completely in tune with my heart and soul. All three hands are so important to me and I feel blessed to be able to turn to any of them.

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Where do you create, and how have you organized your work space? What is your best time of day, and do you have any particular routines or warm-ups before you begin?

For the past twenty-eight years or so, my working space has been a glorified closet, no bigger than Harry Potter’s cupboard under the stairs. It was extremely functional but very tight. In 2017, [my husband] Chris built me a studio in our backyard. The building is spacious and open and now has ample room for me to layout larger pieces and work in solitude. I have large windows in front of my desk where I can watch my four bird feeders, flower gardens and the bird bath. During the day, I work in complete silence and try to rid myself of all digital distractions. I like to tune into the sounds of nature. I listen to the wind, the rain, the birds or the storms. Nature’s cycles are part of my everyday rhythm while I work and they instill a sense of peace. If I work during the evening, I like to have company in my studio. Chris often sits in the studio chair to read during my evening work hours. I find that I can work with some noise in the background if I am flourishing or painting. But if I am writing any text at all, I prefer complete silence. I try to keep my workspace very clean and organized. I wash down the surface of the desk after each completed project as it helps clear a pathway in my mind for the next project. My library is behind my desk with all of my reference materials ready and waiting when I need them. I have a daily warm up that takes me about 10 minutes before I begin work. It involves slowing down my breathing and clearing my mind of distractions. I then begin with some simple pencil exercises on paper before progressing to pen and ink. I habitually use the same mechanical pencil for my daily warm up as this familiar tool helps to prepare my mind for the day’s task ahead of me.

What are three of the most essential tools for your calligraphy practice and why?

I would say good quality paper, reliable ink and a familiar pen point. I have always used a good quality paper for my practice work as it gives me the best chance of success. I feel that it is false economy to use paper that may be less expensive but is more difficult to achieve successful results. You are investing in your calligraphic journey and the money is not wasted. The ink should also be designed to give you the best possible result on the paper you are using. As calligraphers, we should know our materials well and know which ink will give us the best result. As your experience grows as a calligrapher, you will find a pen point that is most suited to your hand. I think this triad of paper, ink and pen point become the essential foundation for successful work. All three of these materials are very personal and are different from person to person. I like to use Maruman Imagination Gridded Paper, McCaffery Penman’s Black ink and a vintage Hunt 21 pen point.

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You and your husband Chris are known for creating beautiful wooden penholders that are both hand-turned and hand-painted. How does this collaborative process work between the two of you?

I can describe this as a labour of love for both of us although neither of us expected to be kept so busy with this part of our business. Chris turns all of the pens and brings them to me to be hand dyed or hand flourished. I spend every Friday dyeing pens and then hand flourishing any of the paintable pens he has made for me that week. Once my part is done, the pens go back to Chris for the flanges, lacquer process and any inserts for the straight holders. We are not fast at any part of this. Sometimes a painted pen will take me up to 4 hours to paint. Chris is meticulous about his lacquer process and each pen goes through multiple coats of lacquer and sanding. From start to finish the process can take quite a long time but we have better results this way rather than rushing the process.

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What has been one of your most meaningful commissions or projects? What made this project particularly special, challenging or rewarding?

Although I don’t have any photos of this particular project, my most rewarding commission was for a memorial certificate for a baby girl. It was the most difficult project I had ever done because it was so heart wrenching. I had to incorporate the date of birth, the name of the little girl and a scripture verse. They wanted my Enchanted Letter style lettering for the name and pink floral accents throughout the whole piece. I remember doing the piece reverently and tearfully but feeling so grateful that I could do this for the family members. In the end, I created the piece as a gift for them rather than charging a commission fee. The words of my mentor Michael Sull came to me many times while I was working on the piece. He would often tell me that one day, the skills I had accumulated separately would all come together as I worked on something larger. My work is usually quite small and this piece was the first time I had attempted a large certificate.

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You will be teaching an offhand flourishing class called “The Dancing Line” at Rendez-vous this summer. What knowledge and skills will students gain from this experience, and how would you describe your style of teaching?

The Dancing Line brings my love of pure offhand flourishing to the student. Offhand flourishing is the direct use of ink on paper without pre-planning or pre-designing the work in pencil. It is the process of developing instinctive skills to produce the graceful lines that will dance on your paper. It is an incredibly freeing process as the student will learn to tune out the overly analytical side they may have and find an instinctive way to create these designs. Although I lay the foundation for them by showing them how to create the strokes, each student will create their own unique designs. My style of teaching is relaxed, gentle and encouraging. I try to enable the student to find what they love in their work rather than looking for what they don’t like. Too many students come to me with a sense of discouragement or even a fear of flourishing. I feel my job as an instructor is to help rid them of those barriers and find the freedom of the flourish. They can work on perfecting their forms as time progresses, but in the beginning, it is important they know how to play.

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How would you describe the calligraphy community in Ontario? What does the lettering arts community mean to you?

I think there is a lot of talent in the calligraphy guilds across Ontario and within Canada. I have visited many guilds who are so eager to learn and are diligent to practice. They are a caring and generous group of artists. The lettering arts community for me is much broader than Ontario. It reaches across the internet for me through social media and to attending calligraphy conventions such as Rendez-vous and IAMPETH. Whenever I connect with other calligraphers through guilds, emails, social media or conferences I am reminded of how many talented and passionate individuals there are who love pen and ink. Although I am in the role of an instructor, I learn so much from my students and they add so much joy to my life.

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Outside of calligraphy, what are some of your other interests and hobbies? What might be something about you that people would be surprised to learn?

I love to be outside in nature. I love my garden, bird watching, walking and reading. I study constantly and have been working on botanical art and illustration as time allows. People may be surprised that I love doing embroidery work. When I can’t take pen and ink along with me, I try to have a small embroidery project on the go. Like flourishing, the embroidery I do is not pre-planned at all. I always play and see what develops.

Heather Held

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