A Conversation with American Calligrapher Harvest Crittenden

Today, our faculty interview series brings us to the midwestern United States, as we speak with Harvest Crittenden of Michigan. Harvest is known for her delicate pointed pen lettering and illuminations, as well as her popular online lettering school Acorn Arts. With over three decades of experience, her impressive client list includes three American presidents, numerous government agencies, national museums and luxury brands. She was inducted as an IAMPETH Master Penman in 2010 and serves as the Director of the Spencerian Saga retreat. Read on to discover Harvest’s calligraphic journey and learn about the process of creating her Master Penman certificate, including some special hidden symbols!

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

I grew up in Birmingham, Michigan. I moved away at eighteen, but wound up coming back to be near family twenty-five years later. When I was growing up, I went to Catholic schools, and it was there that I first developed my love for lettering and illumination. I loved handwriting, and I loved the idea that those marks could convey ideas and feelings. It was important to me, even at age eight, to stay on slant and the look of my letters. I had a strange hold on my pen at that age, one the Sisters would try and break with a slap of a ruler, but it wasn’t until adulthood that I ever changed the way I hold a pen.

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

When I was in my early twenties I was living and teaching on an Indian reservation in Arizona. As romantic as all my notions were, I found I was not well suited for it at all. All my study in college had been in art, and many types of hands-on art. The tactile feeling was important to me. I did weaving and pottery and pattern making and other things as I was studying to be an art therapist and work with children. When I left the reservation the only thing I wanted to do was get back into some kind of art class. I moved to Flagstaff and signed up for a calligraphy course with Dick Beasley thinking it would not be too much of an investment of money. Ha!

Beas was teaching a course at Northern Arizona University that covered all the basic hands of lettering, starting with Romans and moving through Uncial, Italic, Rustic and others. The few years that I studied with Dick changed the direction of my life. As a student he invited me to be in a show with him, and that he had that much confidence in my work and saw something in it really touched me. I always included bits of painting in everything I did. I always thought it important to marry the image and words.

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There have been other instructors that have had a profound impact on me. Certainly Michael Sull has. I met Mike when we both teaching at the Celebration conference. He also saw something in the way that I worked and thought I would be well suited to Spencerian Lettering. He was right, I was. It was like coming home when I went back to a cursive style of writing again. I still do broad pen lettering, but most of my work these days is in pointed pen.

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Other instructors would be Peter Thornton with his delicate and beautiful work which I find quite moving, Sheila Waters for having me do things over and over until I got it right and her vast knowledge of history that she strives to impart to all her students, Yves Leterme not for working but for seeing. He helped me to look at modern work differently and see the skill involved in gestural movements, which was lost on me. We are quite opposite in our approaches but he has informed my eye a great deal and reaches into my traditional work. There are others, to be sure. Every good teacher leaves a mark. I think that is what all the teachers who have influenced me the most have in common- they have changed the way I look at things. That is what I strive for in my own teaching.

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Where do you create, and how have you organized your work space?

I have the luxury of having different spaces for working on different things. I do most of pointed pen writing here in my home office. It’s a beautiful, cozy little office where I can nestle in. I do pointed pen writing on a flat desk there.

I also have a home studio where I have a drafting table set up and do most of my miniature painting and illuminations there. It’s set in front of a window where I can watch the seasons and overlook the small ravine it backs up to. I currently have a small filming set being built here also where I will be recording the online classes that are offered through Acorn Arts, my studio name.

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

A pointed pen, ink, paper and a good computer. I need all four.

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You were inducted as a Master Penman by IAMPETH in 2010. Could you tell me about the process of creating your certificate, from the technical requirements to your personal design choices (colour palette, imagery, mix of hands represented)?

I was very honored to have made it through that process. That is probably the biggest challenge I have ever worked on, creating my certificate. It is something that is years in the works with having a mentor (mine was Michael Sull) help you through the stages and different requirements necessary to complete before you can be judged. Once you are accepted as a candidate, each person has to create their own certificate using the same wording as all others. I knew that I wanted mine to be a nod to illumination skills of the middle ages which is where Engrossing skills are taken from, so I worked on vellum. I also knew I wanted it to be in the shape of an oval, to me the most graceful shape there is. It is a soft color palette, always my first choice for work. The body of text is done in Uncial, my favorite broad pen hand and certainly one of the oldest hands. The main initials have a gesso diaper pattern with 9 layers of painting designs in alternate squares. Each of the flower designs is painted in a unique pattern with none repeating anywhere in the border. I went way overboard but I knew this would be a once in a lifetime piece. I even hid little symbols throughout the piece for people that had helped me along the way. There is a hidden pipe for Michael Sull, a butterfly for Heather Held, and several others.

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You will be teaching two classes at Rendez-vous: Spencerian Lettering and Spencerian Flourished Caps. What knowledge and skills will students gain after participating in these classes, and how would you describe your style of teaching?

My greatest desire is that my students will start to see the underlying shape of letters and curves, and find the gracefulness of the oval in their forms. It changes how one approaches calligraphy. Students will be able to see how their letters can flow and run smoothly together to create a piece as a whole with texture and form. We go over all the basics for those who are first approaching a pointed pen style, but there is also enough to keep even the advanced student challenged. I am a very easy-going and encouraging teacher, but I also keep the class on track and moving forward.

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

The lettering community is alive and active in Michigan. There are several active guilds throughout Michigan. I belong to The Michigan Association of Calligraphers, the greater Detroit guild. They bring in some wonderful teachers throughout the year. I just wish I could participate more as I am frequently traveling to teach when the guest instructors are here.

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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?

Most of my time is spent working on online classes, both my own and guest instructors that teach for my studio, Acorn Arts. It has been a passion of mine to bring these classes to students around the world who otherwise just don’t have access to good instructors. It’s built up to quite a school over the last ten years. It has been a real joy to me to get to know so many calligraphers world wide and work with several very gifted artists. Planning it, running it, and working on future classes keeps me hopping. I think as calligraphers, we all work in our own little studios and it can be isolating at times. This helps me stay connected to other calligraphers and really feeds my soul. I think we all need that connection with someone who gets what we do and can appreciate what it brings to our lives. After all, calligraphers are in the business of communicating. It’s what we do.

I love to read, I love old movies, I love to knit… basic homebody skills. I lead a quiet life.

Harvest Crittenden

United States
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