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Artist highlight: Karen Haslag calligraphy

by Gemma Asel | January 29, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.
“Teapot” 20x16 inches, Windsor Newton guache on Fabriano paper – example of a calligram made for children. “Lemon Meringue Pie” is another calligram on display at Hawthorne Bank. Leann Porrello/News Tribune

The word "calligraphy" comes from the Greek word "kalli-graphos," which means "beautiful writing."

Karen C. Haslag has been a practicing calligraphy since high school, when she was given a 1960s Speedball lettering book, Speedball writing nibs and a bottle of India Ink. Her first formal class in calligraphy was in 1969 at Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas, with Sr. Helen Beuning, O.S.B.

Karen's sense of joy about the alphabet existed as a young child, as she was encouraged to write thank you letters by her parents. In grade three, she imitated the signatures of her classmates to pass time. After college, it was with her cousin, LeRoy Haslag, a prominent central Missouri sign painter, that she realized her love of and ability to do lettering with a brush.

Karen also had an early love of music and began piano at the age of 10. At the age of 11, Karen aspired to be a music and art teacher. Karen earned a B.A. in Music, with a Fine Arts minor, along with life credentials in Music Education and General Education. After two years of teaching music and art in the local area, she moved to San Francisco in 1972 for graduate school at San Francisco State University and earned an M.A. in Creative Arts Education. Karen developed an alphabet enrichment program for classroom teachers titled "Handwriting -- A Celebration of the Alphabet."

Karen's focus has been teaching calligraphy and related alphabet projects to young people and teachers. She has made presentations on the national, California state and local level, and for publishing companies with "A Celebration of the Alphabet," a photo/lecture on the history and evolution of the alphabet accentuated with examples of work by children.

In the 1980s, Karen was invited to be the guest presenter doing hands-on calligraphy sessions for "Medieval Month" in the San Francisco and Oakland Public Libraries through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Her students' classroom work was selected for publication in "Italic Handwriting for Young People," a national competition. Over the years, Karen visited many colleagues in schools across the U.S. engaged in successful programs utilizing italic handwriting and calligraphy.

The early 1970s in San Francisco was part of a major renaissance of calligraphy. Three calligraphic societies were initiated 1974 in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City. Karen has been a member of The Friends of Calligraphy in San Francisco since 1975. She served on the FOC Board of Directors 1985-88.

Karen resumed her formal study of calligraphy in 1973. She had golden opportunities through the FOC workshops to study with leading calligraphers of the U.S. and Europe. Karen's own calligraphic style was most strongly influenced by study of brush lettering with Alan Blackman of San Francisco and italic calligraphy with David Meckelburg of Los Angeles. Other important workshops were taken with Donald Jackson, Ieaun Rees, Fr. Edward Catich and Thomas Ingmire. Other significant influences were calligraphy by Hermann Zapf and Hela Basu of Germany, Eric Gill and Ann Camp of England and Susie Taylor of San Francisco.

Karen has done diverse work in the "bread and butter" of calligraphy: wedding invitations, baby announcements, name tags, concert flyers and programs, certificates, posters, poems, designs for T-Shirts and mugs, signs in windows and several billboards.

Her absolute love is imaginative and creative calligraphy done in color. She prefers working with a German-made steel nib, "Brause," with Windsor-Newton guache mixed with distilled water for pen and ink work. This provides a dense, opaque letter that stands up on the paper. Her favorite brushes are the Artsign Series 865 and 867.

One of Karen's favorite calligraphic pastimes has been the making of calligrams, which are words made into pictures with complimentary written content. "Teapot" and "Lemon Meringue Pie" are two included in the exhibit. Calligrams date back to medieval books made by hand.

Karen has exhibited in most of the membership exhibitions of the Friends of Calligraphy in San Francisco since 1975 and invitational shows in northern California and elsewhere. Three pieces are in the Richard Harrison Permanent Collection of Calligraphy, San Francisco Public Library, which boasts the largest collection of calligraphy by west coast calligraphers. In September, 2022, Karen was the FOC Featured Calligrapher. Karen has calligraphy in many private collections, mostly commission work.

Karen and her husband moved to Jefferson City in 2017. At the suggestion of her longtime friend, Vivian Carwile, she joined Jefferson City Art Club. Karen enjoyed serving on the JCAC Board as Second Vice President from 2020-21 and occasionally exhibits in shows.

Karen has also been a church music director and organist/choir director for many years and is a member of the American Guild of Organists. In her last position as a school music teacher, she often displayed large banners with song lyrics in calligraphy (or whimsical lettering) to make it engaging for students to sing along.

Karen is dedicated to the belief that children recognize beauty and that values of arts education must be cherished and made a priority in schools.

Karen is currently the JCAC Featured Artist at Hawthorn Bank, 3701 W. Truman Blvd. The exhibit runs Jan. 30–March 17.

To see more of Karen's calligraphy, go to:

JCAC website:

FOC Instagram:

Karen's Instagram: @karen_c_haslag_calligrapher

  photo  Notecards quotes by Winifred Baker, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, George Eliot, and Isaiah 55:12 (from “The Peaceable Kingdom” by American composer Randall Thompson) Leann Porrello/News Tribune photo

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