COLUMBIA — In high school, Karen Spears' classmates would hand her their notebooks with this request:
"Take it and do cool stuff to it," they said.
The "cool stuff" was the lettering that made Spears well-known at her all-girls high school in Chicago. Spears could take a set of words and bring them to life with her bold and funky flared writing style. People loved how fun she could make words look on paper.
The demand for Spears’ handwriting progressed from markers on notebooks to painted canvases. All the while, Spears saw it as second nature.
A freshman at MU majoring in journalism, Spears, 18, owns an art business she calls The Korean Pears. Run out of her dorm room, she makes colorful, abstract paintings built around hand-lettered sayings or quotes.
Since she began the business last year at home, Spears estimates that she has sold at least 100 canvases through Quirks Consignment Store, a consignment store at MU that sells student art, and on Etsy.com.
What is surprising is that she has had no formal training in art — her ability evolved from handwriting.
Always an artist
Spears recalls her high school teachers telling her that she had "penmanship that resembles a font." She was always doodling in her notebooks and giving her class notes elaborate designs.
When a classmate gave her $26 to draw a quote from a favorite Dr. Seuss book, she landed her first order.
Spears bought a stack of canvases that day, which certainly came in handy because she was flooded with requests after the first one was a hit.
"I didn't seek art," she said. "Art just chose me."
Spears taught herself everything she knows and has simply gone with her artistic instincts. Hesitant to call herself an actual artist because of her lack of training, she defines her talent exactly as it is — making letters look good.
"I am specifically a lettering artist," she said.
She uses a marker and acrylic paint on a white canvas to make one-of-a-kind artwork that is freely illustrated by hand.
Korean Pears, a "spinoff of Karen Spears," was the name a friend gave her the first day they met in summer camp. She wanted something cute and quirky to call her business that sold cute and quirky art. The Korean Pears was perfect.
Why Quirks just Works
When Spears arrived at MU, Quirks was opening in the MU Student Center.
Spears said she was surprised to discover an outlet on campus for her canvases.
"So you're telling me I can make my art and put it in here?" Spearssaid she asked a Quirks employee.
Her first canvas sold in two days.
"All of her canvases have sold out," said Alex Davis, an intern at Quirks. "She can't make it fast enough for the people that buy it."
Meaning beyond the paint
As soon as she completes one of her hand-painted canvases, Spears posts it on Instagram. She credits the popular picture hub for expanding her audience.
When a woman from California contacted her via Instagram, she felt even more validated as an artist.
"Since I moved to Instagram, it really unfolded super fast," she said.
It is more than just pretty writing and doodles that attract people to Spears' work. Every piece she makes is filled with an array of colors that complement an inspirational or motivational quote. She asks customers to describe what they want and tailors the canvas to fit their personalities.
A canvas that reads "Become your best self" hangs on Ashantia Day's dorm room wall at the College of Staten Island in New York. According to Day, 18, it is important for college students to have this kind of reminder for motivation.
"I really think that her work is kind of therapeutic," Day said. "Her work holds substance."
It was especially meaningful to Spears when someone ordered a canvas for a good friend because the two women were about to separate for college. Spears painted these words around their photographs:
"Whatever way our stories end, I know you'll have rewritten mine by being my friend."
She said the final product brought tears to their eyes.
"It just touched my heart because I have the power to do that, to make a friendship solid," Spears said.
People also come to Spears to help them celebrate holidays, including Mother's Day and birthdays.
"It's my handwriting," she said. "I will always have the talent, and I am grateful for that."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.