A Conversation with American Calligrapher Marcia Friedman

We are kicking off this week in the San Francisco Bay Area, as we speak to faculty member Marcia Friedman. Marcia is a familiar face at conference, especially as she has served as director not once, but twice! Marcia owns Visual Solutions, works as a senior graphic designer at O’Reilly Media Inc., and has been a calligrapher for 35 years. In 2018, she published Morphing Monograms with Barry Morentz. The duo will team-teach a class by the same name at Rendez-vous this summer, all about monogram design, Photoshop techniques and more. Read on to learn more about Marcia’s background, her first conference experience in 1989 and which website is like a proverbial rabbit hole for her.

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Where did you grow up and what first sparked your interest in lettering?

I grew up in the Bronx in New York, and as far back as I can remember, I have loved lettering. In junior high school, I copied and re-copied my class notes, trying different pens, colors and styles of writing. My mother would get upset with me because every time I had to sign my name at the bank (to deposit checks or withdraw money), my signature was different and I had to prove I was me.

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What is the first hand that you learned, and which hands resonate with you most today and why?

Italic is the first hand I remember learning and it’s my go-to for practice, doodling, and starting most projects. I love the endless variations from very straightforward and formal to loose and expressive. I’ve incorporated elements of the letterforms into my everyday handwriting and I’m still finding new things to try.

I also love playing around with Lombardic versals. They are great fun to sketch and decorate. I’ve always been inspired by a page from Hermann Zapf’s Feder und Stichel.

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Which teachers have made the deepest impact on you and your work and why?

I’ve been very lucky to have had opportunities to study with so many excellent and inspiring teachers. During my freshman year at the California College of Arts and Crafts I was in Byron MacDonald’s last class (sadly, he passed away at the end of the semester). He gave me a solid foundation in some of the basic hands: Italic, Roman, Blackletter, Uncial. I think Ewan Clayton and Gottfried Pott are the best teachers I’ve ever had. No matter how many times I’m in their classes, I always take away something new and feel like I’m making leaps forward. In Ewan’s classes, in addition to discovering different ways to think about the text and lettering, I’ve learned so much about what makes a great teacher. Gottfried’s class at Experiment (the 1989 conference) was the first time I was exposed to expressive writing and he always pushes me beyond my comfort zone and encourages me to think about line, shape and form.

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Where do you create, and how have you organized your work space between calligraphy and graphic design? What is your best time of day, and do you have any particular routines or warm-ups before you begin?

My studio space is in a corner of my living room. Many years ago I used the second bedroom in my apartment as an office/studio, but when I moved to my current place, I turned that into a guest room and set up shop downstairs. It’s a compact space, but I have good lighting, a nice view, and everything I need within reach (or a short walk to a closet filled with paper and supplies). Because I still have a Monday-Friday, 9-5 job, weekend afternoons and evenings are my best time to work. I don’t have any special routines. I just start writing out the text over and over to loosen up and get the rhythm of the words.

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What are three of the most essential tools for your calligraphy practice and why?

Brause nibs, walnut ink, and my notebook of quotes. I’ve tried many different pens, but I’m most comfortable with Brause. I like the quality, sharpness and the feel of writing with them. I discovered walnut ink in a workshop with Jovica Veljovic, and I prefer it to any brand of black ink. On my table I always have several small jars with different shades. There’s a wonderful quality to layering several light tones over each other. I’ve been collecting quotes and texts for many years and having them all in one place means I can always find something to practice with no matter what my mood. I have humorous, serious, and inspiring sayings and poems.

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What has been one of your most meaningful commissions or projects? What made this project particularly special, challenging or rewarding?

I haven’t done many commissions for the past several years, due to the demands of a full-time job, a conference and the book. The one personal project I have been working on has been a series of maps of some of my favorite cities that I’ve traveled to in Europe. I have always been enamored of maps and globes; these days I can get lost for ages on Google Earth. The most challenging part is what to keep in and what to leave out. I use my travel journals as a starting point, but I invariably have too much information and it takes constant revision to pare it down. I use walnut ink on Arches text wove. Designing the layouts, lettering the text, and sometimes adding photos brings back wonderful memories about these great trips.

Image Title Marcia at the Passionate Pen conference

What was the first calligraphy conference you attended and what are some of your memories from that week? What made you continue to attend conferences and eventually serve as director for two?

The first conference I went to was 1989’s Experiment in Santa Clara, California. I worked for about 18 months for director Georgianna Greenwood, in order to afford the fees. It was an eye-opening experience: meeting so many calligraphers whose work I had admired for years and seeing how the community came together to study and inspire each other. There are so many good friends that I met for the first time that week, including Barry Morentz. I took a five day class with Karlgeorg Hoefer and Gottfried Pott, and I was way out of my depth. But I learned so much and I was hooked on the conference experience. Every conference I’ve attended has added to my skills and knowledge base, developed and strengthened wonderful friendships and given me emotional helium that lasts far after I return home.

In 1994 and 1995, I started to pay attention to how conferences were organized and realized I had the skills to do this. My experience of organizing and directing Girl Scout trainings and summer camp gave me the confidence to offer myself up as director and bring the event back to the Bay Area. Because I’ve gotten so much joy from the conferences, helping create Experiment 2000 and The Passionate Pen was my way of giving back.

Image Title Lettering by Barry Morentz, with colour added by Marcia

You will teach “Morphing Monograms” with Barry Morentz this summer. What knowledge and skills will students gain from this experience, and how would you describe your style of teaching?

In addition to creating their own monogram designs, our students will learn how to use Photoshop as a tool to enhance and expand these designs. We’ll explore the various filters that can yield dazzling and often unexpected results. Our wish is that everyone will have the confidence to add this digital tool to their repertoire.

When I teach, the most important thing for me is that every student comes away from the class with a new confidence in the subject matter and that they feel good about their progress. I enjoy helping them discover what they can achieve.

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How would you describe the calligraphy community in the San Francisco Bay Area? What does community mean to you, in the context of the lettering arts?

The Friends of Calligraphy is one of the most open, friendly, and caring groups of artists I’ve ever known. It’s a testament to the society that a large number of our founding and early members are still active and involved. I love that so many of us have strong friendships that extend beyond the boundaries of the craft. And as a community, we always welcome new members and visitors to the Bay Area to hang out with us, share our resources, and learn from each other. It helps that we live in a physically beautiful and culturally rich area.

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Outside of calligraphy, what are some of your other interests and hobbies? What might be something about you that people would be surprised to learn?

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have some kind of craft hobby: scrapbooking, card-making, polymer clay, and sculpture. I learned how to knit about nine years ago and now I knit every day and everywhere. My yarn stash rivals my paper stash. I love the same things about knitting that I do about calligraphy: color, texture, form, and line quality.

Most people don’t know that I was a competitive figure skater in the 1970s. It was all amateur competitions and shows, but I traveled all over the northeast with a local group for about six years.

Marcia Friedman

United States
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