Jan Kruger Age: 51 Vocation: calligrapher
Kneeling forward on her Scandinavian balance chair, Jan Kruger carefully loads the tip of her calligraphy pen with an eyedropper of India ink. Then, leaning against an almost vertical light table, she draws the letter “W” on a clean sheet of heavy, white paper. A flaglike serif unfurls from the W’s corner.
Next, she creates an understated “e” with a single, fluid, spiral motion and continues writing.
“We should treat everyone as though …”
When she gets to the “g” in “though,” Kruger embellishes it with one of her trademark looping tails that dips more than an inch below the other letters.
“We should treat everyone as though they had a broken heart, because they probably do.”
Kruger inspects each letter, making sure it meets her demanding standards. She has, on occasion, started over as many as eight times.
Satisfied, she removes the page from the light table and, peeling away at the edges, shapes it into a heart.
Then she tears the heart in half and positions it atop two sheets of handmade paper - one forest green, the other burgundy.
Finally, she mounts the whole assemblage on green poster board and attaches two intertwined lengths of burgundy ribbon to the broken heart.
Kruger is more than a calligrapher. The owner of “Jan designs” takes her borrowed words of wisdom and transforms them into three-dimensional wall hangings, which she sells from her studio at 202 E. Trent.
For more than 30 years, Kruger has practiced the art of hand lettering.
The proliferation of easily reproduced computer typefaces has slowed demand for what was once Kruger’s bread and butter - hand-lettered certificates. But she’s compensated by expanding her line of paper creations to include special-occasion cards and custom-covered journals.
“In the last year or so,” she says, “I’ve incorporated the slogan ‘hand-lettered with a human touch’ because I’m trying to get people to understand the difference,” she says. “You breathe life into ink with your hand. You can’t get that with a computer.”
The spirit Kruger breathes into her creations, and which she exudes toward strangers entering her fourth-floor studio for the first time, is born of the joy and relief of having survived years in an abusive relationship.
“I consider my business kind of a ministry,” says Kruger. “When people walk in here, it’s amazing how often I hear their life story, even if they’re only here 10 minutes. They’ll see something I have (on the wall) about death, and they’ll say, ‘I just lost my child,’ or ‘I just lost my brother.’
“I hug people and cry with them. It’s real special to me. It’s like touching their lives a little bit.”
There were times, years ago, when Kruger couldn’t hug people without feeling pain - the physical pain of hidden bruises.
She wrote about those times in a collection of poems titled “He Hits! Hope for Battered Women,” which she published nine years ago under the pseudonym Janet Jonathon.
Back then, Kruger explains in the prologue, most books about battered women were written by counselors. She felt her poems conveyed a depth of feeling other books lacked.
“But the most important reason for writing this is my desire to help other women in similar situations - to provide hope even in the most hopeless of situations,” she wrote.
Kruger didn’t have a book like “He Hits!” to turn to in her darkest moments. But she did have her lettering.
Nuns in upstate New York introduced Kruger to calligraphy in high school.
She moved to Spokane in the mid-‘60s to attend Gonzaga University, where she studied graphic design and art.
But she buried any thoughts of pursuing a career.
“I wanted to be married,” Kruger wrote in her book’s first poem. “I thought marriage was the most important goal in life - more important than my own personal goals and growth.”
Instead of becoming a graphic artist, Kruger found herself pushed toward the life of a pioneer wife. Her frustration boils over in a poem titled “I’m Canning as Fast as I Can!”
“… Just one more jar of applesauce to fill, so I can reach my 400-jar quota for the year.
“I’m so tired, so hot, surrounded by steaming kettles, and mounds of fresh vegetables from the garden until I want to scream!
“My children are fretful and bored. I want to play with them, to take them to the park or to the swimming pool. They’ll grow up so fast!
“And will they remember that I couldn’t ever play with them?
“I’m feeding their growing bodies, but I know inside myself that I’m starving their little souls.
“Inside this jar drips applesauce and tears.”
Kruger says she didn’t nurture her interest in calligraphy until late in her first marriage.
“After being told all the time what a horrible, rotten person I was, I finally said to myself, ‘Well, I can do this.’ So I did it.”
Friends would ask her to letter something special. When Kruger agreed, some would insist on paying her.
“From there it mushroomed into a business,” she says.
After operating a retail shop in the Spokane Valley for 15 years, Kruger leased an upscale studio last June, across from downtown’s Riverpoint development.
“Moving here was a really big step for me,” she admits. “I haven’t made any money, because the rent is so high. But people have taken me more seriously.”
Kruger takes herself more seriously, too.
“It dawned on me not too long ago that I’m 51 years old, I’m getting closer to retirement, and I’ve never made a living at this.
“So last week I did something really scary: I attended my first big wholesale show, the Seattle Gift Market. And it was a wonderful experience!
“People were oohing and ahhing over my stuff, and a lady from Anchorage spent $540 the first 15 minutes we were open.” Kruger returned home with 22 orders.
Thanks to her current husband, her friends, her faith and, not least of all, her creative outlet, Kruger’s life is looking up.
She hasn’t forgotten what she went through. But she survived. And through carefully chosen, creatively rendered words, Kruger tries to help her clients weather their own crises.
Kruger is still uncomfortable talking about that period of her life. Her book is available only in her shop.
But perhaps someday, instead of searching others’ writings for poignant sentiments to transcribe, one elegant letter at a time, Kruger will find the confidence to share in calligraphy her own words about shame, fear, redemption and humor.
“I have a sense of humor,” she wrote in one of her book’s final poems, “I really do.
“But it was buried under layers upon layers of pain.
“Now, in the healing process, my sense of humor is beginning to peep out - bubbling over in unexpected ways.
“… I’m so glad that my sense of humor didn’t die forever.
“Oh, thank You, Lord, for bringing back the laughter.
“I love to laugh!”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
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