An Interview with Hannah Holder


FH: How did you first know that visual art was what you wanted to do?

Pencil etching

Bleak House; Hannah Holder ©2002

HH: I liked to draw and color as far back as I can remember.  I don’t remember when I might have first stated that I wanted to become an artist.  I know I thought about teaching (my dad was a 3rd grade teacher, and I did end up doing that my first year out of college), and I considered architecture (still one of my favorite subjects to draw or watercolor) before I settled on art.  I was definitely looking for schools with art programs when I started applying for college and ended up majoring in fine art at Wheaton.  I don’t know that I’m the typical “artist type,” since my personality is more the analytical, precise, reserved end of the spectrum than the artist stereotype; but it’s the details, the colors, the paper textures, the balance of pattern or the illusion of reality that draw me toward making art, generally, and the curves of the strokes, the colors, the attention to layout, and maybe the incorporation of illustration or embellishment that draw me to calligraphy.

FH: Who inspired you and encouraged you along the way?

HH: My parents were certainly the first to give me encouragement in my artistic endeavors.  They made sure the kitchen drawer nearest the fridge had a pile of scrap paper and supplied us with crayons, markers, and colored pencils as our talents increased.  My mom framed a painting I did in middle school, which I’ve offered many times to replace with a better painting, but she’s happy with the “early work.”  In recent years, she’s taken the time to give helpful counsel on layout and to do the nerve-wracking job of proofreading large calligraphy pieces that I can’t proofread, either because I will unintentionally gloss over a mistake, having looked at the piece too long, or because I can’t bear the thought of finding a mistake at the end.  And Dad would jokingly say that my sister and I got our artistic talent from him…that’s why he doesn’t have it anymore!

Parents aside, my senior year at Wheaton I attempted to sign up for a photography class and found it already full.  Looking into other options led me to a continuing adult education program at a nearby community college, which offered an eight-week Gothic Hands calligraphy course with internationally-known calligrapher Timothy Botts.  I was the only one taking the class for credit and by far the youngest, but it was an excellent experience to study with someone in person (versus teaching myself from a book or an online video) and ended up being the foundation for much of the work I do today.  Years later, Mr. Botts took the time to exchange emails with me about calligraphy opportunities in the southeast, and more recently he curated a traveling exhibit through Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), into which I was accepted.  It is an amazing show and a great honor to be exhibiting with those other calligraphers.

Watercolor, gouache, pencil, and ink on Fabriano Artistico paper

There’s No Place Like Home; Hannah Holder ©2015

More recent encouragement has come from locals Buddy and Kathie Odom.  Kathie invited me to join the Tuesday Painters plein air group (a very affirming set of folks), and Buddy told me about the Graceful Envelope Contest hosted by the Washington Calligraphers’ Guild and the National Association of Letter Carriers.  Each entry is based on the year’s theme and must be hand-lettered and illustrated on an actual envelope sent through the postal system.  The first two years I entered I was thrilled to be one of the runners up, and this past year they bowled me over with a Best in Show! Inspiration has also come from medieval manuscripts, HRH Queen Elizabeth II’s calligrapher Donald Jackson, and the playful tessellations of M. C. Escher.

FH: How many pieces do you average in a year?

Gouache, ink, and graphite on Antarctic map

What They Wouldn’t Have Given for a Southern Biscuit; Hannah Holder ©2015

HH: Averaging the last couple of year’s worth, it looks like I might complete about 25-30 pieces of art a year, whether that’s watercolor, calligraphy, drawing, or graphic design work.  That does not count various other freelance jobs I did, like lettering hundreds of wedding invitation envelopes or painting furniture.  For a couple of years I was painting with the Tuesday Painters, a loose gathering of artists who paint en plein air every week.  I also spent a couple months in Europe with my sister in 2013 and painted en plein air in various settings in several different countries.  Many of the paintings from those opportunities are only partially finished, though I hope to have the time someday to finish all of them and show them together.  This year I may complete more than that average.  I’m currently working toward a solo show in conjunction with the 2016 International Biscuit Festival in Knoxville this May.  I hope to have about fifteen pieces ready just for that show.

FH: Are there certain types of passages and phrases to which you gravitate when working on non-commissioned pieces?

HH: The only non-commissioned, non-event driven calligraphy pieces I’ve done revolved around God’s love.  In one piece I took the refrain from Psalm 136, “Give thanks to the Lord…for His love endures forever…” as a background and layered on top of that text truths from throughout the Bible substituted for the less-applicable-to-me verses in Psalm 136 (like “[who] overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea [and] struck down great kings”).  The other piece is alternating verses from the New Testament and stanzas from “O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High” (text by Thomas á Kempis) encircled by the first verse of the hymn “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus.”

When I have time to draw or watercolor for my own pleasure, I gravitate toward small things like leaves and flowers and architectural detail or toward Escher-like tessellations.  Recently I bought at an antique store a huge two volume World Language Dictionary and have really enjoyed drawing images (in ink and watercolor pencil) on individual pages.  So, for the page starting with “teabag,” I have drawn a teacup and PG Tips teabag.  Or for “truck” I drew a Weston’s Biscuits delivery truck.  Nice that it can double for my dictionary page project and the Biscuit Fest!

FH: What value does it add to words to present them with excellence? What do you see as the effect of the sort of visual grace of calligraphy?

Created for Old North Abbey

The Nicene Creed; © Hannah Holder

HH: In an era when anyone can print off a page of text in any font imaginable, and in a culture which rarely values excellence in appealing layout, correct grammar and spelling, and well-thought-out writing, I want to present work that took time and accurate measuring in the planning, careful color mixing, attention to which calligraphic hand (not font) suits the words and the occasion (usually my commissioned pieces are given as an award or a gift), thought behind the choice and placement of supporting illustration, and design unique to a specific occasion.  An excellent rendition of a commonly heard verse, baptismal prayer, list of career achievements, wedding vows, etc., captures the viewer’s gaze, makes him take a fresh look at what he is reading, reminds him of who presented the piece to him or of a memorable occasion, may even stir up unforeseen emotion.  Any of us could easily lose or obscure beautiful words typed out on cheap printer paper, but almost anyone will treasure and display those same words when they are transformed into something graceful, colorful, bold, ghostly, embellished, layered, striking, hand-drawn, or flowing in something other than a straight line.  If all goes well, I can manipulate the words to make some stand out in a fresh way or to make the text flow in a more understandable way, all while making it pleasing to the eye.

FH: How do calligraphy and hand drawing affect you? What are the personal values you find in, to use Jake Weidmann’s phrase, “recording the ergonomics of the human hand?”

HH: Calligraphy is physically draining.  It takes great patience, a steady hand, clear eyes, constant focus, and extremely precise measuring.  I often finish a piece with tense shoulder muscles, a hand that feels like it will go arthritic next year, unfocused eyes, and—sometimes—the realization that I misspelled something in the last line or somehow lost one sixteenth of an inch from one side of the text to the other.  But it’s a successful day if, despite the physical drain, I’m pleased with the overall work, have accomplished something I wasn’t sure I could attain, and meet with a grateful—or better, ecstatic—client.

Drawing can be stressful if I have a particular goal in mind, but more often it is relaxing, and time passes without my being aware of it.  I should make a practice of doing it more often, both for the calm it brings and the increased skill it develops.

Both disciplines certainly hone my powers of observation, remind me of my need for patience, show me where I’m prone to cut corners (and regret it!), and keep striving for that elusive level of excellence that I will be satisfied with.  Family, friends, and even clients are able to overlook what seems like near failure to me, but that adds a needed dose of humility.  I could definitely find myself wishing I had the loose, yet precise hand control of Jake Weidmann.  My work may be precise, but his is precise and fluid, graceful…and on a grand scale.  There’s always much to learn from the likes of him, Timothy Botts, Donald Jackson, and so many other gifted artists and calligraphers who can make their work look both perfect and effortless!  Their patient, skilled craft and abundant creativity are inspiring on many planes.

FH: You end up painting some in people’s homes and on their walls. What’s are the emotional and human dynamics working in such a personal environment?

HH: I always like seeing where people live; it gives me a fuller understanding of them, whether we’re close friends or meeting for the first time.  It’s probably an anxious moment for them, deciding to let an artist or calligrapher paint directly on their walls, and it can be tricky to navigate their expectations, my understanding of those expectations (or my ability to live up to them), and how either of us views the end result.  As far as I know, all my clients have been very pleased with the final product, though two have asked me to redo part of the mural or all of the calligraphy before the job was over.  It was frustrating not to get it right the first time, but I am grateful they were able to tell me that it wasn’t what they were hoping and, in the end, to realize their dream.  Other than the sometimes very odd angles at which I’ve had to work during a couple of projects, the hardest aspect of working in someone’s home is monetary.  Finding out what they can afford, stating my hourly rate, having them stand practically at the foot of my ladder seeing what the hours are adding up to, and telling them the total without necessarily knowing whether they’ll think it is too low or too high is extremely stressful.  I have often wished that an art major included a course in self-employment and included topics of interpersonal communication, taxes, record keeping, how to price art, and when to stand firm on a price or chalk something up to professional development and a fuller portfolio.  But much of my work in people’s homes has been for friends, so it’s always nice to get in some conversation over lunch or hear why they’ve settled on this particular project.  Everyone’s taste and history and reasoning are so different.

More of Hannah’s work can be found at She has prints available, and you should buy them. Keep an eye out for her at the Biscuit Festival this year in downtown Knoxville! If, strangely, you need encouragement going to an event at which you can see great art and eat good biscuits, take it from us: your presence there is mandatory.

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