Interview with Justine: calligraphy that refreshes your heart, to impact the world

Today I (Tanja) am talking with Justine from It Just Flows. She is a calligrapher, community builder and calligraphy teacher.

How did you start your calligraphy story?

Well, my story with calligraphy starts when I was eight years old. My mum bought me my first calligraphy pen. I taught myself my first alphabet and I still practice that style now. My grade three teacher (a really cool teacher) bought us all fountain pens that same year. This was for cursive practice during class. When I came home afterwards, I actually danced with a pen, drawing big letters in the air. And I dripped ink all over my mum’s beige carpet. My mom was cleaning it up and she didn’t yell at me. I always say that’s a key part of my story. She didn’t yell at me because she knows I was just having fun. And then I actually started selling my lettering at various points.

My mum got me my first gig in grade 7. I created these business cards that use cake flags that you stick into a cake. My friend was baking cakes as her side business. So I sold those, and in high school I also made address labels for my pen pals. We would send cash in the mail. This happened before the Internet where you could have your own shop. That’s how I got started selling my calligraphy.

But then I didn’t really revisit it until I was an adult. I took a couple of classes that I dropped out of because they were boring and not fun. Fun is really important to me. Then I did take a couple of really amazing classes with instructors that were very much about collaborating. We had exercises that we were working [on] together. I didn’t really realize that that would become a key part of how I teach and do my own calligraphy workshops.

When I’m teaching people, I want them not to compare themselves to other people. I want them to celebrate their uniqueness.

Photo credit: Jana Josue Photography
So, you’re also teaching workshops?

Yes, I started teaching workshops because friends started to ask and it kind of grew from there. I think now that we live in a world that is super digital, people are looking for ways to slow down and have creative, fun experiences. And I just happened to get in on that train at the right time.

Now that we live in a world that is super digital, people are looking for ways to slow down and have creative, fun experiences.

When I first started teaching four years ago, there was not as much interest. But in the last couple of years there have been lot of people googling it. There are different blog posts on the net that suggest “here’s ten new things you could try” and calligraphy happens to be one of them.

Can you share something about the way you teach?

I have taken classes as a student myself and it’s usually all about “the thing that you’re doing”. I haven’t seen it often where you’re getting introductions to people. It’s really about you and the art. So there’s this awkward, weird zone, where you’re sitting two feet away from somebody. And the social part of me wants to get to know people.

So what I what I do in my workshops is really interactive. I feel like if you wanted to do it by yourself, you can just learn it with a YouTube video at home. I really want to take advantage of the space together, so that there is a community element. Part of it is also setting up the space so people know that that’s what I’m inviting them into. They know that we’re gonna be looking at each other’s work in a good way. We will be celebrating one another’s stuff as well as the fact that we are not going to become wedding calligraphers in three hours.

A really big part of teaching is setting up the space so that people can shed all of the crappy voices in their head that say they’re not creative.

Just try and there are gonna be things that might be uncomfortable, but that’s OK. There’s growth in that and you don’t need to do anything if you don’t want to. But if you do, who knows you might discover something that you really love. It’s also a process that can benefit your mental health. And so when you look at it that way, it’s not about creating some finished piece of artwork.

It’s not just throwing away all the crappy the 50 versions that you needed to do first. That’s the creative process.

If we’re only sharing or aiming for the final product, I think we’re missing out on a lot of the essence of what art and creativity can do for you.

You can compare it to hiking: you want to get to the top of the mountain, but there’s that whole journey to get there. And if you cut that all out the story is not very interesting.

Can you share a bit more about your personal journey with calligraphy?

Another key piece about calligraphy and my own journey is that when I burned out, I kind of lost all sense of myself. When you burn out, you don’t feel creative and you kind of lose all your markers of what you were interested in before. You go flat. So for three years of recovery I just didn’t think. I would question even being a creative person.

When you burn out, you don’t feel creative and you kind of lose all your markers of what you were interested in before. You go flat.

And so in my process of recovery I rediscovered how calligraphy is just a really good way to slow down and journal and just be creative in that process. And replenish my heart and reorient myself. When you’re trying to reconnect with yourself, ironically you’re not only reconnecting with yourself, but you’re also learning about yourself in community.

As I was starting to revisit calligraphy, people started to associate me or give me feedback on the cards that I was making them. There was a lot of congruence with people, appreciating those things that I was offering and then starting to ask for them. So without my community, I probably would never have started teaching workshops. And I’d never have thought that it was anything beyond just me and my friends and my family.

I teach calligraphy now much more as a tool for reconnecting with yourself, for refreshing your heart and for making a difference.

My students write notes that they give to other people, because it feels good. It feels good when you are able to encourage others and to know that you’ve done something to make their lives a little bit better. So this is with calligraphy, but you can do lots of other things to slow down and help other people.

Student notes from Justine’s workshops
On your website you mention: “calligraphy that refreshes your heart, so you can impact your world.” And that you invite people to infuse self-care into their lives with simple creative tools. That certainly connects with what you just mentioned!

I think calligraphy is normally associated with f.e. wedding calligraphy. And that it’s “pretty letters”. But for me it’s a tool. There’s so much more that you can do with it.

Because calligraphy is one of those things you have to really practice, I can’t make you a master calligrapher in three hours. So what is realistic is that I can give you confidence to get over your creative fears. I’m actually teaching it to people to use in their own relationships. And in their relationship with themselves. I do some classes that are much more about exploring.

You’re using calligraphy as a tool in your journaling and things like letters to yourself etc. It doesn’t need to look “great”. It’s about the process for yourself.

Speaking of journaling, a long time ago I read parts of The Artist’s Way. The book mentions when you’re writing you’re becoming a “gateway for the universe to communicate through”. Do you think there’s a universal wisdom that people can tap into when they’re writing?

I’m a firm believer (and there is scientific research that shows this as well) that when writing something down with a pen and paper, your process is different in your brain versus when typing on your iPad. You experience it differently. And so I am a believer in getting your hands dirty and using pen and ink and write down to paper.

I do think that words are very particular. There’s a specific meaning in them. And then when you add the visual element, you’re able to communicate meaning behind that word that maybe would not have been possible in other forms. It’s a type of embodiment. It’s really hard to be on your cell phone at the same time as trying to do calligraphy. In my workshops we start out chatty and making connections and then halfway through it’s just quiet because everybody’s in their zone. They’re focused on what’s right in front of them. It’s a practice of mindfulness. Any type of art is a practice of mindfulness.

I love that you consider calligraphy a practice of mindfulness!

Absolutely! That’s actually what I do most. On my Instagram and social media I’m mostly promoting stuff, versus where I actually practice calligraphy, it’s pretty messy and dirty. My own journal is my main way of practicing mindfulness right now. It really helps me. So what I do is I journal a little bit every day and then at the end of the week, I study my notes. I look for themes and then I rewrite those out in calligraphy. What are the messages of the week or of my life? Or what are themes that are emerging?

My own journal is my main way of practicing mindfulness.

It allows me to enter the next week with more intention and to be able to catch some patterns. And often that’s how I hear from God (or the universe if you want to call it that), where I get a sense of direction and purpose. And where I need to go next or what I need to work on next.

That sounds incredibly powerful. So often we don’t look at ourselves and we just keep “going”. This is such a powerful way of doing self reflection.

There’s this autopilot that we are all naturally on. Our bodies are designed that way.

85% of our behaviour is autopilot and you really need tools or habits to help you unplug, become intentional and aware.

We live in a world where you can always be “on”. You can be plugged into your phone constantly. Any time of silence or quietness you fill up. It’s very easy to get disconnected from yourself.

If you would give someone like me (who is clueless about writing by hand) a recommendation, would you advise to f.e. just sit down five minutes a day, write whatever comes up and then look back at it?

There are a couple of approaches you could take. You could do “the brain dump”: just write whatever’s on your mind, including your grocery list or whatever you’re thinking about.

But you could be more intentional as well, where you have some prompts. F.e. what was the highlight of today or what was really hard today? Or what was the main emotion that I felt today? It could be any number of prompts that you have, that help you distill the things that have happened in your day. Later on when you look back, you might even forget it was for example a particularly intense week. If you have it written down and you go back, you can actually look for themes that sometimes emerge from that.

For some people, the act of writing thoughts down (regardless whether they go back to read them) still allows them to kind of release the burden of that thought. Or when you’re a creative person and you have 50 million ideas, if you don’t get them out knowing that you can come back to them later, it can be stressful, all those ideas running around in your head.

I agree! My hubby Jelger makes more lists and he writes more down than me. But he got me into the habit of writing to do lists because otherwise it creates stress to remember those things!

I read somewhere the other day (I think) you can only have seven to nine – it might even be a lot less than that, maybe five to seven – major items in your brain at the [same] time. Say for example you wake up and you have these three main things you want to do and you don’t write them down, you’re gonna be running those three items in your head. You’re actually wasting precious limited brain space.

By not writing things down, you’re wasting precious limited brain space.

And when you run out brain space before the end of the day, that’s it. The only way to replenish is to go to sleep and have a nap. So that’s not good time and energy management.

I like that you mentioned that when you teach a workshop, it’s not about things being perfect, but about giving people a taste of a technique, more as a tool.

One of my ground rules is perfection police are not allowed here. So check them out the door. Comparison is awful. It will just ruin you. In some of my early classes that I took as a student, I had fun, but I was robbed of joy because I was so busy looking at the guy next to me. He was already an expert calligrapher.

The perfection police are not allowed here.

The other thing I really enjoy about calligraphy teaching is that you see progress even in a short period of time (even one hour). So if you’re gonna compare, compare to the start of your session. And to yourself as opposed to other people. A lot of calligraphers like to keep their old work and date it, so they can look back and see the immense progress that they’ve made. And that feels good!

When I teach workshops to women and youth in recovery, that’s a whole other approach. It’s about celebrating the small progress that they’re making. And about giving them words to write that are positive.

When you slow down that much to focus on a phrase or a word that’s affirming, you write it into your heart in a different way than if someone were to just tell it to you.

That sounds amazing! It’s almost like reprogramming your brain with prompts you’re feeding it.

The beauty of what neuroscience is showing us now, is that our brains are super malleable. When we need to unlearn old ways of thinking and being, the good news is we can retrain our brains. Negative thoughts actually take up physical space in our brains.

I also wanted to ask you about the social impact part of your job. Could you elaborate on that a bit?

Calligraphy is usually a pretty solitary activity, because the act of creating it is pretty solitary. But you can also do it with other people and community. That’s where the social impact part comes in. Being part of the community that I hang out with, helps me to think about what’s my purpose in the world. How can I make a difference in the world around me. And in the city. I am in a church committee that has a lot of connections that helped me to think through this. And I know a lot of people who work in different nonprofit organizations in the city.

So naturally through relationship and connections I’ve had the opportunity to either do my calligraphy workshops with people that they’re serving. For example: adults in public housing who are dealing with mental health issues, or women who are recovering from addictions and a life of being exploited on the streets. So there’s that piece where I work directly with them.

But there’s another piece where I build it into my actual workshop. This is for anybody coming for the calligraphy, and that is interested in the community connections. The project in my workshop is: we get to write notes of encouragement that we will donate to some of the people that are served by these different organizations.

Some people who have come from broken backgrounds, broken homes, whether their parents were not around, or were abusive, they just never got a lot of words of positivity. And so it can mean the world to them to get this note, written by a stranger. I keep notes on my wall: encouraging cards that people give me, messages that I need to be reminded of. And so I build that into my workshops because it’s just such a simple way to give back.

What would you say is the most important thing calligraphy has taught you?

There’s a lot of life lessons from calligraphy. The biggest ones are about slowing down and being present, which we’ve already talked about, and about writing words with intention. That feeds my soul. Practice makes progress. Just keep moving forward, keep the ink flowing, and slow down. Don’t feel paralyzed, yet also don’t go running.

Thank you so much for this interview Justine! Find out more about Justine’s work and workshops below.