BY FLORENCE BETT-KINYATTI
“How has your mechanical engineering degree shaped your art? No no, before you answer that, what was your favourite class in school?
“Did I really have one?” Mercy offers me a demure smile. “It was a roller coaster until the end. Maybe I can say I liked Engineering Drawing. I think I was the only one in my class who liked engineering drawing. Ha-ha. We’d do two drawings in one week and one drawing could take you seven hours. Imagine.” She pauses. “One drawing.” Another pause. “Seven hours.” She smirks. “I used to put music in the background, some classical music, nothing with words.”
“Seven hours is a whole working day! What’s that you’re drawing for seven hours?!”
“We’d draw a small component of a machine. You’re given, probably, a 3D drawing of the component and then–”
“You’ll do a different font there,” I interrupt Mercy and say. She’s hand lettering as we chat. She has a desktop chalkboard that sits on her, uhm, desk – she’s just written ‘Craft It’ on it using white chalk. It looks amazing. It’s amazing how easily she did it as I watched her, and while she chatted. I now want her to show me what other trick she has in her bag of calligraphy.
Mercy tilts her head and looks at me across the table, her eyes narrowed. “I don’t think I have another font in me.”
“I’m sure you do!” I yawp back. I lift up one of the boards of her earlier work and say, “What about this font?”
“Oh, you want that one?” I nod like a needy child. Mercy says, “I don’t think it’ll work with this pen.”
“Yeah, it can’t work with this pen.” My shoulders sag, Mercy’s don’t. She picks up the convo where we left off. “What was I telling you again?”
“You were telling me about engineering drawing.”
“Oh yeah. Yeah. Many of the skills I gained from engineering drawing help me with my calligraphy: symmetry, using lines instead of your own perception; lines make your work look way more polished because it’s all aligned. Even these tools I use to draw with are from engineering drawing. We used different types of pencils in school –2H, 3H, HB. And these set squares, we also had t-squares. I think you’ve seen them with engineering students…”
“T-squares are those long ones that stick out of someone’s back? Haha.”
“I used to walk around with them and people would call me, ‘Engineer!’ ‘ Engineer!’ I liked that actually,” Mercy nods with a mild pleasure, “being called engineer.”
Mercy Kendagor. 24 years old. Fresh out of campus. She graduated only in December. Her graduation photos, the ones our folks make us go take with them at a studio, are not even out yet; I haven’t seen them hanging anywhere in their home here in South C. Mercy is the first kid of four, so I’m certain those graduation studio photos are coming.
Mercy is now in that phase of post-undergrad life where you’re hangover about your old life as a student and giddy about your new life as an employee that pays his taxes and files his returns.
“My days don’t have structure any more,” Mercy says. “Sometimes I don’t know what day of the week it is, I have to ask my Mum, ‘What day is it today?’ Then she’ll tell me, ‘It’s Tuesday’. And I’m like, ‘Hmm. OK.’ I only know when it’s the end of the week cause I work at my church setting up sound.”
She’s been applying for jobs and has gone for a handful of interviews. She plans to be a mechanical engineer by day and a calligrapher by night. A scientist and an artist.
Mercy’s outfit is called Blue Anchor Creative.
“I’m a self-taught calligrapher,” says Mercy. “I’m the main calligrapher at Blue Anchor Creative. The only one, so far. At Blue Anchor we deal with calligraphy and handmade cards, calligraphy on different surfaces and items, from books, paper, mirrors and well, any surface, really. Most of my business has come from weddings signage.”
“What triggered this craft, your art?”
“I’ve always been an artsy crafty person so I’ll always try whatever I could find. I’ve tried many crafts but this one seemed to pick up.”
“What else have you tried before?”
“I’ve tried origami, I’ve tried making these cards,” she points to the greetings cards propped up behind her seat, “and other paper cuts.” Later, after we’d winded up on the interview, Mercy’s Mum said from the kitchen door, “Mercy, have you told them about the butterflies in your bedroom? You have to show them.” She turned to me and said, “Go upstairs with her, she’ll show you.” It was a swarm of paper cut butterflies stuck to the wall. If I listened closely, I could imagine hearing the sound of their wings fluttering.
Mercy continues, “I used to follow crafting shows and tutorials online, there was this particular calligrapher on Instagram called Cellar Designs, I loved her work. I was still in school and all I had at the time were pencils and biros. I did some very basic-looking fonts, just copying what I was seeing in pictures on the Internet. Then I got drawn to this thing called hand lettering. It was very advanced in the West.”
I want to place the events of Mercy’s story in some sort of timeline, this timeline helps me when I’m writing the story later. I ask her “Which year was this?”
“It was about late 2016.
“I made some quotes for my friends for birthday cards and one of my calligraphy colleagues – he’s one of the more accomplished calligraphers I know, he’s been in the business for a while – saw what I’d done. He was very impressed. I was surprised, Like, ‘Really, really?” Mercy chortles. “But because he had said it was good then I knew there must be something.
“So I became more adventurous and went for more advanced quotes I’d seen. He introduced me to a client who wanted him to write something on a mirror, but he didn’t know how to do it, he’d never tried to write on a mirror, neither had I.
“The font I had been using is not like classic calligraphy, it’s modern and more free, there’s no strict way to do it. It’s like modern poetry. This client was a wedding planning company, and they really loved what we did.” I later asked Mercy for photos of the work she did for this client, I wanted to use them for this story. She said she didn’t have them. Unfortunately.
She says, “It’s from here that I got confidence to keep trying this craft.”
That was beginning of 2017. Mercy officially launched her Instagram page that February and posted the work she’d already done. She also followed as many wedding planning and wedding events companies she could find on IG – she was fully aware that they were her potential partners/clients.
The first mirror job got her more signage gigs. Which got her some more. And more.
Ultimately, it gave her a gig at my wedding and it led Mercy to me.
Our fates would align.
GB and I had our wedding last February.
Folk will tell you that planning a wedding is a bitch but I enjoyed it to a great degree because it involved plenty of creative work and putting together all these moving parts. Stuff I’m naturally good at.
I planned my own wedding. I was at work part-time for two and a half months – November to January – to throw my back into it. All these storos of committee meetings and assigning sijui which pal the duty of sijui DJ or sijui caterer didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because we, GB and I, didn’t want to do that to our pals. Being assigned wedding duties is not the most exciting thing to add to anyone’s day. Doesn’t matter how much of a pal your pal is.
Another reason we didn’t do this is because I already had a relationship with my suppliers. I’d interviewed most of the them for magazine features; they’d shared their personal stories with me and shown me, in their element, what they can deliver to me as their client. They expressed their gratitude for this media coverage by coming through for GB and I on our Big Day.
So here was GB and I in December, planning our wedding. (Well, I was planning the wedding, he was writing the cheques. Ahem.)
I, as the bride, the insane bride, because all brides are insane, had Pinterest boards for my creative ideas: I had a Pinterest board for colours schemes. A Pinterest board for the church canopies. A Pinterest board for the aisle. A Pinterest board for cake. The only thing I didn’t have a board for was the groom. (Hehhe. OK, that was a tasteless joke. Excuse me.) Of most relevance to this story, is the Pinterest board for some hand-painted wooden boards I’d stumbled upon by chance.
Late December, I WhatsApped the decor chick pictures of the boards and asked her, “Can you get these boards done for me, Betsy?”
And because Betsy is smart, and because she didn’t want to offend anyone, let alone a bride, she said, “Ofcourse, I can, dear!”
What I didn’t know was this: Betsy herself only had a slight idea about where to get the boards done. Second, Mercy, wherever she was in December, she must have just graduated, had grown confident in her craft and had been praying for an opportunity to do the hand-lettering on wooden boards.
And now a chance had presented itself to her.
Our fates had aligned.
What Mercy does on these wooden boards is called hand lettering.
Think of hand lettering as modern calligraphy. The fonts she uses are modern fonts – they don’t have any names. At least not yet.
Classic fonts for traditional calligraphy are fonts like Copperplate, Gothic and Spencerian. It’s what is used in certificates and whatnot.
Mercy says, “The thing about hand lettering and using these handmade boards is that it should be neat but it shouldn’t be perfect, it shouldn’t look like it was bought in a supermarket. And ofcourse it must have visual symmetry and balance. If there isn’t visual balance I have to find a way to bolden the letters where the asymmetry is coming from, like what I’ve done with your board here.”
Mercy gets all her art supplies from Science Scope. It’s a muhindi’s shop on Kimathi Street in tao, next to the Nation Centre. It’s been there for as long as political detainees were being held at Nyayo House. Science Scope have upgraded over time, though, kept up with the changing times and remained relevant in a time where folk are moving away from pens and papers as mediums of expressing their art.
Science Scope is a popular spot for artsy types – sketchists and painters, architects and engineerings students, graphic designers, poets and writers. I’ve been there a couple of times to get some fancy notebooks. I haven’t gotten around to using because they’re just too fancy. What do you write in fancy notebooks?
There’s a vibe about being in Science Scope that calms the artsy spirit.
The pen Mercy uses for paper calligraphy is a gift from a friend. It’s called a pilot parallel plate pen. (You’ll see from the video how Mercy dipped her pen into the ink pot, tapped it gently against the side to drop off any excess ink, then gently brought the ink to the paper. I felt like I was watching a British Lord from 1817 pass a death sentence to some hapless criminal.)
The wooden boards are from her regular carpenter.
She measures them by size in inches: You can have standard sizes of A2, A3, A4. Or you can customize a board to the size you want, depends on where you want to hang it up.
The price goes with the size of the board.
Mercy calligraphs a customized message of your choosing on the board.
These boards have to be prepped for hand lettering.
First, it has to be cut to the dimensions Mercy’s client wants. Some clients want one board on one stand, others want several small boards, others want one large board or one small board that can be hang by a ribbon on a wall.
The boards are mostly from the wood of pine trees. Pine trees have a better grain than other commonly used trees like cypress trees, Mercy tells me, this grain in the pinewood adds texture to the board and enhances its rustic appeal.
The wood has to be dry. She says, “You can’t use wet wood for the boards.”
“What’s wet wood?”
“Wet wood is wood from a tree that has just been cut. It takes several days to dry, that’s part of the process of preparing it, drying it first.”
Once the dried wood has been cut to the dimensions Mercy’s needs, it’s sanded down to a stain Mercy asks for then it’s layered with a coat of varnish. She says, “Staining gives the board texture and the aged looked. The varnish prevents the paint from soaking into the wood and running. The varnish also protects the board from the elements of weather and ants and insects. ”
It takes about two days to prep this board.
For the paint itself, Mercy uses oil-based acrylic paint or paint markers.
She says, “I prefer to use paint marker because it’s a pen, a pen is a tool my hands are already used to.”
“But does it come in any other colours? I’m seeing that most of the boards you’ve calligraphed are in colour white.”
“Yeah, it comes in gold or silver, but they don’t shimmer as much as they should, so I don’t use them.”
I sip from my glass of water. “And when do you use acrylic paint?”
“When I’m doing very intricate patterns or patterns that have different colours. You see like the board that said, ‘Welcome to our wedding’? I used acrylic paint for that and for the flower. The brush I used was a flat brush in #0.”
“And how long does it take for the paint to dry?”
“Just a few minutes actually. Sometimes even instantly. But I usually have to put another coat on it.”
“Can the regular eye tell the difference between acrylic paint and paint marker?”
“No, not really. It’s only that the paint marker is smooth and the acrylic ink is rough and has texture. But what I want to start doing is to seal the board with vanish, after I’ve finished doing the lettering. That way the letters won’t get dirty with time.”
I look at a board where Mercy used acrylic paint and one where she used a paint marker: the difference is insignificant.
I think back to one of the boards I had at my wedding. I ask her, “How long did it take you to finish writing on the board that says ‘Once in a while…’?”
“It took me about three hours. When you’re doing calligraphy, I realized, it’s very taxing on your brain.” Mercy sighs. “The way I can explain it is, when I used to do my Calculus and very heavy engineering mathematics, those things are so draining. When you’re done with like two to three hours of reading, you feel light headed. It’s like you… you just want to lie down.
“I thought calligraphy was just fun, that you just write write. Buuut, that heavy concentration takes away the same amount of energy as it took to do my heavy engineering mathematics. I have to be on high alert because I don’t want to make a mistake. It’s very hard to correct, because if you try to correct paint that has been done on varnish, they’re basically made of the same material, and so what removes paint also removes varnish.”
“And what’s that that removes it? Turpentine?”
“Yes, also acetone and nail polish remover. I use nail polish remover cause it’s more available, and turpentine is really just toxic. I didn’t know how intense this concentration was until the day I had a deadline and I had to do alot of calligraphy at once. I remember how I’d get so tired after doing just one line, ha-ha. It felt like it had taken me years to just finish that one line.”
And I can tell that the concentration is intense.
Something happens to Mercy when she starts lettering my Craft It board: Her face relaxes, the muscles around her cheeks and lips – even her eyelids and ear lobes – surrender to the pull of the energy flow her calligraphing demands. Her breathing slows to a whisper. She doesn’t speak. She’s tuned in. Working deep. Channelling her creative conscious from a depth whose genesis is almost spiritual.
It’s what creatives call ‘being in the zone’. Mercy gets in the zone. The awareness of her conscious and the mindfulness of her subconscious means that she even forgets we’re around her. She isn’t aware of anything except the screech of the paint marker on the board, the letters she’s creating and the heavy tang of the ink from the paint marker.
Mercy’s concentration is intense also because she’s a neat freak and a perfectionist, she can’t let herself make any mistakes because correcting those mistakes makes the lettering messy. Mercy doesn’t do messy. She doesn’t work with any clutter around her, either, her desk only has the tools she needs to work with.
Then suddenly, without warning, Mercy zones out.
She lifts her head up from the board and looks at the lettering.
She’s pleased, I can tell.
I’m waiting for a smug smile to ribbon this moment, life some sort of gifted box she’s presented herself, but it doesn’t come.
Mercy simply rubs the ink off her fingers and waits for the board to dry.
Today – this Wednesday, mid June – is the second time Will and I are here at Mercy’s.
My convo with Mercy started in early May. I’d vowed to look for her after my wedding because I was blown away by the craftsmanship of the boards she’d done for us. I called her on a Tuesday and told her we meet for the interview on Thursday. I also ordered my Craft It board on that Tuesday, and sent in my deposit. Mercy balked. She said the board wouldn’t be ready by Thursday, so let’s do Friday, 11a.m. I said sawa.
Friday Will and I get to her place in South C and Mercy says the idiot that was to deliver the board was only prepping it that morning. (OK, she didn’t use the word ‘idiot’, that was my word, not hers.)
Mercy wasn’t amused. She asked me, “So what do we do? Do we roll the dice and hope he’ll deliver it next week like he said, you guys can come then or…?”
“Let’s do what we can today. Then we’ll come back another day, when he’s delivered the board, to shoot the remaining part of the interview.” I added hastily, “Don’t worry about it. Look, Mercy, you are running a business and you are dealing with fundis, this happens all the time. We’ll just work with what we have today and hope that he’ll come through. If he doesn’t then you find another one. Don’t worry. Let’s go inside we do the interview.”
Mercy called me three, four weeks later – I’m not sure – to tell me that the board was finally ready.
“Oh, so the fundi came through?”I asked on phone.
“No, he didn’t! I had to get one from his neighbour, as in the guy who is right next to his shop. He knew what to do.”
Aki fundis will be the death of us. Kenyan fundis are made of something else. Not just fundi wa mbao – fundi wa nguo, fundi wa viatu, fundi wa vitabu. I almost tore out my hair dealing with the printers for Bikozulu’s debut novella DRUNK. I’m a person who has plenty of patience but it run out with them.
Fundis are only the start of challenges in Mercy’s young business. Another challenge is the scarcity of wood.
Last April, the government passed a 90-day logging ban. Turns out that the government of Kenya wants to increase forest coverage – it’s currently at six per cent, they want it to go up to at least 10 per cent.
I tell Mercy when we’re at her dining table, “You must plant more trees. You’re working with wooden products so you should give back to the environment. I think it’s your responsibility to. In two, three years, Blue Anchor Creative should have a tree planting drive and invite people to come plant with you guys. Also invite us to take photos and videos and make some noise for you on social media, hehhe. I think it’ll be loads of fun.”
Another challenge Mercy encounters often is pricing.
I ask Mercy, “Are there any local YouTube channels you follow? I like Joanna Kinuthia and The Green Calabash?” I giggle. It’s like I’ve made a confession about an awkward guilty pleasure which no one imagines I indulge in.
“Nah. I’m not really into fashion and beauty so I don’t watch them,” Mercy says. “And they are usually just talking and talking and talking. I like watching channels which make me think.”
“Oh yeah? Like which ones?”
“I like John Piper’s sermons,” Mercy says in a heartbeat. “He makes a lot of sense. He asks hard questions about religions, and Buddhism and atheism. I also like Mark Virkler’s channel. There was an episode where he was talking about dreams. He said that we sleep for eight hours and we spend one and a half of those hours dreaming. And that those dreams are saying something to us.” Mercy swallows some spittle. “There was a dream where I was crying because my friend had underpaid me for a job. She paid me 1,500 but she should have paid 4,500. That’s when I knew that I have to learn how to price my work in the right way.”
I prod her some more. “What else do you like to watch?”
Mercy looks away to think for a minute. “Sid Roth. He’s into supernatural stuff. He likes to talk to people who are on the edge – people who have died, gone to heaven and heard the voice of God and come back. There also this lady, I’ve forgotten her name,” Mercy drums the tips of her fingers as she struggles to remember, “she does paper cutting. She had this project called Tiny Blades Project. She made a piece everyday for two years and posted it on her social media.”
“What’s paper cutting?”
“It’s very intricate work,” Mercy says sitting up straighter. “What she does is she attaches a very sharp small blade to the tip of a pen and uses it to cut paper. I’m going to learn how to do it because I’ve run out of ideas on how to make my cards.”
It’s around 11a.m now. Taking the two hours today plus the two hours in May, this is probably the longest interview of my writing career just yet. And with the youngest interviewee and craftsman.
As Will and I are readying to leave, I tell Mercy, “I’ll order more boards later, some for home decor and some for my daughter. She’s two and a half and I want her to master the alphabet and numbers before she starts school. She keeps tearing her books, so I’ll order some large pretty boards in a simple fun font. I’ll hang them up on my wall for her.”
What Mercy offers
A customized message on a wooden board customized to size.
Sizes of boards available:
– 26cm by 22cm/10″ by 8″: Sh4,000
– 30cm by 30cm/12″ by 12″: Sh5,000
– 42cm by 30cm/17″ by 12″: Sh7,000
– Anything above and beyond: Customized rates
A one-on-one Masterclass on Calligraphy and Hand-lettering: Coming soon
Phone number: 0708 495318
Instagram: Blue Anchor Creative
Watch the video on our YouTube channel here >> Mercy of Blue Anchor Creative
Photo credits: All photos by Aegean Will, for Craft It.
Image copyrights apply. None of these photos should be used elsewhere without the express permission of Craft It.