Heather Spooner is an artist. She wears big, floppy hats. She swears. She talks a lot with her hands. She is the kind of woman other people talk about — and that’s how she likes it.
Spooner is the founder of Ampersand Lettering Lab, a hand-lettering studio based in Traverse City. Spooner specializes in hand lettering and is known for her large-scale murals found in local restaurants, bars, yoga studios and shops.
Pre-pandemic, Spooner hosted lettering workshops in her studio, but now offers an online lettering class where people can practice at their own pace, no fancy tools required.
“My big thing is that you can use literally anything to letter,” she said. “You could find a pen from the gas station in your junk drawer and you can still produce beautiful art. You don’t have to have super expensive equipment.”
You might already be familiar with some of her work — “Wear Your Wings TC” is a popular mural in downtown Traverse City that encourages visitors to pose and snap the perfect Instagram shot. The wings are filled with the words “love,” “acceptance,” “equality” and “unity.” This was Spooner’s first major project after moving to Traverse City, and it was a way for her to thank the Northern Michigan community for being so open and welcoming to her and her wife, Christy Lundgren.
“It’s just a really great community to be a part of,” Spooner said. “People are really this nice, people are really this genuine. People are willing to reach out and help you when you need help with something, and nobody’s too proud to tell you how they did something. It’s really great; it’s unlike any other place I’ve lived in that sense.”
Unleashing her creativity
Spooner has always had a creative side — she was the go-to student in elementary school for creating the homecoming and talent show posters. But it wasn’t until she was in her late 20s that she decided to switch her profession from teaching to creating.
Spooner was teaching in Atlanta, along with Lundgren, when they both realized the public education system was changing rapidly and going in a direction they weren’t comfortable with. So, they decided to travel. At the end of the 2012–2013 school year, Spooner and Lundgren packed their bags and moved to New Zealand for a year.
“We met a lot of really cool people that we still stay in contact with, and it made us understand the value of having a community around you,” Spooner said. “Travel does crazy things to people, and it opens your mind to so many different things and it gives you permission to be able to do things bigger than you thought.”
Returning home to Michigan, Spooner found herself stuck in a discouraging job search. While applying for positions on Indeed, she kept creating projects for her friends that were celebrating milestones, like weddings, having children and buying houses. One day, she realized she could charge for her creations.
“I kind of just spiraled on that idea that if I kept creating things and offering them for sale, maybe people would want them,” Spooner said.
It was during her first makers market that she realized she was onto something.
“There were a bunch of vendors there, and everyone knew what they were doing,” Spooner said. “I looked like an absolute idiot. Everyone had these beautiful, curated tents, and they were white and boho-chic. And here I come, with a bright, electric blue pop-up tent. It looked like I was on the sideline of a soccer game.
“I remember being so excited, though. I sold everything I brought. At the end of the day, I was just sitting there, looking around this empty blue tent, like wow, I could do this.”
More than a symbol
Fast-forward to February 2018, and Ampersand Lettering Lab was born. The story behind the name “Ampersand” is one of Spooner’s favorites to tell. And it begins with a plane ticket.
“Christy and I were both living in Georgia and we met at the airport,” Spooner said. “We were both flying home to Michigan for the summer, and we both gave up our seats to take later flights to get free tickets. She got in line behind me, we got our vouchers and we just started chatting.”
They learned that they had mutual friends back in Michigan, and they talked the whole flight home.
“We hung out for the next year, and we ended up having a great friendship,” Spooner said. “And then in the summer of 2010, I realized she was my first phone call. If I had a good day, I wanted to call Christy. If I had a bad day, I wanted to call Christy. If I had something funny to say, she was the first person I wanted to tell. And I thought that meant something.”
In the beginning of their relationship, Spooner and Lundgren used the ampersand as code for “I love you” in emails, because communicating it through school channels could’ve cost them their jobs.
“We said it looked like somebody’s arms crossed giving a hug,” Spooner said. “We thought well, nobody will catch us, it’s just a regular stroke on a keyboard. It was our secret ‘I love you’ for a really long time, and it just became this symbol of ‘us.’
“So, when I branded my business I thought, what better way than to use the thing I hid behind for so long to be what I led with? Ampersand Lettering Lab it was. And when I realized the acronym was ‘ALL,’ I was completely sold. Because I want it to be a place where everybody feels welcome and free to be who they are. And it has been the best choice I’ve ever made.”
When the pandemic hit last year, Spooner had no idea how she was going to keep her business alive.
“I ended up emailing my landlord and said I wasn’t going to be able to pay my rent,” she said. “I didn’t know how I was going to continue on with my business. Mural painting was done because every restaurant was just trying to save their employees. Nobody was out looking for that nice Instagram moment in their bar, you know? I was just lost.”
A few weeks went by, and her wife’s birthday was just around the corner. Unable to celebrate and gather with loved ones, Spooner asked all of Lundgren’s friends to send birthday cards in the mail.
“Everybody made cards or sent weird cards they had stuffed away in files from their house,” Spooner said. “She got some Easter cards and some really misplaced holiday cards. People made cards out of construction paper — they were pretty funny. Every day I went to the mailbox for two weeks, and there were just stacks of cards in there. And sometimes, that was the best part of my day.”
These funky, homemade cards were the catalyst of Spooner’s adult pen pal program, The Letter League. She realized that human connection was what people were missing most during the pandemic, so she broke out her notebook and began brainstorming.
“Even though the cards weren’t for me, it was really cool to get something real in the mail,” Spooner said. “One day I thought, how do I re-create this? How do I make other people feel this excitement? Because this is the best I’ve felt in weeks, and other people should feel this. I thought, what if I brought back pen pals?”
Spooner’s handmade pen pal kits include 10 cards, envelopes, stamps and seals, and a pack of Paper Mate InkJoy pens. And the pals aren’t random — each pair is matched based on results from a top-secret survey curated by Spooner.
“I match pen pals with similar interests,” Spooner said. “I gauge their interests as much as I gauge what they’re not interested in, because I think that’s equally as important. There are definitely some unique questions in there.”
Spooner launched The Letter League’s first round last April, and it sold out within two hours. Since launching, Spooner has created a close-knit community that not only spans across the country, but overseas.
“I was shocked,” she said. “Now, I have close to 400 people in The Letter League. They’re in over 32 states, and I have people in Canada, too. I even have a girl in Norway that did it. I offered an international round, so that’s how we got a lot of people outside the states.
“There are people that have made amazing connections, and I dream of the day we can all get together and sip champagne and have a cheese plate at some hotel, and everyone can be together and meet each other. Because some of these connections that people have made are ridiculous.”
Some pen pals have sent birthday flowers and surprises to one another. Some have been hit hard with illness and have received gifts in the hospital and grocery deliveries.
“It’s unbelievable, the community that’s been created with this,” Spooner said. “It blew my mind that all I had to do was just pair people together. And in my real life, I thrive on that — for example, I want you to know this person because he worked with wine in California and you also love wine. I would do things like that anyways with friends, so the fact that I get to do that with people I don’t know, it’s so wonderful.”
For more information on joining The Letter League, visit ampersandletteringlab.com.
To stay up-to-date with Spooner and her creations, follow @ampersandletteringlab on Instagram.