It’s not every day that you get to connect with someone whose work instantly inspires you. But that was precisely the case when Kirsten Ashley connected with us on Instagram a few weeks ago. Kirsten is an incredibly talented graphic designer, photographer, and calligrapher based out of Abilene, TX, and after spending more time than we should have scrolling through her work on Instagram, we knew we needed to learn more about her.
In today’s creative industry, it’s not uncommon to come across multi-talented creators who can offer a multitude of services. But it’s one thing to be good at multiple things, and it’s a completely other thing to be able to tie them all together to create an experience and tell a story. And that is exactly what Kirsten does.
So for Week 3 of our Artist Profile series, Kirsten graciously spent some time talking with us more about her story and her craft.
Hey Kirsten! How are you?
I am marvelous!
Awesome! Ok, so first thing's first — tell me about yourself.
Well, I was born and raised in Garland, TX (go Owls). I went to Texas Tech University, and I obtained my master's degree in Architecture. Then when I graduated, it was right when the economy crashed, and there were no jobs for anybody. At the same time my mother was really sick with cancer. So I moved back home, worked at Starbucks, and helped my dad and my brother take care of my mom before she passed away. My dad had always encouraged me to follow my dreams and pursue my passions, and design is something I've always been passionate about. And so after she passed away, I started to apply for jobs everywhere, and in August 2010, I happened to get one in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which I couldn't even locate on a map!
Then after 2 months in Iowa, I went to a Halloween party and met my (now) husband — I was Carmen San Diego and he was Neo from the Matrix. We got engaged after 7 months, and then we moved to Germany for 3 ½ years. I had always wanted to live overseas, so it was kind of like a 3 ½ year honeymoon. Then after that, we moved back here to Texas and closer to my family, which has been really really nice.
Ok let's go back a bit. You said you went to school for architecture, but you've always been passionate about design. For me, my initial reaction is to think there is a fairly large gap between architecture and something like graphic design. But for you, how did those two go together?
Well, when I was thinking about what I wanted to do at college, I had no idea! And so when I went to Texas Tech and looked at their program for architecture, I was completely sold on it and knew that's exactly what I wanted to do. In design and architecture, there are a lot of the same skills and processes that are shared — working with color palettes, working through a list of requirements on a project, as well as designing and working for a client.
But the main reason I was sold on architecture is because when you're designing and creating buildings, when you're deciding what the outside and the inside is going to look like, deciding what the spacial representation is going to look like in the exterior and interior, and the experience that somebody has when they walk through a building you've created, you're shaping a community. You're building a world for the future — your children and your children's children. And being able to make an impact on a community, as well as express your creativity through something that will be standing for 10-20+ years is an amazing feeling!
So how did you move beyond architectural design and into graphic design?
Well, after I married my husband, I quit my job in architectural design in Iowa and moved to a small German village where I didn't speak the language, and there was no real international architectural presence. And so I wish I could say that I was able to just stay at home, but that's just not who I am! And so I had a friend in Germany who did photography, and although I had been shooting digital photography since high school, she taught me how to shoot in manual mode, and I realized how much I loved it!
And with having a background in architecture, I knew Photoshop, Illustrator, and a bit of web-design experience, and so it all started to blend together and I was able to build and brand my own business. And not only did I like the creative photography side, but I also enjoyed the business administration side, where I could create my own marketing materials with Photoshop and Illustrator. And so that's where Kirsten Ashley Photography and Design was born!
Was there a specific moment when this creative side of you moved beyond just a hobby and into creating and launching your business?
Yes there was! I had a sort of fairy godmother in Germany. She was between my age and how old my mother would have been, and one day she asked me to take portraits of her friend's family. And it really touched my heart because the youngest daughter of this family had been diagnosed with leukemia, and they wanted portraits of their family while she was doing well. And it really touched my heart because of what happened with my mother.
And so I took photos of that family, and they all turned out beautifully. One of my favorite photos I've ever taken came from that session. And when I came home, I remember thinking that I could really do this — that I could grow this into an amazing company that I would love with my whole heart!
How did the graphic design aspect of your company come about?
What's interesting is that originally, my company started out as "Kirsten Ashley Photography." But the design-side of the company was born because I had a lot of photography friends in Germany who needed branding. They needed someone who really knew how to create an identity for their company. A lot of people don't realize branding is more than just a logo, and so I just wanted to scoop all these photographers up and build them an identity that they would be crazy about and inspire them.
What about calligraphy? When did that become a part of your company?
Well I've actually been doing calligraphy for forever! My mother did it, and so she taught me a while before calligraphy became cool again.
For a lot of multi-talented creators, saying we love one specific art-form over another is almost like saying we love one of our children more than the other. But sometimes there is a bit more spark and we feel more alive when we do a particular thing. What do you feel most alive doing?
Oh wow, that's a tough call. Can I just tell you what I'm currently feeling?
Well, currently whenever I'm doing calligraphy, it lights my world! Mostly because I'm doing it every single day. Every morning over coffee I'll sit down and practice my swashes and my flourishing, and not only is it calming and relaxing for me, but it's exciting because I'm creating and perfecting an art that not many people have a skillset for. And being able to see my progression with this style, or that style, or coming up with completely new styles that are all my own just lights my heart on fire! And then combining that with pretty, fancy paper that is thick and lush just puts me over the moon!
So speaking of calligraphy, when I first saw your work, I was blown away! I could immediately tell that you have poured your heart, your talent, and time into it. What was your process of improving and getting to where you are today? And how would you encourage those who are wanting to improve their calligraphy?
You're so kind! The best way I can answer that, as cliche as it may be, is to practice every day. It may sound crazy, but I try to put something in the mail almost every other day, whether it's a letter to a friend, or just a short note to say, "Hey, I love you." When you're lettering every day, you really start to get a feel for what your hand is comfortable with.
My mother raised me on a classical calligraphy, which had hard, strict rules. Then, when this modern calligraphy came out, there were people breaking the rules all over the place. And so when I learned that you could break the rules, I thought "Oh! Well then let's try this, and let's try this!" I actually penned my own wedding invitations, and I saw that when you do it everyday, you begin to improve and develop your own style.
And so I would just encourage people who really have an interest in it and want to grow, to just practice every day, even if it's just the alphabet.
Whether in your photography, your graphic design, or your calligraphy, who has been most influential in what you do?
Definitely my mom. She was such an amazing woman. She was chemical engineer, but would come home, cook a beautiful meal, and then be able to stamp, emboss, and letter cards. When I was growing up and in high school, my mom and all her sisters would get together for coffee at Starbucks on Saturday morning, and it was very much a routine for us to go look at all the creative magazines at Barnes & Nobles while we drank our Starbucks and talk about card designs.
Beyond your influences and who shaped your craft growing up, who are people that you look up to and are inspired by today?
I would say people like Michael Sull who is a Master Penman, or Jake Weidmann who is also a Master Penman. For me, I think it's the ultimate goal to be a Master Penman. Most people don't even know that title exists, but there are only 11 Master Penmen in the world! I just think being a Master Penman would be the cat's pajamas! There's another guy named MG Ward who is just amazingly talented, and makes me want to throw my pen across the room.
And not to be repetitive, but my mother still inspires me. I know she'd be so proud of everything I've accomplished. She always raised me to believe that I could achieve whatever I wanted to achieve as long as I worked really hard at it and never gave up. She taught me that opportunities are always there, you just have to go out and look for them, and make it happen. I just feel very fortunate, and attribute my passion to that.
So where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Honestly, I see myself with strong roots in Abilene. I know that sounds silly to say, but after being an Air Force wife, and now not having to move, that's a really big thing for me. Being able to build relationships without having to say goodbye, and to be able to have my company invest in Abilene will be such a great feeling.
What's been the most rewarding aspect of what you do?
It's different for each aspect of my company, but I think this one applies to all — and that's being able to take a client's vision, make it come to life, and then being able to see their face and realize that you nailed it. I love getting to see how that impacts their life and makes these really priceless and big moments be that much more special, and closer to their heart. You can see it in their eyes, and that will never get old.
Kirsten, thanks so much for taking the time to chat.
You're welcome! Thank you for reaching out!