spring 2015

Creating Space, An Interview with Mara Zepeda


Mara Zepeda creates space. Balancing life as a woman in tech and a calligrapher and designer of tattoos. Her dual roles often intersect—one offsetting the other in thoughtful consideration. Mara takes chances. Her discipline in the traditions of letterforms, fused with her philanthropic way of reasoning helped her to start Switchboard, (a community platform for sharing) with co-founder Sean Lerner.

I admire people like Mara and am inspired by her creative gusto. She creates beautiful calligraphy under the name Neither Snow and often moonlights for NPR including: Morning Edition, Planet Money, and Marketplace. She’s passionate about building community whether through the art of tattoos or as the CEO of a start-up. I found her story fitting to wrap up this quarter's theme, Polarize.

She studied in a scriptorium at Reed College. It was founded in 1930 by Lloyd Reynolds, a premier calligrapher of the Northwest. Later the program was taken over by Robert Pallandino, a Trappist monk whom Steve Jobs studied under. People often times reference the commencement speech Job's gave at Stanford, talking about the MAC and his inspiration with typography so early, and the calligraphy courses he took with Pallandino.

She tells me she was a really bad calligrapher having trouble with perfecting traditional italic and Copperplate script. It’s hard to believe when you see her work.

“Although I studied with some of the best teachers in the country, my work was always the absolute worst. At a certain point, I knew I really liked it, and how meditative it was. I liked studying the letterforms and the physical practice of it. But I wasn’t going to be able to replicate another hand.”

In 2009 contemporary calligraphy began to surge and with it Zepeda began expressing her own style and personality through the letterforms she was learning. She started her first business and created a niche for herself in the wedding industry. When her husband began to travel more she cut down on the use of paper and went almost entirely digital. Today she designs commercial identities and editorial but the majority of her work is commissioned tattoos. Part of the requirement in the process of tattoo work is to have the clients send photos and write about what inspires them to get the tattoo, and then she features the stories on her blog.

"It becomes a really nice narrative resolution that highlights them. People get tattoos for incredible reasons, like a child passed away, or they got a divorce, or survived cancer. Every single reason is crazy meaningful."

Today, Zepeda helps to run Switchboard and devotes one day a week towards her lettering practice. Switchboard was bootstrapped in part from the revenue of this, and is probably the only startup to ever be funded with calligraphic forms.

“We’ve done a round of fundraising but it’s not easy to be a woman in tech and fundraise. If there’s a way I can draw a low salary from Switchboard to keep the enterprise off the ground while doing calligraphy one day a week, it’s so much better in the long term for everyone involved.”

Calligraphy has also informed a lot of her design decisions when it comes to Switchboard. One example is white space. When they hired Jessica Hische to do the design of the site, they wanted a lot of white space and for people to feel as if they had landed in an open field. She noted that there are other similarities—

“There’s a pattern that has emerged. People will write posts like letters, very often they start by saying, Hey everyone! There’s a sense of correspondence,which was brought over from calligraphy unintentionally. When you address someone as though they are a correspondent you show them a level of respect and intentionality, that’s really different from a tweet or posting on someone's wall. This notion of correspondence and respect, and taking a beat to address a community in this almost formal way is not something we require. However, it’s remarkable to see so many of the post start out with Dear Community, it’s so nice.

Other similarities is in the act of gratitude. We all know how much we love getting hand written letters in the mail...something that has been lost in today’s digital world. Switchboard encourages this action as well. Once an ask has been fulfilled there is an opportunity to say thank you, and an opportunity to be mindful about the community and your audience.

In July Switchboard turns 2. It’s a startup that is quality driven before quantity driven and a magnet for underserved communities in technology. Their clients are municipalities, education, veterans, farmers, and even design communities to name a few. I look forward to seeing it evolve and the communities grow.

Photos courtesy of Mara

RECAP: sketchXchange with Carson Ellis

The weather cooled down just in time for us to enjoy a laid back early summer evening , (ha I mean Spring) with the talented and well spoken, Carson Ellis. In a packed house and her shoes off Carson shared her processes and what inspires her as an artist. We talked about how Forest Park played a huge roll in one of the books she's illustrated called Wildwood, and the map that helped spawn the story written by her husband and author, Colin Meloy (of the Decemberist).

She shared how her style evolved into a limited palette, and the unique and laborious way of creating all of her drawings with an old school nib pen. Carson gave us an inside peek of her work in progress on the authored picture book she's currently working on, which is of course a sweet tale filled with lots of whimsey.

Afterwards the crowd mingled and sketched. It was a perfect way to begin the weekend.

Thank you to Jeremy Pair for helping to shoot some photos. You can see more here

Also be sure to read the interview with Carson and WeMake Team here

Carson Ellis: a classy hippie

When I die I’d like for someone to say: she really followed her instincts.
From "Under Wildwood"

If you think you don’t know Carson Ellis, you might be wrong. She illustrated the Wildwood Chronicles. She does all of the art for The Decemberists. She has had editorial illustrations in The New Yorker, and The New York Times Book Review. She painted that rad mural in St. Johns. I’m a big fan. It was bizarre to stand in her driveway and talk about how Beyoncé is overrated. 

Carson’s work captures what Portland feels like better than anything else I’ve seen. And I don’t mean quirky Portland, or in her words, “twee and precious” Portland, like art you might see at a street fair or in New Seasons, but natural Portland. The trees. Our type of cloud. And something harder to pinpoint. Something energetic. If you want to know what it feels like to be in Portland, flip through Wildwood. It’s so special I could cry. 

Illustrations from the Wildwood Chronicles. Written by Colin Meloy and illustrated by Carson Ellis.

Carson grew up on the grounds of a dilapidated estate called Dellwood in upstate New York. “The actual mansion was in ruins,” she said. “There was a caretaker’s house with a grumpy old man who lived there. We lived in the carriage house, which was sort of like a barn. But my parents were hippies and it was a super tricked out hippie pad.” The place is gone now. Bought by developers and dozed for condos that were never completed. But the experience meant so much to her that she emails with a local historian. (I imagine she’ll make a book about it someday.) Carson spent a lot of time chasing the pony across the street, and a lot of time drawing. “I had an art practice from the time I was an elementary school kid, but I do think that I was sort of a crappy artist most of that time,” she said. 

She studied oil painting at the University of Montana. She wanted to study illustration, but it wasn’t offered. College was where she met her husband, Colin Meloy. She worked on xerox flyers for his band, and they were roommates. When she graduated she moved around, waitressing and making art. “I know now looking back at my post-college portfolio that I was unhireable,” Carson said. 

Mural designed for the St. Johns neighborhood in Portland

She ended up in San Francisco. She was super into the street art and graffiti culture. She drew with sharpies and paint pens. She said, “I just wanted to do something that was novel and unique. So I think what I was seeking out with these really exaggerated, stylized sharpie-drawn depictions, graffiti-influenced depictions of people, was a way to set myself apart. At some point I just stopped doing that. I saw that the art I loved was setting itself apart in ways that were a lot more nuanced.” 

In 2001 Carson moved up to Portland, and she and Colin started dating. They collaborated on promotional materials for his new band, The Decemberists. Carson was still drawing everything with sharpie, but she was unsatisfied. She said they were both really into comic books at that point. (She mentioned Meat Cake and Eightball.) She googled “what do cartoonists draw with?” The answer was brush and ink. So she went to the art store, bought a nib pen, nibs, an ink well, and ink. She said, “I dipped that pen in that ink well and it was like the heavens opened up, and I was like, this is it! It just changed everything about what I was doing. And I think it allowed the art to be sophisticated in a way that it hadn’t been before.” 

"The Littlest Hockey Fight" (my favorite)
I just want to be known for making good art. Being an artist is a journey. You have to always be checking in with your inner compass to make sure you’re doing the stuff you want to do. Evolving the way you want to evolve, rather than following the money, or the easy route because you don’t have time to do it the hard way. Or following the direction people want you to follow.

Carson uses words like, “psychedelic,” and “grotesque,” and “macabre.” She said, “I’m a huge fan of anything you find if you turn over a log.” In college she painted portraits of her friends where she tried to make them look ugly. She said, “I’m still interested in finding ways to make people look expressive. But I think I do it in a much more subtle way.” 

She’s also really into Russia. She took a trip there in 2001 that she says has “literally informed every single thing I’ve done creatively since then.” She explains that “there’s something that appeals to me so much about how incredibly intellectual and elevated and sometimes very politically progressive Russia has been over the years, and also how tumultuous, how backwards at times...the constant tumult of that country. I feel like I am defending it a lot to people.” 

She claims that she doesn’t do anything unique. That she can look at any illustration and name the ten influences that amalgamated in her brain to create it. But she’s also glad that the internet wasn’t such a presence when she started. “I’m really grateful that I didn’t have all of that potential influence coming from every which way,” she said. “And also that I didn’t have that awareness of how much great stuff was being made in the world, because that’s daunting. If you’re making art in a bubble, then you have no reason to think you should stop.” 

wild dogs from "Wildwood Imperium"

Carson lives on a farm outside Portland with her husband and their two boys - Hank and Milo. (Milo's middle name is Cannonball!) They've got all kinds of pets - llamas, chickens, goats, a cat. And there's a horse next door. It's a dreamy place. Just trying to find her studio I wandered into two crazy buildings - a sort of tractor barn filled with guitars, and a silo. She has vague plans to fill her farm with giant folk art, but for now she's working on another picture book she wrote, and some unnamed projects with Colin. "I don't think I have anything coming up that's any better than what I've had going on, but I think I've had it good," she said. 

pictures of Carson's property from her Instagram
pictures of Carson's studio that I took at the interview

More Carson: 

website -  www.carsonellis.com        Instagram - @carsonellis         twitter - @cfellis


Home written by Carson Ellis | Wildwood written by Colin Meloy | Under Wildwood written by Colin Meloy | Wildwood Imperium written by Colin Meloy | Dillweed's Revenge, written by Florence Parry Heide | Stagecoach Sal, written by Deborah Hopkinson | The Beautiful Stories of Life, written by Cynthia Rylant | The Composer Is Dead, written by Lemony Snicket | The Mysterious Benedict Society, written by Trenton Lee Stewart

RECAP: A Workshop with Kiriko

Our latest WeMake workshop takes us to Kiriko, a Portland-based company that repurposes vintage Japanese materials to create elegant, one-of-a-kind products.  The experience of walking into the studio is wonderfully surprising.  The small, tucked-away entrance shielded with a boro fabric curtain takes you to a narrow set of stairs, leading you into a basement.  As you turn the corner, you feel as though you've stepped back into time, and the basement space becomes an open and inviting room filled to the brim with beautiful fabrics, bright colors and hand-made apparel and accessories.  

Kiriko studio
kiriko belts
kiriko spoons

Kiriko Co-founder, Dawn Yanagihara, led us through a boro-patching workshop, using delicate scraps of centuries-old Japanese fabric and traditional Japanese sewing methods.  

Attendees sewed their favorite boro patches onto their personal gear. Some brought jackets, others brought pants, bags and shirts to customize with the ancient material. 

kiriko patches
Kiriko Workshop-7556.jpg

The vibe of the workshop was beautifully peaceful, just like Kiriko.  

Kiriko made in pdx

For more images from the workshop, check out the WeMake Flickr page.  Be sure to visit Kiriko online to learn more, and to purchase your very own Kiriko apparel and accessories.

Photography: Susie Lee Morris