Mara Zepeda • Neither Snow — Part II

{Read Part I of this post here.}


What are some of your favorite supplies?

I’m pretty workaday when it comes to supplies and don’t do a ton of experimentation. You can find the supplies I use on my workshops page: Nikko G, Moon Palace Sumi ink, Dr. Martin’s Bleed Proof White, Canson Pro Layout Marker. What I am much more interested in is experimenting on different surfaces and with different materials. In London we calligraphed on leaves and the glass of vintage butterfly boxes. I love working with fabric and vinyl decals. And then there are the tattoos of course.

I may be wrong about this but someone mentioned you may be left-handed? If so, any tips for lefties?

It’s true – I am left handed. After teaching many workshops one thing I’ve noticed, with left handed calligraphers specifically, but for everyone more generally is that ergonomics is the single biggest reason people feel frustrated, especially when they first start out. The angle of everything matters: pen nib, holder, paper, wrist, torso, shoulders, hips, thigh, chair seat. Most of my teaching comes down to helping each student identify the angle for all of these things that feels best to them. You will often find me adjusting elbows and crawling under the table to move the legs of a chair. The basic rule of thumb is all of these angles should be as aligned and harmonious as possible. You can’t have your paper at a 55 degree angle but your legs at 15 degree angle and your shoulders at a 100 degree angle. My biggest tip for all calligraphers is to play around with the angles of all of these things and notice when you are contorting your body. Every awkward angle reverberates in your work. For left handed calligraphers they often need to move the paper practically perpendicular to their hand. Here’s a video of me at work as an example.

Can you name some of your inspirations?

How long do you have?!

While living in Florence, Italy I happened to meet the calligrapher Betty Soldi, who was raised in London by Florentine parents. Betty has worked with some of the world’s top European brands (Hermés, Waitrose) but wasn’t as well-known in the US. She remains a constant muse. We taught our first workshop together, and collaborated on projects. We spent days scribbling and designing, she introduced me to the Edition Poshette sisters, secret places, local artisans. We just taught a workshop at Retrovious in London this year. Betty is fearless: she experiments with every imaginable material, is undaunted by any project, and possesses the most explosively joyous eye for beauty. She leaves a trail of magic dust and everyone she encounters is changed. She and her husband Matteo have a shop called &Company and a boutique hotel in Florence called Sopr’Arno. Entering her orbit changed my life.

The other inspiration I have is my former student and workshop assistant, Alaïa Giglio. She just launched her own studio called Clay and Ink. The first time I saw her website I burst into tears. It is inexpressibly gratifying to see a young person take the gift of calligraphy and make it their own and, more than that, make it a business.

Aside from that, other contemporary calligraphers, artists, letterers: Dana TanamahchiLisa CongdonAnna BondJessica HischeCynthia WarrenMolly Suber ThorpeJulie Song and Lloyd Reynolds. Then there are thinkers, writers, and poets: Maria Popova, Anaïas Nin, Wendell Berry, E.F Shcumacher, Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, John O’Donohue, Lewis Hyde, David Richo, Lisel Mueller. And artists: Henri Rousseau, Berthe Morisot, Pieter Claesz. I could go on…

Can you go a little into your process of how you work on a project?

 Most of my work is digital (tattoo commissions, mostly). I ask for as much information as possible about the story, inspiration behind the tattoo, and feel the client wants to capture. Once the commission is placed (with the help of my exceptional Studio Momager, Donna DiSpirito) I’ll spend some time interpreting the sentiment and will send the first round of designs. From their the client hones in on one and we do additional rounds until it is perfect.

The one thing that is crucial about tattoo work is that at the end of the day, it isn’t about my work, but about how well the tattoo artist precisely translate it on the client’s skin. So I always emphasize finding tattoo artists experienced with lettering, hairlines, and thick and thin variations otherwise all of our hard work is for naught.

I ask every client if they are comfortable featuring their stories and photographs on my blog. This is my favorite part of the process: seeing the final product and sharing the story of the tattoo. Often they commemorate momentous life transitions: surviving cancer ending a business, honoring a family member, pursuing their dreams. It feels like these stories close the loop on our collaboration, and it’s lovely to see the final translation by the tattoo artist and photographer.

Any tips for newbies on how to develop their own style?

Calligraphy has exploded on social media and Pinterest. There is an overwhelming abundance of images and inspiration. Often I hear students say, “I want my work to look just like [insert artist name here]” or, “I can’t do this. It looks horrible!” This breaks my heart because it means they are aspiring to be someone other than themselves, or they are unnecessarily judgmental not of their artistic talent, but of who they are as people. I often see practitioners undertake calligraphy as a purely aesthetic hobby. There is nothing wrong with that but there is so much more below the surface. For me, calligraphy is a spiritual practice insofar as it is an expression and exploration of our true selves, and it is constantly deepening evolving. I’m astonished by how my style has changed over time. It is an indicator of my own growth and evolution. I think the practice offers that for everyone who approaches it with curiosity and open heartedness. As Anaïs Nin said, “Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.”

Practically speaking: the fastest way you can take the leap and start to develop your own voice is to practice with white ink on black paper. When I teach, that is the turning point for my students, every single time. They can no longer trace or copy worksheets. They are thrown into the ocean of the page and have to quickly find the doggie paddle that is their own style.

Any recommendations of books or classes for lettering enthusiasts to further their studies

Nothing beats an in person class. Maybelle Imasa-Stulkus and Molly Jacques teach frequently. For online, any Skillshare course by Bryn Chernoff and Molly Suber Thorpe. I have never been but I hear great things about IAMPETH and Reggie Ezell.

As for books: Write Now by Barbara Getty and Inga Dubay is the book I most often recommend. It is a handwriting book, not a calligraphy book, but gives a terrific overview of letterforms and connectors (and is perfect for people who want to improve their handwriting). In addition, Mastering Copperplate Calligraphy by Eleanor Winters, Italic Calligraphy and Handwriting by Lloyd Reynolds, and Modern Calligraphy by Molly Suber Thorpe.

Do you have some favorite projects you would like me to mention?

The longer I practice the more I am grateful for collaborations. Teaching workshops around the world with photographers, stylists, and other artists has been such a huge gift. The energy in a room of students is both electrifying and humbling. There is no better feeling than watching them walk in nervous, self-deprecating, and anxious and having them leave relaxed, confident, empowered, and astonished by their own gifts.

Any advice on what ‘not’ to do?

Don’t not breathe! Better said: breathe! Along with posture, breath is the single most important element of calligraphy. There is a reason why it is rooted in the Zen tradition. The practice of Japanese calligraphy (shodo) is a state of clearing one’s mind. It is, at its core, a meditative practice. If you hold your breath, take shallow breaths, or practice when you are tense, stressed out, or comparing yourself to others, it will always be reflected in your work. The state of mushin means “the mind without mind.”  I recently started practicing meditation and I realized that all of those hours of calligraphing tens of thousands of envelopes amounted hours of meditative practice. At it’s best, calligraphy is a powering down of the mind.

Name one random talent you have that people may not know?

I am the co-founder CEO of a technology company called Switchboard (our corporation’s name, Weathergram, was inspired by Lloyd Reynolds). I don’t know that this is a talent per se, but I have translated surprising lessons that I’ve learned through calligraphy into the technology we’re building. I think of it as just another creative medium, and it’s been thrilling to experiment with it as a social art.


Mara's Shopping List

Nikko G nib
Moon Palace Sumi ink
Dr. Martin’s Bleed Proof White
Canson Pro Layout Marker
Mastering Copperplate Calligraphy by Eleanor Winters
Italic Calligraphy and Handwriting by Lloyd Reynolds
Modern Calligraphy by Molly Suber Thorpe