By May S. Ruiz
Her Instagram followers watch her work her magic online in real time. She writes words – names, dates, places – on a blank space and it becomes a piece of art. All in a span of a few minutes. Her calligraphy pieces grace wedding receptions, Hollywood film openings, Grammy events, and the New York fashion scene.
Katrina Centeno-Nguyen was 19 when she opened her eponymous company, Calligraphy Katrina, 12 years ago. She does a brisk business with a pen bought from an art store, and an immigrant’s determination, perseverance, and work ethic. Her journey is a model for everyone who’s arriving in this country to look for opportunities.
Chatting with me one sunny morning from her home in Pasadena, Centeno-Nguyen talks about coming to California as a 13-year-old, being raised by a single mom, and finding her career in the most unexpected way.
“My parents decided to emigrate from the Philippines – my dad arrived in Pasadena in 1997 and my mom followed in 2000. Unfortunately, their marriage didn’t work out and they divorced soon after. So it was up to my mom to find a way to get me and my sister here.
“Immigrating into the U.S. at that time wasn’t as difficult as it is today but it was definitely not an easy process. As comfortably well-off, highly educated, and widely-traveled as we were when we lived in Manila, we were still technically from a third-world country. We were coming here as dependents so that also meant my mom had to show how her children, who were still in the Philippines, were being financially supported. Propitiously, my grandmother (my grandfather had passed away) had income from their family business and rental properties so she made sure we were looked after.
“In time, my mom had obtained gainful employment as an analyst and had enough resources to cover the expenses for the petition process and the means to support us once we got here. I came here in 2001 and my sister arrived in 2005; my brother was born here.”
Continues Centeno-Nguyen, “I had finished 6th grade in Manila; I skipped middle school and went directly to 9th grade at Pasadena High School (PHS). That was quite an interesting cultural transition because I had gone to private schools in the Philippines and suddenly I was in a public school. Not only did it have a large population, students were talking back to their teachers!
“Though I have to say that socially, it wasn’t bad at all. PHS was a diverse school and a lot of students were culturally open because they also came from immigrant families. However, I had friends who weren’t necessarily immigrants. I was quite fortunate because the classmates I hung out with were very much like me – we were all in the honors program; we mainly talked about school and homework. We studied and worked on projects in each other’s homes and, at the same time, had good, clean fun.
“Maybe my innocence also shielded me because I didn’t really know if bad things were happening. There might have been students who were doing drugs but I wasn’t aware of it. But the friends I had weren’t doing drugs either so there was no peer pressure. The core of our friendship was academics; it was why we became friends in the first place. We were nerds – we played chess and enjoyed physics class. We were also a good mix – some were in sports or arts; and we were volunteering in the same places. It was all about getting ready for college applications.”
Asked which college she went to, Centeno-Nguyen responds, “I actually didn’t attend college. We were still in the process of getting our residents’ visa; we didn’t become green card holders until 2007. Going to college as a non-immigrant was going to be quite expensive. Besides, I had to try to figure out a way to help my mom. While she had a great post, she had to work two jobs to enable her to support three children – in Pasadena, where it’s not cheap. So I took a full-time job as a nanny while I attended Le Cordon Bleu. It was also at this time that I started ‘Calligraphy Katrina.’”
Being a calligrapher was the furthest thing from Centeno-Nguyen’s mind in terms of a career. She relates that she became one by happenstance, “I’ve always had good penmanship and one day, one of my nanny friends saw me writing my grocery list. She was getting married soon and asked if I could do her envelopes. She informed me that I could make money addressing wedding invitations. So I looked into how pricing worked, invested $10 on a few pens from an art store, and bought a couple of envelope packets from Target. That was how ‘Calligraphy Katrina’ started. I began with two fonts and created new ones as I went. Sometimes I’d make an accidental swish and I’d say ‘Oh, that looks pretty cool. Let’s try that again.’
Centeno-Nguyen was brought up with a discipline and work ethic that made the transition to life in the United States easier. And it proved helpful when she endured a punishing schedule as she was establishing her business.
She recalls, “After I’d been doing wedding invitations for a while, a stationery store called Paper Source in Beverly Hills started taking notice and they asked me to bring my work there. I was still working as a nanny then. I was also in the night class at culinary school and I was doing kitchen work because that was a requirement. My day commenced at 6:30 when I woke up and I was at work by 8:00. Fortunately, the family I worked for lived in Pasadena so it wasn’t a bad commute. I left their house at 5:30 and I was at school at 6:00, where I stayed until 11:00 pm.
“I squeezed the calligraphy project whenever I had the chance. Sometimes I worked on it when the child I was caring for was asleep; I did readings when he was playing. At times I did the calligraphy after school, before going to bed. That was my hustle in those early days. I also did a few hours in the kitchen during weekends because that was important. I had to balance it somehow.
“It was then I decided to give up culinary school. My mom questioned my decision when I had already paid a lot of money for it. But in the restaurant business, it’s either you own an establishment or you’re really brilliant. I was good, but not that good. To get financial backing, you have to know how to run a restaurant already, which I didn’t have any background on. At that time, too, a lot of restaurants were going under. It just so happened that my work was standing on its own and, because Calligraphy Katrina was my baby, I had a deep personal investment in it.”
Centeno-Nguyen recalls, “Facebook wasn’t as widely used as it is now; there was no Instagram. Social media wasn’t a thing yet. There were wedding blogs but the Internet wasn’t that huge so there weren’t many venues for my work to be seen by a great many people. So I posted photos on Craigslist every week – that was my marketing. Even back then, people were paying $4 to $5 an envelope. I did it in a platform like Craigslist because I was learning how to run it. It didn’t feel ethical for me to charge someone $3 when I didn’t know what I was doing. But I also disclosed to my clients that I was new at this so they knew coming in that it was why I was charging only so much. It was a learning process for me and my clients were hiring me because they just wanted something handwritten. As my artistry and knowledge evolved, I started increasing my prices. But even now, as my experience has broadened, my prices aren’t as high in comparison to what other calligraphers charge.”
“Soon, I quit my job in the kitchen and as a nanny. The calligraphy work was already gaining traction and I was secure enough to focus entirely on it. Still, I was petrified. Obviously, I didn’t really know how it would turn out. My mom and I would go to Beverly Hills every single weekend. She worked a lot so it became our special time together – we’d hang out there and meet the brides that we got from Craigslist at Starbucks.
“At the time, there were only a few people who could be called calligraphers and they were very old school – very traditional. They were master penmen who belonged to a group and they were leery about me. I was 19 and I didn’t get a formal education on the art so I was the outsider. That’s also part of my insecurity as an artist. I once had the privilege of working alongside a full-pledged calligrapher who saw me as a non-calligrapher because my slants weren’t the right size for Spencerian. But I wasn’t doing Spencerian, it was simply my own handwriting. This is why I work at such great speed.”
“Not to diminish what they do, because it’s brilliant,” Centeno-Nguyen quickly says. “I wish I had that kind of knowledge but that sensibility is what differentiates my company from others. I do volume and I need to make that work. A lot of calligraphers say what I do isn’t calligraphy because I’m diminishing art. Every day, as an artist, I also have to account for my own individuality. Since I’m not conforming to the standard, am I a real artist? Do I feel like an actual calligrapher?
“Most calligraphers do this for the artistry of it. That’s not to say that I don’t, because I most certainly do. But it’s also my primary means of livelihood and I have to meet deadlines. My evolution as an artist is tied into the success of my company. I want to establish a stable business and a successful commercial venture. I have to look at it as ‘How can I make enough to support my family?’ And because I didn’t have the resources to do so, ‘Will I be able to ensure that my child goes to a four-year university?’ And ‘How is this going to increase my income so I can enjoy my family?’ When I become financially comfortable then I can think about my artistry.”
If success were to be measured by one’s popularity on social media then Centeno-Nguyen has definitely attained it. People see her working on huge projects involving pop stars and runway models online. She’s on Reddit and has a loyal following on Instagram, which she finds incredible.
Centeno-Nguyen explains that how she got into the Hollywood industry was opportune. “In 2008, a new PR company needed 30 envelopes addressed, not right now but yesterday, and calligraphers in the city gave them a timeline of a week for the project. They called me and I said if they delivered the envelopes that morning, I would have them done by the end of the day. My company officially opened in August 2007 and we did one or two envelope projects a week. By January – February, we were already doing corporate work.
“Because of my pricing, which was like air for a PR company with a large budget, they asked me to do more things like place cards. This was also a young PR company gaining their traction, and it was beneficial to them that I was actually meeting their deadline. That PR company then talked about me to other PR companies. The buzz started from my speed – I could work on the fly. It was my ace and, for a long time, it was what made me stand out. And more corporate work came rolling in.”
Just like doing calligraphy work happened unexpectedly, working on mirrors wasn’t by design either. Centeno-Nguyen recounts, “We had a client who owned a mirror company and they were thinking of having a welcome sign for an event at the California Club. We discussed different things we could do on a mirror and we came up with a seating chart. They asked if I knew how to do one on a mirror and I said no but I’d figure it out. I didn’t know how I was going to grid it but being a nerd, I used math to measure it. I did it on site in four hours while they were setting up. I used a chalk and it looked really cool.
“This was ten years ago when I hadn’t seen anyone doing calligraphy on mirrors. No one cared for it because they said it was too hard to read. When I created calligraphy work on giant mirrors, though, everyone took note because it was different. After I did the videos, everybody wanted the mirror.”
“The mirrors are popular with weddings so 50 percent of our business comes from that and 50 percent is from corporate,” divulges Centeno-Nguyen. “We recently bought out a vintage store that carried antique mirrors from France when the owner decided to close shop last year because space rental was too expensive. We needed to have a place to store them so we opened a downtown studio. The way I see it, I’ve spent so much money buying them, I might as well have people come in to look at them. I got lucky because my space is a corner office so I get nice views on two realms. But it’s also very distracting because there’s constant activity outside and I want to see what’s happening. So I still work from home and the majority of my pens are here; that’s also because sometimes I write at 3:00 in the morning.”
Calligraphy Katrina operates smoothly with a lean staff, according to Centeno-Nguyen. “I have a house manager who’s also my daughter’s nanny, an assistant, and a driver who does all our runs in the city. This is my assistant’s first week – my previous production manager who worked with me for two-and-a-half years moved on to her dream job as a social worker. She was the one who helped me build this company to where it is now. She was with me during a difficult time. I had a tough pregnancy and I was on bed rest for nine weeks. My daughter was born at 29 weeks; she was 2 ½ lbs. and was at the Huntington Hospital for two months.
“We were also in the middle of a move to this house. I worked while I was bed-ridden and, because it relaxed me, I didn’t realize I was in labor. My daughter was born by Caesarean section at 12:03 in the morning after 26 hours of labor. New York is open at 6:00 am our time and I was on the phone taking notes because we were doing a show. It was much later they found out I was in the hospital. But I wasn’t going to miss that call. Giving birth isn’t an excuse; as long as I am awake I can write.”
Centeno-Nguyen’s reputation as a reliable artist who can get the work done fast is the reason she has long-standing clients. She’s been working with LACMA for almost ten years now and Chanel for nine years. On the morning we met, a delivery from LACMA arrived; there were several boxes of Chanel envelopes in the dining room for her to work on.
Twelve years after Centeno-Nguyen bravely took the leap to establish Calligraphy Katrina, she is a mainstay not only in the luxury bridal market, she’s also sought after by corporate clients including museums, fashion houses, The Grammys, and movie companies, among others.
When queried about which projects she enjoyed most, Centeno-Nguyen replies, “The Chanel fashion show was a fantastic gig. We’ve done a few fashion shows like YSL and Moschino and they were really fun, but the Chanel was doubly so because we were in New York for a whole week preparing for it. We even saw the rehearsal; it was like seeing a production come to life. But the most memorable one will always be my first mirror.”
It’s a sentiment shared by most immigrants – no matter how successful they become and how far they’ve come, they look back with gratitude at where they started.