When the written word becomes art, 1 letter at a time

SILVER SPRING, Md. (AP) — For this group of committed doodlers, it’s pens before pixels.

The Unofficial Hand Lettering Society of Silver Spring gathers monthly in this Maryland suburb, setting aside keyboards to put ink to paper and shape the written word into a work of art.

That can mean drawing elaborate letter shapes in spiral notebooks — “Lettering is freedom,” say, with bold black brushstrokes — or practicing a Christmas greeting for loved ones in green ink.

Graphic designer Christy Batta said she and Amina Ahmad, a candlemaker, started the group in 2015 after Batta designed a handmade logo for Ahmad’s business.

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What started as an informal monthly meetup for the two to practice hand lettering became the society, with its complicated but tongue-in-cheek name. (“We wanted to be clear, this is nothing serious,” Batta said.)

The group usually attracts a dozen or more people to its meetings, held at various coffee shops and businesses in Silver Spring. Gatherings are advertised online, but the society also gets the word out by posting — what else — hand-lettered sheets on coffee-house bulletin boards.

There’s no pressure to create a polished work of art or even a finished project. The goal is just to try.

“I like it because I feel like everyone can do it,” Ahmad said. “I always tell people, if you have a hand and you can write, you can hand-letter.”

Batta said hand lettering offers something more than just a message — “a certain kind of warmth and human quality that I could get from drawing letters that you couldn’t get from the computer.”

That’s echoed by Denise Bosler, a typography professor at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania who says hand lettering “truly is illustration” and has drawn more interest from her students in recent years.

There’s a “unique quality that hand lettering has — all letters are individually drawn and created, and therefore there’s a little imperfection there,” Bosler said. That “makes it a bit more relatable to people. We are drawn to slight imperfections because we’re humans.”

Meetings usually have a theme — “plants” or “orange” or “giving” — to inspire ideas for what words participants might letter.

A “curse word” theme produced a variety of less-anodyne words — two of the more repeatable ones were a gothic “crap” elegantly surrounded by roses and a bulbous “bollocks” in a nest of tiny circles. But a “1984” theme didn’t go over well with most of the attendees, who deemed the George Orwell-inspired topic “too depressing,” Batta said.

This month, attendees pondered the theme of “Why you enjoy lettering.”

The group — all female, as often happens — sat around a table in the middle of the Bump ‘n Grind coffee shop. Iced coffees and lattes were tucked among notebooks, sheaves of loose paper and an array of pens, from models that glitter to the kind you would find in an office desk drawer.

Maggie Chang, a nurse from Rockville, began coming to society meetings this year. The sheet of paper before her read “create,” with each letter in a different color and style — including one designed to look like a row of crochet stitches, reflecting another of her hobbies.

She said she has been using hand lettering to decorate the envelopes she addresses to her pen pals, with whom she converses using old-fashioned snail mail.

“There’s something personal and unique about that you can’t get through email,” Chang said. “There’s nothing like a handwritten card or letter.”

Boosaba Tantisunthorn sifted through a nearly four-inch stack of name tags on the table — a bold, purple “Diana” with a flourish on the “n,” a “Matthew” in simple green cursive, a lowercase “Caitlin” — searching for the one she made after she first started attending meetings four years ago.

There is a name tag for pretty much everyone who’s ever been to a society meeting.

Tantisunthorn, who lives in Silver Spring and works as a fundraiser for a nonprofit group, said she relishes the chance to indulge her creative side. She describes her lettering style as “experimental.” On that night, she began by writing “community” in a bold golden script but soon ventured off into a spiky, multicolored series of letters that danced across the page.

“When you write something by hand, be it writing a letter or hand lettering, it tells people you’ve taken the extra effort,” she said. “It’s a really personal touch at a time when things are mass-produced.”

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