In a small room on the third floor of Ponsonby's Studio One Toi Tū, artist Kate Hursthouse creates campaigns for clients — the likes of Karen Walker, Lululemon, Spark and Laneway — using illustration, calligraphy and hand-lettering.

That Hursthouse is sequestered in a heritage building — it opened in 1906 as the Newton Police Station and Barracks — seems appropriate given she is helping to bring back what has almost become a forgotten art.

She's one of a small but growing number of artists who "illustrate language" using broad-tipped pens and brushes or pointed-pens to create work which incorporates calligraphy and hand-lettered messages.

"It can display messages and words and characters in a way that, I guess, other art can't," says Hursthouse, of calligraphy. "I'm quite interested in how I can create patterns and textures using words so there becomes a hidden meaning behind some of my artworks."


One day, she'd like to try using a broom to make her work, preferably on a big surface; right now, there are examples of her work appearing in disparate places.

At fashion house Karen Walker, Hursthouse, 32, spent time before Christmas using traditional "dip pens" to produce personalised gift cards for customers; she was also planning an online art project where she's now drawing 125 "extraordinary New Zealand women" to celebrate 125 years of women's suffrage in NZ.

Our Wāhine is an illustrated history with text researched and written by Hursthouse's mother, Karen Brook. Hursthouse says the project has shown them there are many New Zealand women role models but their stories have often been hidden or, at times, forgotten.

A Kaleidoscope of Butterflies by Kate Hursthouse.
A Kaleidoscope of Butterflies by Kate Hursthouse.

She also recently completed and self-published her first children's book. A Kaleidoscope of Butterflies has been about four years in the making and followed a chance conversation about zebras.

It's a dazzling collection of animals drawn ever-so-cleverly to reflect the collective noun used when there's a group of them. For example, a circus of puffins or a loveliness of ladybugs or even a blessing of unicorns.

"It came about because some family friends of ours had been to Africa; they were showing us photos and there was a group of zebras.

"They said, 'did you know that a group of zebras is called a dazzle?' and I was like, 'no! that's amazing'. It's because when they are together in a group, they kind of shimmer with their stripes, so they become camouflaged."

Hursthouse also learned that "dazzle camouflage" was used in World Wars I and II on ships and submarines so their speed, range and direction was difficult to pinpoint because it creates an optical illusion.


"I thought it was just awesome so, just for myself, I started looking up collective nouns and thought this would be so fun to illustrate some of them," she says. "With this book, the whole idea was that I would tie the hand-lettering in to fit or complement the animal.

"I didn't want the collective noun to be typed out on the computer in any way. It would usually start with the animal, figuring out what the animals were going to look like and how the lettering was going to be done to fit in with that."

Kate Hursthouse at work on images for A Kaleidoscope of Butterflies, which uses her calligraphy and hand-brushed lettering and drawings.
Kate Hursthouse at work on images for A Kaleidoscope of Butterflies, which uses her calligraphy and hand-brushed lettering and drawings.

It means the circus of puffins has an old-fashioned carnival feel, influenced by the lettering once found on circus advertising posters; the lounge of lizards has a California-poolside-1960s vibe; the army of caterpillars wear combat hats and the slumber of sloths are doing just that.

It's a world away from the Bibles and illuminated manuscripts we might associate with calligraphy and hand-lettering. Hursthouse first became aware of more contemporary calligraphy when she was studying in Australia, having walked away from a career as an architect.

As a high school student, she lived in the art department of Rangitoto College but was advised to pursue architecture because it fitted with her artistic bent and abilities. It never felt right but being a person who likes to see things through, she stuck it out.

"I was like, 'okay, I'll give it a go and work as an architect' but it didn't help that I graduated into the recession and there was no work ... I moved to Melbourne and worked as an architect for maybe two years; I spent a lot of time talking about air-conditioning and toilets and plumbing and I hardly picked up a pencil.

"I was on my computer all the time and I just didn't enjoy it. I had started doing some night classes, and I guess people come to my calligraphy classes for the same reason — for something a bit more creative — and I realised how much I missed my drawing and art."

That was the turning point, further helped by joining the NZ Calligraphers society and doing more training here and in Italy.

"I went on a trip to Europe where I did a seven-day calligraphy workshop in Italy. It was amazing. It was in this Renaissance-era studio with painted ceilings and I think after that I was just like, 'I can't go back and work in an office and be in front of a computer forever, ever again'."

Traditional as the setting was, it also exposed Hursthouse to more contemporary calligraphy. Now, several years on and a successful business established, she's passing on the skills to others in small-group classes. Demand for the classes grows; she thinks perhaps in a digitised world, we're looking for creative outlets that are possibly more hand-based, authentic and reliant on our own talents.

"I get people who have weddings coming up, who are really wanting to write beautiful names on their wedding invitations and things like that," says Hursthouse, adding that patience is one of the most important qualities required for calligraphy.

"I feel sometimes people come to a class and expect to be leaving as a calligrapher but there are people who have been doing it for years and still only consider themselves intermediate. It takes time, a lot of practice and a real passion for letters and words, which not everybody has. I like it because it's like you're illustrating language, really."
And when she looks back, Hursthouse realises she's been doing that for many years.

"I remember my birthday party invitations when I was about 8 — mum's got a copy of it in a photo album at home — of my little witch on a broomstick and I would do my own 'Kate's birthday party'."

A Kaleidoscope of Butterflies
written and illustrated by Kate Hursthouse
(Little Love, $30)