Harvest Crittenden, 55, dips a pen tip into a bottle of black ink and with a skillful hand draws elegant lines and graceful loops on a piece of creamy calfskin parchment, turning letters and words into works of art.
For more than 30 years, the master calligrapher has used her perfect penmanship to create official documents, sacred text and custom-made invitations for clients ranging from brides-to-be to U.S. presidents.
“Even as a kid, I was particular about my handwriting,” recalls Crittenden, working in the sunny studio of her home in Howell, Mich. (pop. 9,232). “I would rip up a paper not because I had misspelled a word, but because the slant of the letters wasn’t just right.”
Attention to detail long has compelled and inspired Crittenden, who majored in fine arts at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., intending to become an art therapist. Questioning her career path, she left school in the mid-1970s and headed to Flagstaff, Ariz., but realized she missed her art classes. In 1978, she enrolled in a calligraphy class at Northern Arizona University.
Her first class project featured beautifully penned lyrics from a couple of John Denver songs. “I showed it to a friend, and he bought it on the spot,” she recalls.
After opening a studio and working as a calligrapher in Arizona for several years, Crittenden returned to Michigan in 1999 with her husband, Larry, and daughter, Emily, to be closer to family.
Today, working at her home-based business Acorn Arts, Crittenden creates decorative nameplates, certificates and proclamations, book illustrations and title pages, and gift art for special occasions. Her clients have included the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the University of Michigan, the Smithsonian Institution and the White House.
During the last five years, she also has taught her skills through workshops on the art of handwriting, illustrated prayer, decorative borders and ornamental lettering. Calligraphy guilds, religious organizations, art studios and bookbinders invite her to teach others how to turn ordinary words into stunning art.
Crittenden says calligraphy as a hobby requires only paper, ink, rulers, erasers and a few dip pens. But her tools of the trade as a professional are more extensive: old-fashioned quills, penholders and tips, paintbrushes, inks, gold leaf, watercolor paper, and sheets of calfskin and goatskin. She also uses a computer, printer and scanner to send designs and rough drafts to clients and duplicate custom-designed certificates, which are hand finished with a recipient’s name or other personalization.
In 2010, Crittenden was named a Master Penman by the International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers, and Teachers of Handwriting. The organization’s 700 members seek to preserve the golden age of penmanship of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when handwriting colleges taught beautiful writing that was used in both business and social settings.
“The better your handwriting, the more employable you were, the wealthier and better educated you looked,” Crittenden explains. “Beautiful handwriting was an indication of social grace, and was also a valuable business skill.”
To earn the Master Penman title, Crittenden had to prove her proficiency in the calligraphic arts, including illumination, broad and pointed pen lettering, Spencerian script, and engrossing, the art of hand lettering official documents such as certificates, resolutions and proclamations.
“It’s not something you do on a whim,” says Crittenden, who devoted a year to perfecting her lettering skills under the tutelage of Michael Sull, director of the Spencerian Saga, a program dedicated to teaching the penmanship style of Platt Rogers Spencer, the Father of American Handwriting.
Sull calls Crittenden his best student. “There are people who have skill in lettering, but Harvest goes beyond that,” says Sull, 62, of Mission, Kan. “She brings a love of writing, a joy in personal expression, and an understanding of the heritage and history behind American penmanship that inspires and encourages people.”