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Q&A: Gabri Joy Kirkendall ’09 discusses her vocational journey that led to success as a hand-lettering artist, author

Posted by: Date: November 8, 2016 In:
hand drawing letters

By Mandi LeCompte
Contributing writer

TACOMA, WASH. (Nov. 8, 2016)- Gabri Joy Kirkendall ’09 studied political science and French languages and literature at Pacific Lutheran University. Now, she's a published author and artist. Below is an edited discussion about her vocational journey and her experience creating hand-lettering books.

Question: How did your new book come to be?

Answer: A few years ago, I was just a starving artist trying to subsist on Etsy sales when I got the surprise of my life. I was contacted by an editor at Walter Foster Publishing. She had found my work online and asked if I was interested in doing a book on hand lettering. I thought it was just going to be a fun little project and then the unexpected happened. The book (“Creative Lettering and Beyond”) went viral and became an Amazon best seller, and I was blown away. “The Joy of Lettering” is my follow up to the success of my first book. It has a little something for everyone, whether you are an experienced artist or someone just starting to learn. … We wanted to create something fun, novel and accessible for everyone.

Q: What classes at PLU helped you realize what you wanted to do?

A: I have an interesting perspective when it comes to this question, mostly because I didn’t study art at PLU. At the time, I was studying political science and French while working with the nonprofit World Vision on its malaria program. When I graduated, I was deep into the world of public health and applying to graduate schools. But then the unthinkable happened; I was diagnosed with cancer and my whole life seemed to spin off the rails. It took two years of surgeries and treatments to come out on the other side, and by that time my life was unrecognizable. I could no longer physically work a normal 9-to-5 job and grad school seemed out of the question. I was devastated. It felt like I had lost everything I had worked so hard to achieve and I wasn’t sure what to do, but then help came from an unexpected source.

After another surgery left me confined to bed rest for more than a month, my husband, unbeknownst to me, went to the craft store and bought me some art supplies. It was my effort to keep myself sane that helped me rediscovered my love of art.  So, I don’t have a particular class at PLU that helped me realize what I wanted to do, but I did have classes and professors who taught me creativity, resilience and the courage to believe that I could achieve. These invaluable lessons and encouragement gave me the courage to see my art as a career and to chase after dreams that I never would have thought possible.

Q: What are some of the experiences that have defined your work and career?

A: I think one of the best and craziest experiences for me was when my editor first contacted me after seeing my work online. I have to admit that when I first saw the email my first reaction was to think that it must be a scam of some kind, since it seemed so unlikely that this was actually happening to me. I spent a half hour online researching my editor to see if she really was who she said she was. When I discovered that all of this was legit I went crazy with excitement. Ever since I was in elementary school, it has been a dream of mine to publish a book. Doing that first book was such an amazing and surreal experience. And then, when it was published, I was blown away by the response. “Creative Lettering and Beyond” has been featured by Pioneer Woman, BuzzFeed, Brit + Co and Creative Market, just to name a few.  I’ve had so many unexpected experiences and made so many dear friends in the creative industry who cheer me on. The amazingness has just continued with this new book. “The Joy of Lettering” is being featured by Tombow, Goodtype, Real Simple, Magnolia Market and so many more great outlets and publications.  I am very excited to see where this new book will lead.

Q: What is the best advice you can give an undergraduate student pursuing a career in the arts?

A: Make yourself and your work visible online from day one. Use social media to put your work out there. You never know who might see it. If I hadn’t put my work on Facebook and Etsy, I never would have been given the opportunity to write my books. (My success is a direct product) of my online visibility. I have received great opportunities and made so many great friends in the artistic community. And don’t stop yourself from posting your work because you think it isn’t good enough yet. Just keep going. You will get better and your work will speak for itself.

My second piece of advice is to be bold in pursuing opportunities. Many of the connections I’ve made and opportunities I’ve had have come from not being afraid to go after every possibility. I have cold called magazines, emailed unknown bloggers and have told myself to never be intimidated by someone else’s success. A lot of people we see as big names are just sweet, supportive people who can develop a relationship with you. For example, Tombow is one of the best and most popular producers of brush pens and lettering supplies, and social media followers support its standing in the industry. I emailed the company on the off chance that they would be interested, and I was blown away by the response. Tombow sponsored a giveaway on social media to promote the book that we used to kickoff the launch. I can’t say I wasn’t a bit scared when I sent that original email, but the old saying “nothing tried, nothing gained” is true.  Don’t rob yourself of great opportunities by giving in to your fears or insecurities.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced and how did you overcome them?

A: One of my biggest challenges, especially as a self-taught artist, was just believing in myself. For a long time I felt like I didn’t belong because I didn’t have a fine arts degree and I constantly worried that people in the arts community wouldn’t take me seriously. I can’t say I’ve completely overcome this because there are always days when self doubt creeps in, but I’ve learned not to be so worried and to let my work speak for itself. Because this is such a big thing for me, it is extra important for me to find ways to support other artists. One of my favorite quotes is “It’s not a competition, I hope we all make it.” Don’t feel intimidated or threatened by other artists. You will always gain more by giving support than if you try to stand on your own.

My second biggest challenge has just been finding creative ways to educate myself. Since I don’t have a fine arts degree, when I started I had to teach myself everything from techniques to how to use Photoshop. It was very intimidating. Over the years, I’ve made it a priority to always keep learning something. I read blog posts, watch YouTube videos, buy books and even ask other artists how they do things. If you want to know how to do something badly enough you will figure it out. Plus, there is nothing more empowering than proving to yourself that you can learn new things.