A Conversation with Argentinian Calligrapher and Artist Marina Soria

As we continue our faculty interview tour, we now head to the southern hemisphere to speak to Marina Soria of Argentina! Marina founded the first South American guild, Calígrafos de la Cruz del Sur, in 1997 and has exhibited her art and calligraphy on an international level. Her work has been featured in numerous publications including Letter Arts Review, Bound & Lettered and Scripsit and can be seen in collections at the Klingspor Museum, Yale University, the San Francisco Public Library and beyond. Read on to learn more about Marina’s background and influences and gain insight into her experimental, multi-disciplinary approach.

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

I was born and have always lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the most southern country of the American continent and the one that has Antarctica as part of its territory. I grew up on a suburb of Buenos Aires in a lovely home with four sisters, parents and my beloved granny (source of my inspiration). Since I was a kid, I have been in love with letters. I used to write in paper books what Thomas Ingmire would call “painful” poems and lyrics and would embellish them drawing funky letters with the names of the boys I liked, even the one I eventually married in my thirties! All my life I’ve been tied to art. As a kid, I was very active and creative: dancing, performing and painting. When I was at school and even high school, my fellows and friends told me I was always with a pencil in hand drawing. When I entered the School of Fine Arts, I felt I had reached heaven!

Image Title Marina (seated on the arm of the couch), with her granny and sisters

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

After getting my degree in Fine Arts and studying graphic design for three years, I became a professor in the Graphic Design department of the National University of Architecture & Design (UBA, the most prestigious university in Argentina). I started as a professor of Graphic Design, then of Editorial Design and finally ended up as an associate professor of Typography.

While teaching graphic design at the university, I discovered calligraphy when Carole Johnson came to teach Humanistic and Italic hands. This was the very first time a calligraphic art workshop was held in Buenos Aires, so this is where I learned my first hands. Because of my background in arts, my main interest and strength is on the experimental side of calligraphy and in creativity.

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

My strongest influence comes from Thomas Ingmire, who I consider my mentor. In his workshops and from his point of view on developing calligraphy for the 21st century, I found the soil for my growth. I always feel the challenge of searching for something more, even if I do not know what that more is. He has this gift of taking his students into another level. I find Brody Neuenschwander´s workshops as challenging and interesting (especially in “Searching for Meanings”). I love Ewan Clayton’s workshops, for his incredible knowledge about writing and in “The Joy of Movement” and of course Monica Dengo, for her approach to experimental writing and blending cultures.

The student condition is one of the best situations I could think of. I deeply embrace learning, speaking with knowledgeable people, reading, discussing ideas, sharing, and exchanging thoughts abroad since there are very few people to do it with in my country. The experience I gain when taking a workshop with any of these teachers, the new ideas I acquire and new approaches, are seeds that grow and last in the years to come, and in unexpected ways.

For example, with the alphabet I developed in Thomas Ingmire’s workshop in the Black & White conference in 2004, I found out that I needed to strengthen my abilities on the gestural strokes, which led me to take a year-long workshop in Sumi-e (Japanese painting). This course took me to a new world of images and theory, of aesthetics and philosophy (for example the Taoist Rules of Beauty). I developed the two workshops that I will teachat the conference, based on these experiences by switching knowledge from one discipline to the other. I keep on working and there are still new roads to follow. I also continue to learn from my students.

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Where do you create, and how have you organized your workspace? What is your best time of day, and do you have any particular routines or warm-ups before you begin?

I work specifically in my studio where I have everything I need, but I keep notebooks everywhere, even napkins with sketches that I would later work on in my studio. My studio has different working stations, a big table, a cutting table, a long desk with the computer, and a big sink for dying batik I designed and tiled myself.

Now that neither the girls nor my husband need me as much as in the past, I spend most of the time in my studio from early in the morning until late at night producing artwork. I work on several projects at the same time: a batik design, embroidery in a finished piece, developing an alphabet for an art book, writing a poem or a short story for my creative writing classes or building some type of textile art piece for a contest which would always include writing.

Do I warm up? I do, but mainly I choose to make any hand style my own; i.e., if I want to use an Italic handwriting, I develop my own version of it, try it several times till I become familiar and then go back to the artwork.

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

My favorite tools are the Japanese brush, the folded pen and all sorts of nibs. With these three, you can do almost everything. Just like what you would hear from Thomas Ingmire at the end of his material list: “Your creative efforts will not be defined by the volume and/or types of tools in your possession” and, I would add, but by your curiosity, your fearlessness, and your ability to face the unknown.

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Your work often combines multiple disciplines, such as calligraphy, sumi-e, graphic design and textile art. What draws you to this experimental, multi-disciplinary approach?

As I said before, my background is in fine arts, and I´ve been a professor in graphic design, editorial design and typography at the National Design University, and I have lots of interests and ideas related to the arts and design.

I became a book artist to be able to take my work with me in my trips abroad. To improve my gestures, I took year-long courses in Sumi-e, and blended the new ideas of the Taoist painters with calligraphy. To be accepted in the National Textile Art shows in Buenos Aires (the most important art contest in Argentina), I created the metaphor “letters as stitches”, using text as texture fabric. This eventually led to my “Weaving Words” workshop. To find my own voice, I study creative writing.

My main interest is to mingle and blend diverse disciplines to challenge the limits of conceptual art and techniques. I definitely believe that writing will survive in the side of the arts. Tools will evolve, backgrounds will change, and even skin can be your canvas. Almost everything we know now will change, but we will still be doing things with our own hands. Writing will survive because it’s the most human gesture, as read in the LA library gardens “The visual representation of language continues to be one of man's highest, most distinctive and most varied achievements”.

I also believe in the healing powers of art. I have had several students struggling with cancer in my classes who said that, when going through chemotherapy, they were thinking of colors, and designs, and letter arrangements. For me, that is the goal: to find joy and peace in producing whatever art you want.

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

It is hard to pick one in particular, since I am an awfully productive person, but if I were to choose, I would mention two.

The first one would be my Kimono piece. I wrote the poem myself, called “Fude”. It is about a dream where I was a Japanese brush. For this project, I took a month long workshop in how to build a Yukata (daily cotton kimono). I did the writing of the poem in various different hand styles (formal and experimental), with sumi on butcher paper. I turned the paper into fabric after cutting the sewing patterns and sewed everything together. I designed the wooden hanger and found the stone to write the title of the piece. This artwork was awarded with the first prize at a National Textile Art Show in Buenos Aires.

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The other piece was a commission, a one of a kind personal art book showcasing the life of a lovely lady. I visited her every week for six months, I heard her stories and searched unique items among her photos and memorabilia. I came up with a book and a bookcase she would carry on her lap while in her wheelchair till the day she died. Not long before she passed away she told me that going through the photos brought her good memories of her life and the watercolors from the flowers in her childhood reminded her of their perfume. It was, as well, a big source of conversation with visitors when her memory started fading.

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Could you tell us about the genesis behind your classes “Calligraphy in Blossom” and “The Empty Space, Womb of Shape”? What knowledge and skills will students gain from these classes, and how would you describe your style of teaching?

As an artist I find great pleasure in the process of doing: trying new techniques, new materials and tools, going forward and backward. In this process I not only create, I research, I become aware of my weaknesses and I find knowledgeable people to help me in pursuing my goal. When I come up with something that I consider interesting to share, then, probably due to my skills as a professor, I develop a method to teach it. I also enjoy this stage very much, developing the step by step process, creating samplers, arriving at a final project, designing handouts & flyers and creating lectures on the PREZI lecture program.

The whole purpose of my classes is to open up my students minds, to inspire them, to encourage them to find the joy of making things with their own hands, not perfect, not necessarily skillful but meaningful and original. Everybody is a potential artist, and that is what I want to awaken in my students. This doesn’t mean everybody has to make a work of art, but anybody can.

My workshops don´t need any type of background education, just know how to write, understanding the concept that writing is a sign code that is ruled by some basic laws. That’s all you need to know even if you don’t know calligraphy at all.

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What led you to create Calígrafos de la Cruz del Sur, the first calligraphy guild in South America? What does the lettering arts community mean to you, both locally and internationally?

My complete love towards handmade letters, and my desire to be in contact with people sharing that same love, were the engine to create Southern Cross Calligraphers. Although we had a notorious performance between 1997 and 2006, teaching at the university, giving lectures and carrying on exhibitions, eventually the group was dissolved. Since then there has been a growth in the local development of calligraphy.

Probably I’m the only one teaching calligraphy as a fine art. Most of the teachers have mainly focused their classes in formal hand styles, and in developing calligraphy for the graphic design field.

I also have a great connection with the international community, since I have taught abroad in America, Europe and Australia. This connection means the world to me: it’s inspiring, thoughtful and even spiritual, creating lasting bonds with people that may live on the other side of the planet.

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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 think in my life everything is related to art. When I celebrate a birthday party, I create a theme and produce the decorations. I used to design costumes for my girls and even some of their clothes in the early days. My kids used to joke: “Move fast, or else Mom will write or embroider on you”.

When I furnish my house, I take time, research, and try to bring my spirit and my personal touch to my home.

When I think of how do I dress up, I also make a statement of it. When I give a present, I think of the person who would receive it, and probably do it with my own hands and wrap it in a nice way. Having said all this, I hate cooking!

Marina Soria

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