Photos by Steve Smith, VisionFire Studios
Laura Lavender dips the nib of her fountain pen into a vintage porcelain ink well sitting on her desk next to a piece of milky-smooth paper. As she presses down ever so slightly on the nib and flexing the tines, the ink fills the space at the tip, and she begins to make her first strokes of beautiful writing that defines the art of calligraphy.
Calligraphy comes from the Greek words kallos meaning beauty and graphein, meaning to write. Long before the printing press, the first documents and books were written with calligraphy. Today it is considered a form of art, nearly-lost style of wondrous handwriting that has been evaporating into the ether, but is now gaining a new appreciation in a world where expediency rules the day.
As Laura demonstrates her art from the study of her new home on George Street in New Glasgow, two little girls, Julia Rose and Celeste, bounce in the anticipation of a family camping trip they will be leaving for later in the day. It’s a living oxymoron of stillness and movement. The desk jiggles a bit and Laura in a voice as gentle as her hold on her pen asks the girls to be careful while she does her lettering. Julia Rose, who is six years old with a joyful open smile accentuated by a few missing baby teeth, tells me she is going to be a famous artist someday. Celeste, four, nods her head smiling with approval, as if saying it will be so.
While Laura continues her lettering, I chat with her partner Aaron and 11-year-old Oliver and learn a little more about the family’s journey to the east coast. Today’s camping trip will be the first one since they travelled across Canada from Vancouver Island to Nova Scotia, popping their tent up most nights and experiencing many of the country’s national parks along the way.
The move east was for a change of lifestyle and perhaps a chance for a farm property. They almost had such a property in Malagash shortly after they arrived. The sale fell through, and they found themselves in New Glasgow, on the corner of George and Temperance Street in a century home that was given many years of love from the families who made their life there before. They painted it a sunny yellow and have been busy putting their own touches on a home that will shine with their own uniqueness; a house where creativity, imagination, curiosity, and love abide.
On our first meeting, Laura had shared how Nova Scotia had always been a fascination. She grew up in Nanaimo, and Aaron, who came of age in Spain, has East Coast roots. His father’s people are from the southwest region of the province. The couple dreamed of owning a farm, something that is largely unattainable on the other coast. While they love their big yellow house, there is still a niggling for a bigger property where they can extend their gardens, another one of their shared passions. Not adverse to change, the couple packed up the accoutrements of their West Coast life and set their course for the east—just a few months before the welcome mat to Nova Scotia was rolled up and put on a back shelf, only to be dusted off again this summer.
The couple had to hit pause on making new connections. Like everyone else, the pandemic gave way to more time in their home. They worked on their renovation plans, although found it tough to make progress with little access to the trades. They home-schooled their children, something that had been part of their original plan, and worked on their own projects. Aaron, a musician, and writer, wrapped up a book and published it in 2020. He owns his own book publishing company, but that’s a story for another day. Aaron also busied himself making a composting fence that borders the property. Apparently, Aaron is crafty too.
On my first meeting with Laura the week before when we chatted in her garden, she told me that she fell in love with calligraphy when she was 12, whiling away hours practicing the technique. Saying that you don’t need a divine gift to be an artist it appears to come naturally for Laura. On meeting her for the first time there is something about her presence that emanates an artistic spirit, and you know it is something she was born with. She holds a fine arts degree in painting from the University of Montreal and studied astronomy in Alberta—she is not the first artist to be fascinated with the night sky.
While it seems that art is part of who she is, Laura has made a good living as both an illustrator and calligrapher. Her specialty is copperplate, using flexible metal nibs and a looser modern pointed pen style that is now seen popping up in home décor. She has made quite a name for herself. You can find her as an instructor on the website Craftsy, a huge U.S.-owned platform with more than 1,500 classes with instructions for almost anything handmade you can get your hands on. Laura teaches fundamentals to the calligraphy-curious through the steps of selecting the right pen, ink, and paper to making their own elegant, lettered works of art. She has published her own book, Creative Lettering and Beyond: Timeless Calligraphy. On the introduction page Laura writes “I’m certain that as long as people have been communicating visually, there has been both a need and a desire to do it beautifully.”
Before the move and pandemic, Laura was often kept busy with lettering fancy invitations for weddings and other celebrations. She has been featured in several wedding publications and has an impressive client list including American Greetings, Vogue, Guess, Artizia, and many other brands that have become household names.
Some of her most gratifying work has been teaching young people the skills of lettering.
“Most children are not taught handwriting these days,” says Lavender. “There is a whole generation that is losing this very basic skill.”
She believes that by age eight most children have the developmental skills to begin the practice of calligraphy. Back in BC, she worked with school children.
“I think children are all so busy these days that when they have the chance to slow down, they really enjoy it. I think that is why calligraphy is so appealing, even for tough teenage boys.
After the move and the onset of the pandemic, Laura saw her well of commercial work start to dry up. Thinking about the need for people to stay connected and for beautiful things in their lives she started a new aspect of her business, Need a Letter.
“In this very digital world, it’s nice to make a connection with the people we care about with something that is made by hand. It’s so lovely to get a letter, a real letter in the mail,” she says.
By simply entering the address of the person you wish to send a letter to, Lavender will write a simple note that lets the recipient know they are special to the sender. You can find the link to Need at Letter on her website lauralavender.com.
As the little girls’ excitement for the end-of-summer camping trip, the promise of S’mores, and perhaps the novelty of a photoshoot happening in their home continues to escalate, Laura stays composed at her desk. I have asked her to write the title for this story.
“You know calligraphy is very good for your brain,” says Laura. “It actually works both sides.”
She had told me earlier that when she is writing for someone else there is no time to daydream, she is completely engaged and she needs to remove her “self” from the process.
I can’t help but think that the process also takes a lot of patience—something most of us need to practice more often and something that both Laura and her partner Aaron had to embrace moving across the country and creating a new home for their family during these unusual times.
Laura finishes the lettering. At Home with Laura Lavender. I don’t think we have ever had a story headline that looked as pretty.
Wrapping up our visit to the happy yellow house on George Street. I learn that the family is headed to Parrsboro, a little drive west on the North Shore where you can dig in the mud and sift through the shells hunting for fossils and evidence of what the world used to be like at another time.