A few years ago, I stumbled upon a woman named Nina Tran on Instagram who was spearheading a hashtag initiative called ‘Handlettered ABCs’. Without asking, I jumped in and started broadcasting corresponding majuscule lessons each morning after she had concluded her minuscules on Periscope. As the following weeks passed, I quickly learned how sincere, genuine, and talented my new friend really was.
During my first visit to teach in LA, Nina and I finally got to meet in person. It was then that I learned Nina was much much more than just a community leader — she’s an artist and dreamer. I’m so excited to be able to conduct this interview and help to shed a bit more light on the other facets of Nina that make her rise to her prominent place in the Copperplate world all the more impressive. You can find more information about Nina on her website, anintran.com, and follow her incredible progress on Instagram.
David: Hey Nina! Thanks for agreeing to let me ask you some questions! I’ve been a big fan of your writing for the last couple of years. I always mention you when I’m thinking about people who have a really healthy perspective on writing, as I think you ride the line between being really technically able and having a lot of fun with your writing and not getting caught up in pedantry.
Nina Tran: Hi, David! You’re too kind, my friend. I’m a fan of your work too! I’ve learned so much from you — not just about calligraphy and penmanship, but about life and friendship too. Thank you for the interview. I am honored and privileged.
By the way, I’m so glad that you jumped in on the live Periscope broadcasts for #handletteredABCs last January. I couldn’t have asked for a better counterpart. We had so much fun together! I’m looking forward to similar projects with you in the future
You’ve mentioned to me in the past that you got started with Copperplate after a friend introduced you to modern calligraphy back in 2014. Do you happen to remember what the first piece of Copperplate you saw was, and what it was about it that drew you? At that point, I imagine it was something visual, and not just rules and structure, right?
Nina Tran: Yes, I was introduced to the pointed pen in December 2014 by my friend Maria Rabina (@theadornink). She was getting married the following year and we were going to attempt some modern calligraphy projects together for her wedding. Unfortunately, my interest in modern calligraphy didn’t last long. I just couldn’t figure out how to do it.
In January 2015, I was just about to give up the pointed pen when I stumbled upon Instagram posts by Ate Gail Madalag (@the_md_writes), who distinctly called their script “Copperplate” at that time. Believe it or not, the first piece of Copperplate that really drew me in were her drills on basic strokes! I’ve learned so much from her since. I went through each and every single one of her posts and studied her work and read her captions thoroughly. At that time, I wasn’t aware of other resources like Zanerian.com or IAMPETH.com. So Ate Gail was my go-to for structured learning. She’s the best!
It was love at first sight, David. There was no going back after that. I became obsessed with learning the script and all of its intricacies — learning how to use the pen properly, learning how to study, learning all the rules. I felt like I had struck gold. The more I dug, the more gold I found; so I kept digging.
Shortly after, I found other helpful and inspiring teachers like Bianca Mascorro (@biancamascorroart), and you! I made lots of friends on Instagram whose interest in learning script paralleled my own. I’m especially thankful for Dr. Joe Vitolo (@drjmvitolo), Andrew Hunter (@andrewdh), and Judy Garcia (@iamjudyg) for training my eyes to see things in places I would have never thought to look.
When I first got started with my writing, I was making a really easy transition into the world by way of being a graphic designer. What were you up to in 2013-2014 that led you to a place where you even had the time to jump in on something as time consuming as what we do? Do you ever look back at your life before your practice and involvement with Instagram and wonder what you’d think if you could see yourself now?
Nina Tran: Oh gosh… Even though I’m still so new to calligraphy, it feels like I’ve been doing this all my life — it’s become a huge part of my life!
Let’s see… what was I up to at that time…
From 2012-2104, I was a knitting and crocheting machine. Before that, I had dabbled in photography, watercolor and sketching. At one point, I had even considered going to dental school. I honestly thought calligraphy was just going to be another dead-end endeavor for me. But I’ve always been one to go all in and calligraphy really sparked something in me. It helps too that I have a super supportive husband who encourages me to pursue things that I enjoy — especially when it comes to art.
If my old self could see me now, she would be proud of me for sticking to one thing long enough. Haha!
Another thing I have a lot of respect for is women who are able to balance being mothers with being leaders, community figures, and artists. I struggle with just the last one! Obviously you’ve made the decisions to place your study in a way that it doesn’t interfere too much with your other responsibilities, but I’m sure it’s gotta be pretty crazy behind the scenes, right? That’s all the more impressive to me, because women like you are choosing to study on top of everything else they’re doing… If you had one piece of advice you could give to 2014 Nina about how to balance study with being a mom, would it be?
Nina Tran: Thanks, David. Kudos to all of the moms and dads out there! What goes on behind the scenes is a whole other life that others may never see. What’s worked for me is creating a schedule around my family’s needs and making sure that I have an uninterrupted time slot for myself of at least 30 minutes everyday.
Still, it’s a balancing act for sure. It’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind, especially on Instagram. So, if I had one piece of advice to my 2014 self, I would tell her that it’s OK to slow down and to enjoy the process of learning a little bit more. Calligraphy will always be there, but kids grow so fast.
With all of the other things you have going on, I’m always impressed and envious when I see you getting to duck out for a couple of days and head up to one of Michael Sull’s workshops, or teach a weekend retreat off in a cabin somewhere. Have you found that getting out and studying with other calligraphers has been a large part of what allows you to grow and develop? How important is it to make the sacrifices necessary to be able to participate in things like that?
Nina Tran: Yes, absolutely! Meeting and studying with other calligraphers at meet-ups and in classroom settings has been integral to my growth as a calligrapher and as a human being. There is no way I could learn everything on my own or find the motivation to continue without the help and support of others — on- and offline.
For me, it’s important that my family understands what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. With the all the resources available online, anyone can pick up and pen and learn on their own, but nothing can substitute an in-person experience. Attending meet-ups, workshops, and conventions is a great way to learn and meet other calligraphers in our growing community. There are certain aspects of writing that is hard to “see” on a screen alone — like breathing, posture, body movements, etc. We learn so much by watching and mimicking others; what we see on a screen can be so limited.
So you and I have a interesting relationship with the words ‘Copperplate’ and ‘Engrosser’s Script’. We’ve chatted privately about this very topic numerous times, but I’ve always appreciated that you stick with your guns about your term of choice. I think our readers would be very interested to hear what you think makes Copperplate what it is. (for a moment, let’s put aside all historical uses of the words.) What, in your opinion, separates copperplate from other script styles such as Italian, French, English or Modern Scripts?
Nina Tran: Thanks, David. Sticking to one’s guns ain’t easy sometimes! There have been so many conversations and posts about what to call it and what not to call it… I was confused for a long time too. Talks with my friends and mentors Dr. Joe and Andrew have helped me to understand the the term better.
Here’s what I’ve concluded: “Copperplate” is a generic term used to refer to a style of shaded script derived from English Roundhand. Engrosser’s Script is to Copperplate as a lime is to a citrus fruit. “Engrosser’s Script” is a particular style of Copperplate that is characterized by definitive shades and ductus. And, like limes, there are many styles of Engrosser’s Script that is unique to every penman.
My script is a hybrid of many different Copperplate styles — a little Roundhand, a little Engrosser’s. My Copperplate is a product of the materials I’ve studied and the people whose work inspire me, including you, Dr. Joe, Ate Gail, Bianca, Eleanor Winters, Earl A. Lupfer, Charles W. Norder… the list goes on. On some days, my Copperplate has a little Spencerian flavor too.
Last year, you started pursuing Spencerian à la Harvest Crittenden. Since then, we’ve chatted a couple of times about how it’s pretty hard to pursue multiple script styles at once. Have you started to feel a balance with that? Is it getting easier to jump back to round writing after working on your Spencerian? How does it make you feel to think that back in the day people were learning (and mastering) even more numerous styles in short periods of times at business colleges across America? Is that discouraging or encouraging?
Nina Tran: The best advice I’ve been given is from Ate Gail: focus on learning one script at a time. Yes, it’s getting easier to jump back and forth from Copperplate to Spencerian now — provided that I’m not allowing too much time to pass without practicing, that is. The more I study (whether it’s pointed pen or broad edge), the more connections I’m able to make between the different scripts. I’m learning something new everyday.
What distinguishes a lot of us from past penmen is the amount of time and energy we are investing in studying, learning, and practicing. With few exceptions, many simply enjoy calligraphy as a hobby or an art form; not necessarily something to be mastered or used to earn a living. Another distinction could be the amount of distractions we have in our modern society — texts, television, smart phones, etc. Lupfer was probably spending more time writing than scrolling through Instagram or Facebook. Just sayin’.
The distinguished penmen of the past who we know and love today were devoted students and teachers of penmanship. They were scholars, academics, and super passionate people who put in endless hours to studying and practicing for decades. For many of us, including myself, the journey has just begun. The achievements of past penmen are proof that if we put our mind and energy into it, we can achieve great things too.
I’m always interested to hear what someone’s favorite piece of their chosen style of writing is. For me, it’s probably a little letterhead by C. W. Norder that was shared with me by Dr. Vitolo. Something about it just screams class, and the way each shape is laid makes me believe that Norder had a really intimate understanding of what he was doing every time the pen touched the paper. Do you have anything like that? Some sample of writing that just lights a fire under you? What about it catches your eye?
Nina Tran: I love your deep appreciation for those things, David.
What interests me about these people is their process and what propels them to keep going. Why do they show up to a pen and paper everyday? What dialogues do they have with their inner genius? How do they overcome self-doubt and insecurities? Why are we doing this?
When it comes to teaching, we’ve shared a bit of our thoughts about that over the years too! Have you enjoyed teaching script? What do you think is missing or can be improved upon when you consider the way that people are learning to write Copperplate now? How do you try to improve yourself as a teacher and a purveyor of the artform?
Nina Tran: I love teaching in general — script most of all!
I always try to think back to when I was just getting started and knew very little. So when I teach, I do my best to put myself back in the shoes of my 2015 self. I make sure that I elaborate on basic things like how to prep nibs, paper angle, movement, etc. — all the things that we tend to take for granted as we gain experience. I like to make learning light, fun, and easy to follow. It’s important that I establish a safe space for students to learn and ask questions.
I like to emphasize the importance of building a strong foundation for learning by taking the time to understand and master the tools of the trade (the pointed pen). I also give a lot of attention to the key concepts and characteristics that define Copperplate script. How can we write something if we don’t understand what it should look like or the details of how it’s formed?
Any advice for people considering leading a workshop for the first time?
Nina Tran: My advice would be to give it all you’ve got! Do your homework: study, practice, and take responsibility for those you are teaching. Know exactly what you want students to take away from your lesson and don’t hold back on sharing your knowledge.
Be open-minded. Even when teaching, be open to learn from your students as well.
It’s been awhile since you and I talked about our goals with our writing. What do you hope to do with your writing in the next five years? How do you think those goals might change as you go along? What kind of work/message do you want to be leaving behind, if any?
Nina Tran: Great question, David. I’ve been pondering about this a lot lately.
When I first picked up a pointed pen at the end of 2014, my goal was to learn modern calligraphy so that I could help a friend with wedding signage and invitations. A lot has changed since. I’m not even the same person as I was when I started.
There’s so much that I’d like to do, so much to learn, so much to create!
In the next five years, I’d love to travel and teach around the US and internationally. By the way, congratulations on your teaching tour in Asia in March 2018! I’m so excited for you, David! So many people are looking forward to your trip.
In my heart, I know that I’ll always be a student and a teacher. That’s what I choose to be — always learning and always sharing what I’ve learned. When I think of legacies, I think about all of the books that the past penmen left behind for us. I think about the trails they paved, the torches they lit, and the millions of people they lead and inspired since the beginning of the Golden Age of Penmanship — that’s 167 years and counting! It’s my aspiration to continue their legacy in our modern time and pepper in my own flavors along the way.
Of any of us, you certainly have the potential to do just that. I know that with continued effort and diligence on your part, ‘N. B. Tran’ will be a signature worth collecting in the year 2100. Not a doubt in my mind. I can only hope that one day we will be looking back on these early days of archeology and trailblazing with fondness, surrounded by friends who have joined our paths along the way. <3
Nina Tran is a teacher and penwoman from Los Angeles, California. Her workshops on Spencerian and Copperplate are some of the most informative and comprehensive that can be found in America and anyone interested in these styles would benefit from attending one of her upcoming classes. Nina is a great friend, a dedicated artist, and an inspiration for many of my own dreams with the pen. you can find more information on her website, anintran.com, and follow her incredible progress on Instagram.
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