"Honour the Space Between No Longer and Not Yet" with Calligrapher Carmen Yuen

"Honour the Space Between No Longer and Not Yet" with Calligrapher Carmen Yuen

Don't want to read? Listen to the full conversation on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

To start, what is calligraphy?

In short, it's a visual art using different writing tools like brushes, quills, pens using different nibs and ink. So it's not quite the same as handwriting, but it's using writing tools to create different letterforms.

Carmen and I have known each other for a very long time. We got to know each other through our creative work and Instagram, developing what I like to call an LDF -a long distance friendship. Carmen's a born and raised Calgarian just like me, but she's moved around. Since you've moved back to Calgary, we've gotten together and really discovered just how much we have in common.  

To stay on the topic of calligraphy, I had a calligraphy set when I was younger, and I played around with the nibs, the different colored inks, and I loved it, but I never had the patience to keep up with it. But I'm kind of obsessed with it because it's like the ultimate in appreciating the written word, because these days, we're always sending like casual texts and emails.  So there's something really special about hand lettering. 

So could you start with your creative journey and how you got into all of this?

I grew up in Calgary, and spent time in Vancouver, and most recently in Toronto.  In each of the places, you know more about yourself when you are on your own: restarting, making new friends, different phases of your life- a lot of existential traveling.  My biggest creative influence has been music. I was brought up doing classical training in violin.  I learned a lot about discipline and practice. As a kid, art class was my favourite and I liked to dabble in a lot of things like coloring and sketching. A few times I would go into this big bubble for like six hours, just drawing.  It was like this artistic high that I was so addicted to but I was pretty young. I spent years trying to find that same buzz again through different mediums and never quite found it.

I didn't really start calligraphy until nine years ago, in Toronto. I saw people were posting videos of themselves on IG doing calligraphy.  It was so mesmerizing, and I just had to know about it.  Through IG I met other people, had discussions and made it a real life experience rather than me doing it alone. You don't need many supplies or a big space to start calligraphy so living in a shoebox in Toronto this was convenient. I was working full time as a teacher and it was easy to put in a few hours of practice after work and put it away. 

Is it the practice of putting pen to paper that connects you to your creative core and made you stick with it?

Calligraphy is not easy to get the hang of, for me, at least. I think I was just really motivated to practice to get to that level where I would see results that would appear on my paper.  It took many hours, many years. Calligraphy is not at all like handwriting, there are certain forms and strokes to practice and it forces you to slow down.  I think forcing your pen to slow down, seeing the strokes go from thin to thick is mesmerizing, it's happening in front of you, and it's in slow motion.  That's what hooked me, but it wasn't instant.

That reminds me of when I started doing jewelry. I would see a lot of people making jewelry on IG with really simple basic tools and was inspired by that.  That it's not impossible for me to get to the place that I want to be just through continuous trial and error and practice.

Before you came, I actually did a little bit of research because I was thinking about the samples of handwriting that I've seen in textbooks from back from the 1800s, 1900s and I was thinking people back then had really good handwriting!  So I looked this up -is this true? Did everybody focus on producing handwriting that looks really good or neat? And it turns out that the things that we see in textbooks or online are just samples and even back then there were people who wrote messy, like me!

It reminds me of when I went to a museum in Austria, and it was a piece of sheet music. It was reportedly Mozart's theory homework and he had scratched a doodle on the side of the piece of music.  I think you're right, that standard of the laypersons' handwriting has changed over time and the expectations have changed.  Without going into too much detail in history, there have been forms started by several people as a standard with really specific rules hundreds of years ago. It had to do with the types of pens, paper and ink that were available at the time.  These people were generally the go-to writers because not everybody was literate, or able to write. So they had a standard form of writing. And it's changed over time, as pens changed, print changed, people are able to create multiple prints with machines and so on. The cursive handwriting that you may have learned in elementary school is a very simplified version of copperplate. calligraphy, which was around in the 1700s.  There's so much debate these days about if kids should still be learning handwriting.

I was like, okay, did we just decline as a society, and our handwriting has gone to crap, because we're not practicing as much? But I'm just realizing now, there were specific jobs that people had as calligraphers or as writers of manuscripts. So I feel like you're keeping a part of history alive.  Is that how you feel about it?

I definitely joke that it's a super old lady art! It's a slow art and I think knowing the roots of a lot of our habits and practices is fascinating.  Even though it feels like we're losing the former standard of handwriting, digital writing, so to speak, is at the forefront of how we communicate today. If you think about Times New Roman, and how letters were formed back then on stone- chipping away with rock and a hammer- that's where some of those roots come from.  So type, print and fonts also have a long history.

What's your creative process like?

With becoming a parent, my process has changed a lot.  I'm very fortunate to be a parent and privileged to have the time to spend with my daughter. But it does mean a lot of stepping back and letting go of control of my time and schedule.  It can be very frustrating, because it takes time to get into a creative flow. So I've learned to break down the whole process into very minute, tiny steps. I was working full time last year, in Toronto, and taking the subway to work.  This meant that in my morning commute I had seven minutes to work.  I would decide to make one creative decision on the bus ride, like picking a colour palette for a project.  And that's how I'm going through it now. Some days I have a bit more time, some days my time is unexpectedly taken away and that's how it is for now. Some days, I have to step back and say, I can't do it, I need a rest.

I also feel the same about motherhood -it's made me so much more efficient. To most people, without kids, like seven minutes is nothing. But for us parents, I feel like oh my gosh, seven minutes, I'm gonna do this thing and it's gonna get done

And that's the time that I have. And some people say, that's exhausting and some days it is. So some days, I do nothing in seven minutes and whatever, you let it go. But it does mean that my whole process will take twice as long, sometimes three times as long as if I were in a different circumstance.

For the most part, my calligraphy work is for custom projects. For people who would like a print in their home, a piece for their wedding, or someone's putting a style shoot together, etc.  For weddings, I do welcome signs, small pieces of items for reception tables, and big table runners.  They can be from 4 feet to 10 feet long. Some of these pieces I can't pre plan but I do do the drafting. I do measurements, the math takes, surprisingly, a lot more time than I thought it would in this job.  For the table runners I don't draft with pencil because they're so long.  I'm able to estimate number of words per foot, just knowing the size of my hand produces a certain size of letters as I'm writing. And I know that one line can probably fit two to three words. To ensure the words are straight, I've created a giant slider writer with a laser that slides along one side to create a straight line. It's muscle memory, a lot of practice and just knowing the spacing with my eye. So it's a lot of practice for sure. If it's not maintained, then I do lose that a little bit.

For a few pieces I am starting with drafts, I do do work on my tablet because it's convenient. It's convenient to transfer files and I can redo an edit. It's not the same as by hand. In the end, if I print them both out, can you really tell down to the minute detail the difference? Maybe if you've trained. Nothing quite compares to a nib with ink. It's straight from the muscles in your hand. You can see movement through it. So there's something special about that. And I would like to one day just really focus on hand lettering with paper and ink. It's the real deal. Right now I'm at a medium balance with working digitally and working on paper.

Does it almost feel like you're cheating when you're using a tablet?

It feels like it for sure. I use ProCreate. I can double tap my fingers to undo a mistake. And it's become so habit that sometimes on paper, I've double tapped paper.  I have huge respect for digital artists, my sister's a digital artist, and it takes a lot of practice and to learn the programs. It takes skill to know how to use the different pens and brushes.  You can control the pressure, the jitter, the taper, everything about how the digital pen appears on an iPad. It does take a lot of refinement of even a digital pen to control it and to adjust it right down to how my own hand muscles make it appear on my digital paper. I have drafted guidelines to train my letters, the spacing between, above and below letters, the length of my strokes, the cross bars, and where I place your tittles (that's the dot on the letter "I"). These are all regulated in traditional calligraphy. And I can do the same thing on my iPad.

Carmen's tablet work

I also wanted to touch upon being Chinese Canadian (both Carmen and I are Chinese Canadian) and how it's impacted your creative journey. For me, I've always felt the sense of being "the other", someone who doesn't quite fit in.  Part of it has to do with my identity, not growing up with the same culture as my friends, but also my own personality, too. I've never been the type to want something that everybody else wants. I've always actively tried to be a little weird. So I spent a lot of my youth and young adulthood being not cool. And I'm just gonna say right now, I'm still not cool.  But through my creativity, I found a lot of self acceptance, and have found that I've been able to connect  with others just like me.  What's your experience been like?

That's a very loaded question.  It's been an identity crisis since I was literally in third grade when you realize how people look and you know, my daughter's four she doesn't really perceive it right now. She doesn't seem to notice it. But as you get older, there are nuances. You notice the habits in your home are different versus your friends. There's a certain understanding and like you said, feeling "othered" and as you grow and and go through your life experiences, it persists.  How do I bring my this identity into this new phase of my life and being a mother combined with this has been an extra large identity crisis. Because you're teaching somebody who carries now half of this identity as well.  I think that she may well have her own thoughts about it one day, and how do I influence that? How do I impact that and not bias it too much? Like you, I was also a little intentionally weird. I wasn't rebel kid but I like to think that I didn't want to conform.  I wasn't into the boy bands or the girly girl fashion through high school. And I still like to think I want to do my own thing.

In one way, you're living some cliche experiences, like the suburban stay at home mom life, but that's just a surface layer. There's so much more beneath it. For example, some people say the BIPOC artist is also becoming cliche, but I don't agree with that. I think every person's journey is their own. If they want to express it through art, and find themselves through their art that's great and should be shared because it's an experience that is actually common between a lot of people, more than we think. And I wish I had known that when I was younger.

So I've used it as part of my artistic inspiration, using it as a narrative: I've lived in a lot of places, I'm from a lot of places, I have roots in more places than I realize, and they've all influenced me. They're not all good places that I'm from. There's bad memories, there's good memories, there's things that have made me the good and the bad, but you need to accept all of it. And that's what makes you you, in whatever place you're currently in your life. So I'm still working through it, but I'm using it in my illustrations and the words I'm choosing for calligraphy and hoping to find a way I can share that's meaningful, at least for me.

For me growing up, I don't think this was what I saw myself doing. But it's becoming more and more of who I am. I'm realizing I'm a creative type of person and I didn't fully accept it growing up because of family/parents but also society. I remember as a kid, my classmates would ask me for help with math questions. I may look like I'm very good at math, but I am not, you know. So growing up with those sort of things really influenced the path that I took in early adulthood- trying to live up to expectations. Now I'm just realizing if I didn't have those influences, maybe I would have stepped into my creative life a little earlier. Now I'm taking those experiences and bringing it forward, like you say. I see younger Asians now embracing all of that.  I feel like we had more of a struggle, even though it's only been maybe 10-15 years.  I do feel having that experience enhances the creativity a bit more, for me, at least because I have this like place of, I don't want to call it pain-

It's a little chip on my shoulder.

It kind of motivates me, and brings me into my creative place a little easier, because I have that what you call a little chip on my shoulder. Some people say the best art comes from a dark place. You have to feel some sort of pain to be able to create really good art.

It's existential grief, the human condition and the state that we're in on this planet. How do you process it? How do you experience it for yourself?  Some people have say it loud and some people need to find other ways. Upbringing has really affected me as well.  Being Chinese, other art forms that are not traditional Chinese art forms are very much an afterthought in my family.  It wasn't encouraged as a means of self expression, or even as a career choice. It was a point of grief I think for a lot of creative people my family who had their find their own way.  It is unfortunate because there's so much to say as a young person too and you don't always have means or the outlet for it. So culture clashed with Western hobbies equals chip on shoulder-

Equals good art.

Angsty adult art.

For someone who wants to start learning calligraphy, could you describe some of the tools you first started with and what tools you have now?

Pen and paper is a very loaded question. Pens are the largest variety item in my studio, as is paper. There's different weights, different sizes, different transparency but to start with, I think good copy paper is going to be a little bit smoother. But if you start with plain copy paper, it's not the end of the world either. If you want to learn traditional calligraphy there's starter nibs, pens and plain black ink you can get at any art store. The other route some people take is brush calligraphy and there's a lot of brush pens out there. Actually, the best tool for starting brush calligraphy is a thick Crayola marker.   You can make thin and thick strokes and it's a really great way to see how you hold the pen, how you maneuver it to get different strokes if you press harder versus lighter.

Generally most learning tutorials, you'll see people who offer workbooks will have a version of copper plate which is a style of calligraphy that came about in the 1700's. There are tons of videos on YouTube, many people offer tutorials on Instagram and others who offer workbooks/courses.  

I think calligraphy got popular online in the last few years. Before that happened, I went through a pen hoarding past because it was hard to get the tools. I've tried to pare down, now that I know which ones I like to use and not keep more than I need. But because I work on a lot of different surfaces, I need different pens for different projects. So sometimes I'm using a brush pen or nib and ink for paper. I use paint markers if I'm working on glass, metal or plastic. I'm currently doing engraving as well, so I do have a drill for engraving on glass, plastics, bottles (wine and perfume).  Every surface is different and I'm trying to bring calligraphy to different types of surfaces.

Do you have any other advice for beginners?

My advice is just to slow down. Take it very slow, day by day, minute practice and build strong starting skills, basic strokes. The more you put in, you'll have results. I think we live in an age of instantaneous result. And this is not one of them, unfortunately.

There's about five basic strokes you do with your pen: straight line down, straight line up, curve line down, curb line up, a bubble that looks like a wave and a circle. Pieced together they make the shapes of all the letters and this is how calligraphy is different than handwriting.  These basic strokes are points of practice for even the most practiced penman/penwoman.  They are good for warmups and ongoing practice.  And most importantly, just enjoy it, it's very therapeutic and slow.

It sounds like meditation and you really need to focus on the present.
Do you have any challenges or obstacles with your creative process?

The one that stands out for me is working on different surfaces. You have to know how to troubleshoot on all different surfaces. So if I'm working on a piece of plastic, acrylic versus glass versus wood versus different types of types of paper, and all sudden your ink is bleeding, it's going everywhere or you made a mistake. How do you backtrack? There's no double tap for that. And so a lot of your practice and experience comes down to how do I work the surface and nail polish remover works for one thing, but it will smudge permanently another item. So that has been a huge obstacle for me and to feel comfortable with different surfaces. With time and just knowing what you work with and keeping just you know your main materials and not venturing out too much. And also having the right people to lean on, for example I used to look up to Doris who is seasoned with writing on different surfaces when I was first starting out (she has a book called "Extraordinary Hand Lettering").

Do you ever use whiteout? Correction tape?

No, never.  It turns out that there's very few paper that use that is the same colour! 

Are there other creators or calligraphers you know, in your space that you admire?

When I started doing calligraphy, I found this massive community online and a lot of them were based in Toronto. Toronto is a very large city for one thing, but has a huge creative hub of different people, different mediums, different types of artists and handlettering/graffiti artists are huge there.  I am grateful to have met so many of them and work with them on different levels and get to know them in different ways. My three, I have to shout at are Grace, Erica and Kris. We started a group called the Toronto Lettering Crew together, years back. It was a casual place for people to sit down together, bring their pens and started out with maybe six of us. We sat in a cafe on Bloor Street with a notebook and little pencil bag. It got to be really popular. It was really nice- a no expectations place to hang out. There was beer, cake and snacks. It got to the point where we had to create an event and we had maybe 50-75 people wanting to come and just sit together and talk. And it was a safe place to try something new. Some people had never done it before, some people had done it for many years. So I miss that for sure.  We took a pause during the pandemic.  I hope one day it'll make a resurgence. 

!Rapid Fire Questions!

What is the one tool in your studio that you can't live without?

It's called a Tombow Fudensuke pen. It's a plain brush pen from Japan and it's super!

What advice would you give your younger self about starting a creative small business?

Stop waiting for someone's permission to try things.

What would your dream collaboration be?

I would love to make a piece that might appear on a large wall, like a mural. If I could have copperplate, on a 10 foot wall, I think it'd be really beautiful. And maybe it it was part of a movie set or something.

What place does calligraphy have in today's world?

I do think that there is a lot of beauty in the small things.  We live in a fast paced, instantaneous, grab and go world. And the older I get, the more I feel like I'm going backwards a little bit, I want to slow down, I want to appreciate where things come from.  How do we get to where we are today? And how has writing handwriting or fonts contribute to my daily communication? Calligraphy is something tiny, something very small, minute that may have taken a very long time to make, and it's just hundreds of years of history, sitting on a piece of paper for you.

Wow, what a profound statement, I love it. I don't think a lot of people realize that. When you go to markets, do people realize that? 

The one question I always get at markets is whether I made it by hand.  I'm thinking, if I did this by pulling it off somewhere online, it could be way easier for me! But we have adopted a lot of digital artwork, and the rise of AI art is a whole other conversation, but I think there's always something for down to the handmade items. 

You write a lot of quotes, what is your favourite quote? 

I have one that I've been practicing since I first started and it still rings true for me now. It goes "Honour the space between no longer and not yet". I guess it kind of makes me slow down and just be in the moment, be here.

The key points I took from my conversation with Carmen is firstly, the importance of being present, and how a creative practice like calligraphy can help us do just that. And secondly, to slow down and appreciate the small things like calligraphy, which has a long global history and tradition. And lastly, that our own unique life experiences are the foundation from which we grow and draw inspiration and motivation. 

You can find Carmen on IG @thunderloftpaper and her work on www.thunderloftpaper.com

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