Interview: Carla Hagan
Carla Hagan is a professional calligrapher and engraver based in West Palm Beach, Florida (USA). She specializes in wedding calligraphy for invitations, envelopes, place cards, programs, menus, and seating charts, and takes on commissions for bar-mitzvahs, galas, and charity events.
We're thrilled to have Carla on board as a Calligrafile Contributor. Apart from being an accomplished artist, Carla has done great work for her peers. This year, she published Trade Practices and Pricing Guidelines for Professional Calligraphers, an industry-wide survey of American calligraphers' rates. An overview of the average prices for wedding calligraphy around the U.S. were published in part at Style Me Pretty: Wedding 101: Calligraphy Pricing Decoded. The full text, and a more in-depth look at the survey's results, will be coming to Calligrafile soon!
I interviewed Carla via email to find out about her start in hand lettering and her advice for other freelance calligraphers. Read on for Carla's story of letter writing with her grandma, her first calligraphy kit, her Hawaiian roots, and her early career as a pastry chef!
What got you started doing calligraphy? Did you have formal training, teach yourself, or a combination of the two?
As a child, I remember watching my grandmother write elegant letters long before email and the internet, when handwritten correspondence was less a labor of love and more a currency of communication.
Since we lived in different parts of the country, my grandmother and I would often communicate through such letters. I fondly remember waiting in anticipation for her mail, and always being impressed with the quality of her handwriting.
On my 10th birthday, my grandmother gave me my first calligraphy kit, and I immediately fell in love with the written word. I taught myself basic Italic and Copperplate scripts as a preteen. Ever since, I have taken advantage of this unique skill whenever possible—whether it’s writing out invitations, or completing special projects for friends and family.
My formal training began many years later, when I decided to turn my pastime into a business. Around this time, I joined the International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers and Teachers of Handwriting (IAMPETH) and began to attend their annual conferences. There, I met many of my dearest friends, grew my skills amongst my enlightened peers, and learned in the awe-inspiring shadows of the Masters. Today, I continue to attend professional workshops throughout the year.
I have been working with brides and event planners for the past 12 years, and have gained a confident understanding of wedding traditions and etiquette. I am happy to help all my clients design invitations, learn the pros and cons of seating charts, place cards, and escort cards, and maybe even select special touches they haven't yet considered.
What is your favorite type of project to do for a client? What about your favorite project to do for yourself?
My favorite professional projects are often custom commissions that clients plan to gift to a loved one. It is an unparalleled pleasure to be contacted by a past bride or groom and asked to write out wedding vows for an anniversary gift.
In addition to heartfelt gestures, I also enjoy designing and crafting custom monograms and logos. I know that no matter what the business or individual goes on to do, my personalized symbol of their enterprise or namesake will represent them for years.
When I am practicing my calligraphy, I enjoy watercolor sketchbook journaling—a cathartic exercise I learned from Janet Takahashi—or working on special gifts for family and friends. Simply by practicing my passion, I can produce birth announcements, cards, poems, and other gifts for my friends and family members.
Can you tell us about the most unusual – or difficult – commission you’ve worked on to date?
A few years ago, I was contacted by a bride to write out a 150-guest seating chart on an 8-foot-by-4-foot antique mirror. Due to the size of the mirror, I had to complete the entire project on-site at the Norton Museum of Art during a period of 12 hours. Since then, I have developed a system for executing large pieces—which are most often massive mirror or chalkboard seating charts.
Photography of first two images by Chelsey Boatwright; all others by Carla Hagan
As a creative freelancer, how do you combat creative burnout and stay motivated?
I am always looking for new mediums on which to use my calligraphy. From agates and tile to marble and magnolia leaves, each of these mediums presents a new challenge and requires me to fine tune my skills.
This past year, I added hand engraving to my portfolio. Working with distributors nationwide, I use my calligraphy skills to hand-engrave wine and liquor bottles, glass chalices, perfumes, and more. The addition of engraving services has allowed me to break up my usual routine, come face-to-face with appreciative clients, and attend on-site events in exciting destinations throughout the country.
Apart from thousands of hours worth of honed calligraphic skill, what are the other most important skills that a freelance calligrapher should possess if they want to monetize their craft?
I feel that having a sense of humor and a great deal of patience is essential in this field. As a professional calligrapher, you end up working with a lot of people in the wedding industry ranging from professional planners to first-time brides. I find that I must gently guide my clients through the process—such as explaining styles of calligraphy as well as best practices for addressing invitations and day-of elements—helping them to develop their wedding vision along the way.
Having a supportive family is crucial to my work as well. I find that most creatives work best at night when all is quiet and still. This environment often results in late nights, some that extend into the early morning. I appreciate all of the understanding my family has for my unorthodox working hours.
Do you have a hidden talent, hobby, or nerdy interest that you don’t usually share?
I was born and raised in Hawaii until I was almost 20. As a child, I learned the hula, as well as several Tahitian dances. After leaving Oahu, I moved to New York City where I attended the International Culinary Center and studied to become a pastry chef. After graduation, I worked at Windows on the World, once located at the top of the Twin Towers. I moved to Florida to start a family, not yet knowing my calligraphy business would soon bloom where I was planted!