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Columbia Missourian

Local artist expresses herself through calligraphy

By Jen Pircon
December 8, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST
Michele Keele, a professional calligraphy artist, owns The Artist’s Hand on West Broadway. Keele produces a variety of calligraphy work, including invitations, poetry, scrapbooking material, mailing addresses, wedding programs and reception items, certifications and more.

COLUMBIA — Michele Keele has called herself a “paper and cursive freak” since the eighth grade.

Keele used to write everything in perfect script, even her grocery lists, before she channeled the passion into a studio she opened 17 years ago.

Today, Keele is a professional calligraphy artist who owns The Artist’s Hand on West Broadway. Over the years she has provided hand-written text for government agencies, nonprofit organizations, private clients and MU.

Keele produces a variety of calligraphy work, including invitations, poetry, scrapbooking material, mailing addresses, wedding programs and reception items, and certifications.

Clients help her choose the color palette, font, style, ink, paper and size. An order of 150 personally designed invitations with addressed envelopes ranges from $2,500 to $3,500.

The art of beautiful writing is one of the oldest artistic and literary forms known to mankind, one that has been adapted to vastly different alphabets — Western, Arabic, Asian, Hebrew and Cyrillic. 

Western calligraphy is based on the Latin writing system, and monks played a key role by carefully transcribing texts from the Bible into decorative books, according to an article on the art of calligraphy by Marianne Elliott, a librarian in South Africa.

In Arabic calligraphy, the cursive script is written from right to left with 18 distinct shapes that combine to produce 28 letters. Arabic calligraphers often use colored ink, and the traditional instrument is the qalam, a pen made of dried reed or bamboo.

The Chinese developed a complicated writing technique that uses more than 1,500 characters. Chinese calligraphers go through extensive practice, as well as meditation, before they master the spontaneous brush strokes of each symbol.

In recent years, Russian calligraphers have furthered their art in collaboration with the Contemporary Museum of Calligraphy in Moscow.

Today, calligraphy has evolved from a strictly formal art into a more expressive one. Keele said that allows her to experiment more widely in her work.

“When I first started calligraphy, it was very formal and somewhat antique," she said. “Now, it has really freed me to be more expressive and not just focus on the technical preciseness of letter, but the art overall.”

Her desk’s drawers are filled with her calligraphy tools— one has more than 1,000 Esterbrook silver nibs she has collected from antique shops and on eBay.

“Nibs are like shoes,” she said. “You can never have too many of them.”

They come in dozens of shapes and sizes to match styles of typography. Broad strokes like the ones in Old English script are made using a blunt, rectangular-shaped nib. The thickness of the stroke is determined by the angle of the nib.

Keele has mastered more than 15 fonts, most adapted to the fine-point lettering she uses in elegant cursive such as 18th century copperplate or Spencerian scripts.

Other drawers in her studio hold rows and rows of ink jars in various colors. Keele sometimes combines inks to create a custom color for a client. Her favorite black ink is called “Moon Palace” and smells of perfume.

When creating a piece, Keele places a sheet of paper on an illuminated metal box with embedded vertical and horizontal lines. These lines act as a guide to keep her piece symmetrical.

Each stroke of the pen is delicate and steady. Keele keeps her movements slow and deliberate to prevent smudging. Occasionally, she pulls out a magnifying glass to closely study the shape of the letters.

Most of her education in calligraphy has been self-taught and perfected with repetition. Although she has taken calligraphy classes, she regularly turns to books and the Internet for instruction.

The key to her success, she said, is “practice, practice and more practice.”

Joan Merrell, a member of the St. Louis Calligraphy Guild, lives in Jefferson City and sells her work through her Letter Design Studio.

Today, calligraphers can tap into the almost universal admiration for things that are hand-done.

“Years ago it was considered important to do lettering that looked much like typography," Merrell said, "but now it's considered more important to somehow show that it is hand-done."

Keele agrees: "There is this movement of appreciation of things that are done by hand. It builds this new level of excitement for people.”

Keele said she completes at least 200 projects a year. The average time for the completion of a project can range from two weeks to several months depending on the size and details of the order.

Calligraphers today have to navigate the digital world while working with an ancient medium.

“Clients want everything to arrive in digital form,” Merrell said. “Now I can design a wedding invitation for someone anywhere in the world and e-mail them a high-resolution scan for them to get printed locally.”

After 17 years of operating The Artist’s Hand, Keele still feels fortunate that she discovered a career where she can do what she loves all day.

“After all these years, I still get to say, 'Oh, look at me; look what I get to do,'” Keele said. “And I feel very lucky.”