A Man of Letters

The esteemed calligrapher and Instagram sensation, Seb Lester reveals the poignant story behind his success.

By Sarah Emily Gilbert

When I discovered London artist and designer Seb Lester’s (@seblester) account on Instagram, I also uncovered a place of peace. I would feverishly search through my Instagram feed to watch one of Lester’s art videos so as to put myself in a calligraphy-induced trance. The effortless swoops and swirls of Lester’s letters immediately removed me from my external environment and into an overriding calm. Apparently, I’m just one of a million.

When asked if any other of his one million plus followers have commented on the soothing nature of his work, Lester responded, “Yes, they do. People use adjectives like ‘mesmerizing’ and ‘calming’ all the time. I don’t fully understand it, but clearly something interesting is happening here.” Perhaps, the “interesting” phenomenon produced from Lester’s letters is rooted in his own use of calligraphy as an escape.

Lester has always had an appreciation for letters. In the 1990s, he experimented with digital typefaces in college and eventually became a corporate type-designer for nine years. It wasn’t until 2011 that Lester felt he was on the brink of success in the art world after being commissioned to work on several prominent projects for big name companies like Nike and Creative Review magazine. But when his partner Pamela was suddenly diagnosed with advanced bowel cancer, Lester found himself swapping his studio time for trips to the hospital.

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For 18 months, Lester fully dedicated himself to Pamela who underwent four major surgeries and several complications due to her condition. A dark and stressful time in his life, Lester saw his dreams slowly dissipating. To cope, Lester found himself retreating to his sketchpad where he would doodle and experiment with different types of pens. Unwittingly, Lester was undergoing the intense hours of training required to master traditional calligraphy that he once avoided. While the corporate typefaces he produced for work needed to be conservative and highly functional in form, Lester found his personal work to be much more expressive – and so did others. Fast forward to 2015, and you have a world-renowned calligraphist with a healthy life partner in cancer remission.

It is Winston Churchill’s quote, “If you’re going through hell, keep going” that Lester uses to describe this period in his life. Not only did Seb and Pamela keep going, but they also credited the experience with making Lester the incredible designer and artist he is today. Lester believes the best calligraphy finds a sweet spot between discipline and freedom of form and trying to create beauty from chaos. He wants his art to have an intensity about it that comes from his understanding of harmony and knowing when to break that harmony with unusual contrasts.

With hundreds of other calligraphers on the Internet, one has to wonder if it’s Lester’s own ability to create beauty from chaos that resonates with his countless followers. When he writes profound words like “silence” or “eternity” on his Instagram videos, it’s as if his personal feelings and experiences are being transmitted through his pen and to the viewer. As a result, watching his lovely calligraphic process often ends in a strange sort of empathy towards the artist. And while others seem to understand Lester’s work, he is the first to admit that he needs to “reign in his own expectations” when it comes to calligraphy.

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“I put a lot of pressure on myself, and I’m rarely truly content with anything I do. I think that’s one of the reasons I continue to improve so quickly. Sometimes you have to set ridiculous goals to achieve ridiculous things, but I do need to be a bit kinder to myself sometimes.”

Aside from making him one of the most popular accounts on Instagram, Lester’s extreme work ethic has allowed him to work on more amazing projects. While he is most proud of the typefaces he developed for Intel and the Vancouver Winter Olympics, it is his series of calligraphy clips in which he draws famous logos from scratch that has caused a significant spike in his number of fans. Despite his extraordinary achievements, Lester continues to push himself.

“I’ve set extremely high goals for myself in art. I would probably sound pretty crazy if I went into detail, but then the art world is a pretty crazy place. I want to try to reach my true potential as an artist. I have to believe that if I work very hard in a focused, intelligent and responsive way the rest will take care of itself.”

Lester is currently taking a sabbatical from design to focus on art while looking to work in a New York City gallery. He has several new limited edition prints and original pieces in the works, as well as a mural project that will be going up in London later this year. While we wait for Lester’s latest creations, Urban Agenda says keep on keeping on, Seb Lester as you send people’s minds into a placating place of wonderment one letter at a time.

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