Ethiopia : Early Christian Illuminated Bibles

December 30, 2014 § 1 Comment

Date of Visit: November 2014

Numerous Churches in Aksum and Lalibela

Ethiopia was the second country to officially adopt Christianity, and the first to illuminate the Bible.

Ethiopia was the second country to officially adopt Christianity, and the first to illuminate the Bible.

According to the ancient Julian calendar Christmas (Ganna) will arrive in Ethiopia on Wednesday, January 7th, 2015. The holiday will begin with a day of fasting followed by a 4 am church service the next day. No special events happen until January 19th when a 3-day celebration (Timkat) commemorates the baptism of Christ. There is no exchange of presents, instead a traditional feast, music and games are enjoyed after religious ceremonies. Clearly not part of the Christian world’s Christmas frenzy, Ethiopia enjoys its own treasures of early Christian architecture, artifacts and Bibles. In November 2014, Designtraveler photographer, Eric Allen, visited the country for a humanitarian mission but took time off to visit ancient churches and photograph the Byzantine illustration in early Bibles.

Women gather at dawn for Sunday services. Ethiopian Christians dress for church in the all-white “shamma.”

Women gather at dawn for services. Ethiopian Christians dress for church in the all-white “shamma.”

Ashes are self-applied

Ashes are self-applied.

The ubiquitous cross necklace worn everyday.

The ubiquitous cross necklace worn everyday.

Ethiopia is the only African nation never colonized by another country therefore no crusading army or missionary ever imposed its religion on the populace. Christianity came peacefully in the 1st century when a prisoner from Tyre, Frumentius, converted a ruler of the Aksumite kingdom; by the 4th century it was adopted as the official state religion, making Ethiopia the second Christian nation in the world (after Armenia).

Moslems conquered neighboring Egypt in 640, leaving Ethiopia cut off from the rest of the Christian world (except for a weak link to the surviving Coptic Church in Egypt). This separation along with the blending of the spirits and devils of the established African traditional faiths made for a unique form of Christianity.

Ethiopia possesses the oldest known illuminated Bibles including the famous, Garima Gospels, dated 494. Local lore holds that the author, monk Abba Garima, completed the work in one day, a day that God held off the sunset so Garima could complete his work uninterrupted.  The Gospels were identified by British art historian, Beatric Playne, in 1950. Because women were forbidden from entering the monastery the manuscripts were carried outside for her to view. The ban on women continues today

Ethiopia possesses the oldest known illuminated Bibles including the famous, Garima Gospels, dated 494. Local lore holds that the author, monk Abba Garima, completed the book in one day, a day that God held off the sunset so Garima could complete his work uninterrupted. The Gospels were identified by British art historian, Beatrice Playne, in 1950. Because women were forbidden from entering the monastery the manuscripts were carried outside for them to view. The ban on women continues today.

The two holy cities of Aksum and Lalibela.

The two holy cities of Aksum and Lalibela.

The Churches and Bibles of Lalibela
The mountain town of Lalibela, one of the holiest sites in Ethiopia, is home to eleven churches hewn from living volcanic rock. The edifices, constructed in the 12th century, are positioned in a manner that replicates Jerusalem. The churches in the Lalibela area are entirely hand hewn from rock, beginning at the earth’s surface and continuing underground.

The church of Saint George carved in the 13th century.

The church of Saint George carved in the 13th century.

The ceiling of a rock-hewn church.

The ceiling of a rock-hewn church.

The stone walls inside of the church are covered with rugs and pantings. Only priests are allowed behind the curtains. Priests carry the Blessing Cross throughout the service.

Rugs and paintings cover the stone walls inside of the church. Only priests are allowed behind the curtains. Priests carry the Blessing Cross throughout the service.

Some churches are covered by protective shelters erected by UNESCO to preserve the structures from the elements.

Protective shelters erected by UNESCO help preserve the structures from the elements.

Inside the churches monks read the ancient texts using flames.

Inside the churches monks read the ancient texts using flames.

   The monks safeguard the ancient manuscripts but ceremoniously unveil them upon request

The monks safeguard the ancient manuscripts but ceremoniously unveil them upon request.

The religious painting of Ethiopia often depict the holy family and saints in traditional Ethiopian garb. Notice the figures wearing the white shamma in the foreground of the painting above.

Byzantine in style, the religious paintings of Ethiopia often depict the holy family and saints in traditional Ethiopian garb. Notice the figures wearing the white shamma in the foreground of the painting above.

The religious painting of Ethiopia often depict the holy family and saints in traditional Ethiopian garb. Notice the figures wearing the white shamma in the foreground of the painting above.

The Bibles are written in Ge’ez, an ancient Ethiopian Semitic language. Ge’ez was the language of the late antiquity empire of Aksum and, until the 19th century, the main language in Ethiopia.

Illustrations positioned to avoid a hole in the skin. Another at the top of the next page.

Illustration positioned to avoid a hole in the skin. Another hole at the top of the next page.

Paintings in a small gospel book, covered with wood boards. St. George is the patron saint of Ethiopia.

Paintings in a small gospel book covered with wood boards. St. George is the patron saint of Ethiopia.

The Holy City of Aksum

About 300 BC the Aksumite empire, a civilization that, in its heyday, rivaled Rome and Persia, established a capital in Aksum. One can still visit a number of inscribed stone stelae from that period.

Greek is one of the 3 texts on this ancient stone in Aksum.

Greek is one of the three texts on this ancient stone in Aksum.

Erected in the 4th century Aksum’s holiest church, St. Mary of Zion, is reportedly the home to the Ark of the Covenant. During the 10th century the ruling power shifted to the Zagwe Dynasty, practitioners of a Judaic form of Christianity. The capital moved to Lalibela, 200 miles to the south.

Inside the modern day St. Mary of Zion. The original church was destroyed by invading Muslims in the 16th century and rebuilt in the 1960’s by then emperor Haile Selassie.

Inside the modern-day St. Mary of Zion. The original church , destroyed by invading Muslims in the 16th century, was rebuilt in the 1960’s by then emperor Haile Selassie.

Ethiopian Bible Crucifiction spread



The Ethiopian Orthodox Christians believe that the Queen of Sheba lived in Aksum traveled to Jerusalem to visit King Solomon and a child of that union, Memelik, later brought the Ark of the Covenant to Aksum. Today it is claimed that the Ark is secured inside The Chapel of the Tablet at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.  Only one person is allowed to see the Ark, and then only one time a year

Ethiopian Orthodox Christians believe that the Queen of Sheba lived in Aksum and traveled to Jerusalem to visit King Solomon. A child of that union, Memelik, later brought the Ark of the Covenant to Aksum. Today the Ark is said to be stored inside The Chapel of the Tablet at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. Only one person is ever allowed to see the highly guarded artifact.

Young girls selling baskets at the ruins of the temple of the Queen of Sheba.

Young girls selling baskets at the ruins of the temple of the Queen of Sheba.

All photographs Eric Allen

Additional Content Sources:
Cotter, Holland. Bedrock of Art and Faith, April 20, 2012, New York Times.


Preserving India : Libraries, Museums and Temples

February 7, 2013 § 2 Comments


Date of Visit: January 2013

I. The Gandhi Museum
Madurai, Tamil Nadu

II. The Sarasvati Mahal Library
Thanjuvar, Tamil Nadu
Link: Library catalog

III. Thiruparankundram Temple Priest School
Near Maduri, Tamil Nadu
Link: Facebookmap

The state of Tamil Nadu (Tamil country), once called Madras, is located on the southeastern coast of India. Inhabited by the Tamil people since 500 BC, it still holds fast to its regional language, Tamil, used along with Hindi (the national language) and English on official signs. The state is home to a rich history of architectural and literary works achieved during the powerful dynasties of the Chera, Chola and Pandya. That heritage, threatened with extinction during a period of European colonization, has thankfully been 
saved by strong social reformists and  conservationists for us to enjoy in the 21st century.

The first book in Tamil was printed in Kollam, Kerala, on October 20, 1578 by Portuguese missionary Henrique Henriques.

The Tamil alphabet was adapted to typesetting and cast in the mid-1500’s.
Portuguese missionary, Henrique Henriques, printed the first Tamil book in western India in 1577. British Colonists did not allow Indian citizens to own printing presses until the 19th century.

Digital Tamil offered by Peter Bilak and Satya Rajpurohit 's The Indian Type Foundry (ITF)

Digital Tamil offered by Peter Bilak and Satya Rajpurohit, Indian Type Foundry

I. The Gandhi Museum / Preserving the Legacy

We retreated from the cacophony of Madurai’s streets for a few hours to tour the Mahatma Gandhi Museum. By coincidence it was January 26th, Republic Day, the annual holiday commemorating the adoption of the Indian Constitution and when we arrived the front garden was full of students making speeches and carrying flags. Once inside the building we were quickly swept up into the story of India’s struggle for independence starting in 1598 when the British East India Trading Company commenced their campaign of colonization. The Englishmen pitted regional Indian rulers against each other, bribed others and bludgeoned the rest to gain control over of a major portion of the country. (Similarly the Portuguese, French, Danes and Dutch injected their own spice trading groups.) Once established the British traders sucked the country’s resources dry by denying Indians the right to manufacture their own goods and forcing them to buy imports from England. Native landowners and peasants alike were highly taxed and that revenue bought Indian commodities to ship back to England. As John Sullivan wrote, “The Englishman flourishes like a sponge, drawing up the riches from the banks of the Ganges and squeezing them on the banks of the Thames.”

The British Parliament was advised to obliterate Indian culture and religion in an infamous report by Lord Macaulay, who suggested the following to his superiors back in England, “I do not think we would ever conquer this country unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation.”   Missionaries were dispatched to introduce Christianity to India as part of that scheme.

When Queen Victoria assumed the role of Empress of India in 1858 westernization accelerated. Railroads and the telegraph reduced travel and communication time across the vast continent and  English was instituted as the official language (facilitating more contact between India and the Western world). Indians, however, were not convinced that British ways were “good and greater than their own.” To the contrary, Indian scholars began to rediscover their indigenous history and literature spawning an Indian Renaissance, a resurgence of national pride and an urgency to expel the colonists. Many dedicated Indian patriots and martyrs would perish in the pursuit of independence over the next century.

Malayalam script , another Dravidian language, seen here on a newspaper in neighboring state of Kerala

Gandhi’s image always present, seen here on a newspaper in neighboring state of Kerala. The script used is Malayalam, also part of the Dravidian group that includes Tamil.

We now know that it was the transcendent personality of Mahatma Gandhi that successfully inspired India’s masses by his new method of action, “satyagraha” (a word Gandhi combined from the Sanskrit for “ truth” and “holding firm”). The title of Mahatma, or “Great Soul” was bestowed by Gandhi’s contemporary, Rabindranath Tagore, the author of India’s national anthem. (If you are a regular reader of this blog you may remember that Aina Cederblom, from our last post, taught weaving at an experimental school run by Tagore near Kolkata.)

Small industry spinning 2013

Small industry spinning 2013

About half of the museum space presents the arc of Gandhi’s personal and public life. We learned that it was in Madurai that Gandhi chose to adopt the dhoti, a simple Indian peasant garment, as a symbol of his solidarity with all classes of his countrymen. He spun the thread for his personal clothing on a spinning wheel, setting an example to urge Indians to resume making their own goods. The exhibit concludes with a small room containing a single profoundly moving artifact—the blood stained dhoti that Gandhi wore on the day of his assassination. The whole experience gave us a deep respect for the combined efforts of Gandhi and his predecessors who helped India regain self-rule in 1947 and preserved the rich cultural heritage of India.

The Indian flag carries the image of the Chakra, the spinning wheel

II. The Maharaja Serfoji Sarasvati Mahal Library / Preserving Literature
Thanjavur, South India

Sarasvati, goddess of lknowledge, music, arts and science. (r) Serfoji II, forced out of power by the British, devoted his life to culture and learning.

Sarasvati, goddess of knowledge, music, arts and science. (r) Library founder Serfoji II, forced out of power by the British, devoted his life to culture and learning.

About 200 kilometers north of Madurai is Thanjavur, a cultural mecca that evolved under the patronage of kings who supported religion and the cultural arts of music, dance, art and literature. The city is most known for its stunningly beautiful Brihadisvara Temple built during the Chola dynasty by Raja Raja the Great (985-1016). We visited the enormous temple complex at dusk while the setting sun best emphasized the sculptural facades.

Brihadeeswarar Temple

Brihadeeswarar Temple

The capstone of the high tower was positioned by hauling the stone along a 6 km ramp.

The capstone of the high tower was positioned by hauling the stone along a 6 km ramp.

Early Tamil inscriptions circle the temple base

Early Tamil inscriptions circle the temple base

Thanjavur priests and scholars were active writers of religious and scholarly manuscripts, many composed in Sanskrit, the liturgical language of Hinduism. The nearby royal palace stored much of their work in a library named Sarasvati Mahal during the Nayak period of the 16th century. A later ruler, Raja Serfoji II (1798-1832), enlarged the collection by dispatching pandits (experts in Sanskrit) to buy or copy Sanskrit manuscripts from Northern India and other important Sanskrit centers.

Serfoji, an ardent bibliophile, studied English, French, Italian and Latin under Danish missionary, Reverend C. F. Schwartz. In 1805 he set up a printing press in 1805 in the palace and equipped it with “cast Devanagari type imported from Madras”. [1] (Devanagari is one of several writing systems used for recording Sanskrit.) Other sources describe the type as stone type. “The Types and Blocks were prepared using soft stone and hard wood.” [4] The press, known as Navavidyakalanichi, was inaugurated with an edition of Maratha Pachanga (The Almanac) produced on European paper. Serfoji also ordered translations of English story books for educating village children.The royal library eventually passed into public hands upon the death of the last Maratha queen in 1983.

The library is still situated within the royal palace complex in the heart of Thanjavur. We arrived on a Tuesday before the 10 am opening (There are a number of conflicting sources on the opening days and times. Tuesday seems the most reliable). We first viewed the palace art gallery next door which was undergoing extensive renovation—a work in progress that will be far superior after completion. The library however was well worth the visit.

Bookstore on left, entrance hall to the Saravasti Library on the right

Open air book store and the entrance hall to the Sarasvati Library on the right

The brightly painted exterior book store hints at what will be for the entire palace complex in the future. Once inside a hallway leads you to junction between a museum on the right and the library archives on the left. The museum very strictly prohibits any photography and the four or so grim-faced guards in charge of the small museum loudly slap the showcases with dust rags, glaring at all visitors to show that they mean business. (The library officials suggested that we scan images to illustrate this piece from The Painted Treasures of the Sarasvati Mahal Library [5].)

All sorts of books are on view: palm leaf books, manuscripts and printed bound books of diverse subject matter: Vedas (Hindu scriptures), epic poems, purana, (histories of the universe from creation to destruction) philosophy, modi (business registers),  jyothisa (astrology), medicine, literature and scientific illustrations. Well-known works including the Bhagavad Gita, the Mahabharata and several versions of the Ramayana (Rama’s Journey) including one known as Valmiki Ramayanam which features all 24,000 verses written in Grantha script so miniature that the letters are impossible to read with naked eye. (A magnifying glass is suspended above for viewing.) Some of the palm books are entirely script while others are illuminated with a single color or elaborate multiple color decorations. Also on display are maps, early Western books and curios such as the smallest and largest palm leaf books.

It is a bit confusing to sort out some of the facts about the collection. According to a library-produced pamphlet for tourists the oldest dated palm leaf manuscript, the Andhrabhagavatam, by Telugu poet Bammera Pothanais dated 1432 (although Pothana’s lifespan was 1450-1510). Yet a book the library published in 2011 the oldest palm leaf manuscript is the Gadyachintamani written in 1550.

(l) The Phalavati, (r) Panchapakshi Shastra miniature palm leaf

(l) A palm leaf Phalavati, (r) Panchapakshi Shastra, a miniature palm leaf book

Bhamati (1468) the oldest paper manuscript in the collection is in palm leaf proportions. (r) A sample of Marathi script, one of the 11 scripts in the library collection.

Bhamati (1468) the oldest paper manuscript in the collection echos palm leaf proportions. (r) A sample of Marathi script, one of the 11 scripts in the library collection.

Bhavartha Ramayana, a "stone printed" edition from the press of Serfoji II in 1803.

Bhavartha Ramayana, a “stone printed” edition from the press of Serfoji II in 1803.

We were most fascinated by the books made from palm leaves, a common book material in ancient India. The process of preparing a palm leaf for writing is labor intensive: the dried leaves are cut to equal lengths, drilled for the string binding, boiled in water, dried again and then buried in sand before a final polish with conch shells. A salaka (metal stylus) was used to inscribe the text into the leaf surface and then washed with a mixture of charcoal and vegetable juice to add contrast to the letters. The finished leaves were smoked over a fire and coated with juices to provide protection from insect damage.

In the 1700’s a plant-based paper was beginning to be manufactured as a substitute for palm leaf material. The paper manuscripts were written using wood, bamboo or quill pens with an ink that was a mixture of lamp soot and extracts of the needle bush (Vachellia farnesiana). The natural preservative for paper was a bath in a turmeric and water solution.

Behind the Scenes Preservation and Transcription

Today the library’s mission includes preservation of the collection, recording it on microfilm as well as transcribing the ancient texts into computers for publication. Anxious to know more we asked to see some of the work behind the scenes. We were grateful for the limited access granted by head librarian, Dr. S. Sudarshan, to see the transcription and preservation processes. We were introduced to one of the Telugu pandits, Mr. D. Ravi, who graciously conducted a short tour of the four manuscript divisions which are divided by language (Sanskrit, Tamil, Marathi and Telugu).

panditOne of the pandits was translating and hand transcribing content from an ancient palm leaf book. She was handwriting the entire text in ball point pen on paper, preparing it for electronic entry in the nearby computer center.

vaults of palm leavesLarge wooden cabinets hold the manuscripts along one side of the archives. Although there is no air-conditioning or climate control the storage is relatively stable deep within the thick stone-walled building. As a precaution if the temperature exceeds 90 degrees the palm leaf pages are not handled. (The library computers are pampered with air-conditioning inside a separate glass walled section.) Hopefully environmental control will come for the manuscripts in the future, but for now the collection is preserved using traditional natural methods. Each palm-leaf is routinely cleaned with Citronella, an extract of lemon grass which insures flexibility of the leaves and acts as an insecticide. If the cleaning process lightens the lettering it is refreshed by a wash of black ink and oil. Approximately 60 of the 25,000 palm leaf manuscripts are cleaned each day.

Palm books swaddled in cloth and string (r) Applying citronella mixture for preservation (these image by Photo: M. Moorthy )

Palm books swaddled in cloth and string (r) Applying citronella mixture for preservation  Photo: M. Moorthy )

Mr. Ravi opened the first storage cabinet and out flowed the lush odor of the Citronella. Each manuscript is individually wrapped in white linen, tied with a string and identified on the outside. Our guide kindly untied one to demonstrate the flexibility of a preserved leaf that was several hundred years old.
In another section of the building paper books were in various stages of repair. Stabilization of holes and tears in delicate pages is achieved by layering a piece translucent “Japan paper” (we suspect it was rice paper) over the entire page and then trimmed.paper_page_preservation

A small group of men was binding newly printed books containing the text from an ancient palm leaf book manuscript. We saw similar reprints for sale in the library bookstore and in shops inside temples all over Tamil Nadu.

The library has published the content of many of the palm books in the collection. The image of the palm leaves is often on the cover.

The library has published many of the palm books in the collection. The image of the palm leaf version is often on the cover.

III. Thiruparankundram Temple Priest School
Preserving Sanskrit and the ancient Grantha Script

Although India has one national language, Hindi, it also recognizes 22 regional languages out of it hundreds of local tongues. Without any expertise in this area we are reluctant to wade into the topic of Indian languages but what we surmise is that there are two major branches of language development in Tamil Nadu. One is the Sanskrit family—a historical language related to modern Indian languages in much the same way that Greek and Latin connect with western languages. Separately there is the Dravidian family of languages, 85 in number including the Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam systems that we observed in the Sarasvati Mahal library collection. What muddles the water is the fact that some of the Dravidian languages can be used to write Sanskrit while other can reproduce the full range of sounds in Sanskrit.

Although it is an ancient language, Sanskrit is still used in some instances in the modern world. For example when yoga teachers instruct their students, they frequently use the Sanskrit names for positions, ie: Adho-mukha svanasana is Sanskrit for downward dog.  Om, , is also a Sanskrit word.

Student priests. Three lines of white indicate their affiliation with Shiva. The picture behind is their guru.

Student priests. Three lines of white indicate their affiliation with Shiva. The man in the picture behind them is their guru.

A more academic use of Sanskrit is in religious practices, including Hinduism. We were able to observe Sanskrit as a living language while visiting a traditional Vedic school dedicated to educating boys of Brahmin birth to become Hindu priests. While one does not expect boys between the ages of 10 and 18 to be interested in conversing with older adults these fellows were a respectful and inquisitive group. They were enthusiastic in sharing their Sanskrit lesson books using Grantha script, a once common form now replaced in the secular world with Devanagari script. They were a lively group but when it was time for their twice daily chanting and prayer ceremony they scrambled into their places, executed some nostril breathing exercises and then flipped open their books to chant in unison as a cohesive whole.boys and meGaranth2nostrilbreathing

Be not like the frog in the well. The frog in the well knows nothing bigger or grander than its well. So are all (bigots) narrow-minded persons, they do not see anything bigger than their own wells. Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886).

Photo Credits
Unless otherwise noted, all images 2013 ©

Footnotes/Additional Sources

[1] The Indian Antiquary, page 194 June 7,1872.

[2] Srinivasanm G, Treasure Trove in Thanjavur, The Daily Hindu, November 7, 2011.

[3] Wujastyk, DominikThanjavur Library – A Realm of Knowledge, The Sampradaya Sun-Independnet Vaisnava News, Oct 14, 2012. 

[4] Perumal, Dr. P, Historical Sources in Thanjavur, Maharaja Serfoji’s Sarasvati Mahal Library, Blog, April, 2012.
[5] Krishna, Nanditha, Painted Manuscripts of the Sarasvati Mahal Library, Thanjauvar, 1994.
Author: Nancy Stock-Allen

Turkey (Part 3 & 4) Calligraphic Heaven & Typographic Roots

August 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

On the northern hemisphere it is the unofficial last day of summer, just time for one more postcard from sunny Turkey.

Turkey Part 3: Calligraphic Heavens in Istanbul and Konya

Hagia Sophia, Exhibition: Love of the Prophet in the Language of Calligraphy 
The massive Byzantine structure of the Hagia Sophia was erected in 360 as a church, converted to a mosque in 1453 and was finally transformed it into a secular space by Ataturk in 1935. Brilliant decorations delight from both faiths plus we ran across the exhibition, Love of the Prophet in the Language of Calligraphy, which was showing on the ground floor. The 99 pieces came from the collection of Mehmet Çebi. Some of the work was easily 6 feet across or 6 feet high. Hard to show scale here but it is also hard to imagine what sort of writing instrument was used to make these powerful strokes. An explanation of the art from the show brochure states the purpose, “For Muslims who avoid visual representations depicting human beings, especially that of the prophets, the millenary expression within the Islamic tradition allowing for the portrayal of the person of Prophet Muhammad has been the hilya, his pen portrait.”

Ahmet Bursali

Mojtaba Sharifi, calligraphy / Sema Onat, illumination

Large scale calligraphic works in the Hagia Sophia

Illuminated Koran in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum

A tughra is a calligraphic monogram of an Ottoman sultan. This we believe is
the tughra of Selim III, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire (1789-1807)

Tughras on the entrance door of Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

The tughra was meant primarily for documents and architectural plaques but can be
seen on cars, tractors and a variety of unexpected places.

Shrine of Mevlana Museum/ Mevlana Mah, Konya

It is embarrassing to admit we’d never heard of Jelaluddin Rumi, the 13th century mystic poet, before arriving in Konya. His shrine is located inside of a complete compound of buildings dedicated to Sufism, a mystical practice of Islam. We had seen the whirling dervish prayer ceremony in Istanbul but this was infinitely more moving. Combine the plaintive flute music that floated over the space with the darkened lighting, the pilgrims, palms held up, crying before the draped tomb and rich tapestries embroidered with golden calligraphy. It makes an impression.

Sufi Whirling Dervishes in prayer, Rumi shrine in rear. (not our pic)

Again we did not take this picture because photography is not allowed
and we believe that sacred places are not meant for casual tourist photography. 
(But someone did and posted it on the web…so here it is.)
Rumi’s tomb in a man-made calligraphic heaven. 

Taken from a text on the shrine, another view of Rumi’s Tomb

Part 4: Exploring Lettering Roots in the Ruins 
Ephesus, Aphrodisias, Hierapolis, Cappadocia

Temple of Aphrodite, Aphrodisias

The Library of Celsus in Ephesus

Roman and Greek lettering on the Celcus library facade

Greek in brush strokes, note the terminals on the A

Lettering inside an early Christian rock chapel in Cappadocia.

Outside of the rock church in the historical region in Central Anatolia.
Homes and churches were carved in the soft rock formations as hiding places for Christians.

Good bye summer 2012

All text and images ©2012

Turkey (Part I) The Young Typefounders of ISType 2012

June 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

Date of  Visit April and May 2012

Part 1: A Conversation with Onur Yazıcıgil in Istanbul
SALT Galata
Bankalar Caddesi 11
Istanbul, Turkey

Part 2: A Conversation with Alessandro Segallini
& Laurie Churchman at Izmir University of Economics

 Visual Communication Design

Part 3&4: Calligraphic Heaven and Typographic Roots (link here)


The ubiquitous image of Atatürk on car decals, murals, statues, tattoos, etc

Modern Turkey is built upon a complex overlay of successively changing cultures from as early as 12,000 years BC; Babylonians, Hittites, Lydians, Lycians, Greeks, Romans, Seljuks and Ottomans. Some of them injected their cultures forcibly from outside of Turkey but the most recent and dramatic societal shift came from within via the reforms of President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. (1881-1938) Atatürk, the military leader who commanded his troops to victory in the 1919 Turkish War of Independence (“I don’t order you to fight, I order you to die”) was equally as compelling as a peacetime president committed to westernizing his country. Atatürk instituted a secular constitution that separated religion and state in this primarily (98%) Muslim country, initiated women’s voting rights and outlawed wearing of religious clothing ie the fez and the veil.

Another of the westernizing initiatives was the abrupt introduction of the new Turkish (modified Latin) alphabet in 1928 to replace the existing Perso-Arabic script. As then only 10% of the population was literate it was argued that a new and easier alphabet would improve the literacy rate. Numbers written in Arabic were replaced with their Western equivalents and a new set of symbols was added to the Latin alphabet to represent the sounds of the Turkish language. At Atatürk’s insistence the language changeover happened within a scant few months. The language reform was dramatic and successful however it essentially severed the country from much of its long and rich literary and artistic heritage.

Ataturk’s strategies for Turkey have borne out well judging by Turkey’s current political and economic successes. The West sees Turkey as the voice of Muslim moderation while at the same time it is an example of economic prosperity and forward thinking for other Islamic countries. Now a mecca for tourism (thanks to a booming economy, a stable and powerful military and a large number of outstanding antiquities) Turkey’s new prosperity could render greater cultural changes than those of any foreign invader or president.

Part 1: Istanbul / A Conversation with Onur Yazıcıgil
Co-founder ISType Conferences and Workshops in Istanbul 

A poster from Onur’s student days in the States / Onur and his partner,
photographer Stephanie Paine at our meeting at SALT Galata.

As we descended into Istanbul we were greeted by multitudes of slender minarets projecting high over the cityscape but once on the ground and driving through its outskirts modern Istanbul felt the much the same as any large European city. As we entered the historical Sultanahmet quarter our travel companion was shocked at the dramatic changes since he had last visited the city in the late 1970’s. What had then been dusty and crumbling was now completely refurbished and bustling with enormous crowds of tourists. Long lines queued up outside of the Blue Mosque and Agia Sophia— even in “off-season” late April. It seems that the entire world has discovered Turkey as a tourist destination. Located at the junction between Europe and Asia, Istanbul feels both familiar and exotic. Rose flavored candies, Turkish baths and the call to prayer at all hours of the day and night infuse you the exotic while blue jeans, shopping malls and billboards are blandly familiar. We visited most of the major sites before we took a few hours off to chat with graphic designer Onur Yazıcıgil about his part in the Turkish typography scene. Our meeting took place in Salt Galata, a sleekly modernized bank from the Ottoman period and the site of the upcoming IStype 2012 in June.

Even before meeting Yazıcıgil, a review of his resume reveals a typographic force in the making. His undergraduate work at Bilkent University in Ankara and his graduate degree from Purdue University in the US have given him an excellent education plus the ability to network across continents. This has paid off as he has lined up speakers and sponsors for IStype 2, the second typography conference he is co-chairing with Alessandro Segalini. The event, spawned from a casual conversation between Onur and Alessandro, has found form as a lecture and workshop series delivered by well-known participants (headlined by Ellen Lupton) who will discuss international and Turkish typographic subjects. (See the complete program book designed by Alessandro Segalini here)

The Yazıcıgil family comes from near the city of Konya in the conservative heartland of Turkey however they are not conservative — in fact one of Yazıcıgil’s major peeves is the proclivity of his Turkish clients to resist a new or original type design. His experience with clients in the US who tend to be open to experimentation adds to his charge to pierce the cautious armor of the Turkish market. (Although we only spent three weeks in Turkey our observations were that the overwhelming majority of commercial typography is neutral sans serifs.)

Student work from Text Invader workshop, Bilkent University, 2011

Yazıcıgil’s genetic pool, a father who is a professor of Geological Engineering at the prestigious Middle East Technical University and a mother who teaches textile design, created a child who excelled at mathematics (with a special fondness for the beauty of geometry) as well as design. He is the sort that finds enjoyment in tinkering with programs, such as his experimental Text Invader, essentially a virus he injects into Font Lab to convert certain semantic patterns into vectors during the typesetting process. 

In his type design Yazıcıgil stays firmly in the European tradition— his graduate thesis topic was humanistic sans-serifs versus grotesque sans. Duru Sans, his multilingual typeface (designed with four weights, small caps, alternate glyph sets and italics) was first used as the exclusive type face for the 17th International Symposium on Electronic Art in Istanbul during fall 2011. The design is now licensed by Eben Sorkin’s independent Sorkin Type Company, an enterprise which has supplied Google with 60 new “web tuned typefaces.” Duru Sans is now a libre font and one version can be downloaded on the Google Web Fonts directory. Another font, Lokum Sans, was primarily designed for display but also capable of scaling to text size. The name Lokum refers to Turkish Delight, a sweet confection that comes in many flavors—our favorites are pistachio and ginger. Onur’s Turkish contemporaries also tend to the sans serif, such as Mehmet Gozetlik‘s Antrepo and Taner Ardali’s Embrio.

Lokum font and Turkish Delight candy

When we asked if any Turkish type designers were exploring the potential of incorporating their rich regional or historical heritage into type design Yazıcıgil reminded us of just how shocking Ataturk’s reformations were on the design psyche of Turkey. The cultural whiplash from the abrupt cessation of 700 years of Ottoman arts is still being felt and he feels that anticipating a “Turkish style” is premature. “In order to develop a particular style such as the Swiss-International, it has to be through structured education. Since the country had shifted to another convention in the writing system, it was required to start over again in building identity–style–attitude–voice–tone. It will take time and if we could be patient, it will be quite rewarding to reflect the richness of the cultural background upon the typographic scene.” Yazıcıgil’s frequent presentation topic, The Lack of Latin Typographic Heritage and Type Design in Turkey, defines how he, a native Turk and a typeface designer, reconciles Turkish type with the international typographic community. He also cites the influence of the internet—predicting that regionalism might lose more and more importance in a connected world. Perhaps our sixty years of age makes us naïve or an anachronism but personally we advocate for preserving any cultural uniqueness that secures the world’s rich visual diversity.

We have no doubts that Yazıcıgil is best qualified to know the right path for the future of Turkish typography but before he can fully commit his attention to that endeavor he has a conference to oversee and then six months of compulsory service in the Turkish army. We sincerely hope that both experiences are as rewarding and peaceful as possible.

A rare posting with hand script.  No idea of the content.

Part 2: Izmir University of Economics/
 Visual Communication Design

We started our visit to the archaeologically rich region of Anatolia in the city of IzmirPearl of the Aegean. The city, one of most secular areas in Turkey, has a lively nightlife along its extensive harbor. We enjoyed its historic market and Hisar Mosque (1529) as well as the sparklingly modern transportation system and upscale restaurants.
On our second day we dropped in to visit the Visual Communications Department at the Izmir University of Economics. We connected with Professor Laurie Churchman, a recent AIGA fellow from Philadelphia, who was in the final weeks of her third year of teaching at the University.

View from the Design Building, Grad assistants area, Professor Churchman with her students Ozlem Yakuz and Naz Kocadere.

Perched high atop a hill on the site of a former casino the university is, according to its catalog, ranked among the top 2,000 private universities in the world. The department of Visual Communication Design is housed in a newly designed building also home to Architecture, Fashion, Interior and Industrial/Product design. There are about 120 students in the VCD department who, by their third year, select  an emphasis in either graphic or multimedia design.

Professor Churchman guided us through series of outdoor spaces where students were blowing off some academic pressure in school sponsored activities—bashing each other in the head with soft cushioned bats and jumping on inflated bouncing platforms to loud rock music. In the state-of-the-art Design building the atmosphere was more serious as students stared into computer screens with that pressured focus that comes at the end of any senior design year. Churchman’s senior Graduation Project class sat patiently through our presentation featuring student work from Professor Dorothy Funderwhite’s Drawing as Design Process class at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia. There had also been an earlier video exchange of student presentations between the class and a group of Moore senior graphic design students who were studying branding under their teacher, 2012 Philadelphia AIGA Fellow Rosemary Murphy.

Basar Kurnaz’s project on social issues such as empathy for sex workers. 
Begum Kavakci’s branding of 2020 Olympics in Izmir.

We asked a few questions to take the pulse of the class. 1. How many of you consider yourselves as artists? (1 out of 15) How many consider yourselves both an artist and a designer? (2 of 15) How many define yourselves strictly as a designer? (14 of 15). 2. What do you believe is distinctive about Turkish graphic design compared to the rest of the world? Hesitantly one student offered that since Turkey has such a complex history of cultural changes that it was difficult to point to any one particular thing that is unique in her country. (We had so wanted someone to answer that for us so we did not have to discover it ourselves!) 3. How do you see your employment prospects after your imminent graduation? Their faces remained neutral but their eyes were screaming “Don’t ask that question! We just want to graduate and worry about that later!” Our old teachery instincts kicked in and a pep talk ensued to point out that their prospects were bright—certainly much better their American contemporaries who are facing a much gloomier job market.

Although this group looked and acted much like American students Professor Churchman has experienced a difference between her Turkish students and those in the States. Her students in Izmir approach their creative work with more restraint because the Turkish primary and secondary schools use rote learning rather than the freer exploration and experimentation of their American contemporaries. Some experts on the Turkish educational system point to a societal habituation to rote learning, such as memorizing the Qur’an. For whatever reasons these students come to design with a different set of conceptualization skills.

Another purpose for our visit was to speak with Alessandro Segalini and therefore we left the students grappling with their final design solutions. Later we were able to speak briefly with a few remaining students and glimpse into their design process, similar to American students (perhaps due to their American teacher or the universal tenants of good design process).

Alessandro Segalini
Co-founder ISType Conferences and Workshops in Istanbul 

Alessadro Segalini and Laurie Churchman will speak at ISType 2012

Segalini’s ISType poster

We met with Alessandro Segalini in his university office where we discerned that it might be more interesting to chuck our prepared questions and allow him to chronicle his career to date. Born about 60 kilometers outside of Milan in Piacenza, Italy, Segalini admits to a rambunctious youth. His obsession with lettering, especially the proportions of certain letterform combinations, was expressed on the walls of his city via his custom graffiti tag. Despite using a pseudonym of “otye,” his identity was uncovered but it was his parents who paid the price— €1000. He then channeled his youthful energies into the ultimate male dream mix of disk-jockeying at clubs (his handle “Exsor”), skateboarding and forming a band. The group, Kala-Azar (the name refers to Leishmaniasis, a nasty disease spread by the bite of a female sand fly) provided him with a CD cover where he and mastermind Davide Barbieri could coalesce his design and graffiti skills. The critical reviews described Kala-Azar as reminiscent of 80s European groups, i.e. Kraftwerk, incorporating psychedelic and industrial sounds on “a journey through the mists where one finds a cure to evils in hip hop.” Segalini (alias Dj Exsor) is credited for adding “vinyls and scratch” to the sound. You can listen to some of Segalini’s mixes online on SoundCloud.

Segalini as Exsor at the keyboard and skating
CD “Fammiti portare tra la nebbia” (“Lemme take you through the fog”) 1998
a 18 full-original track album with Davide Barbieri

Segalini enrolled in formal design studies at the Polytechnic of Milan (including a stint in Visual Communication at the University of Art and Design of Helsinki in Finland) and earned his MSc in industrial design. He submitted an extensive collection of design work hardbound into a book, Graphic Anthology, to gain entrance to the program.

DJ Exsor, tag “Otye” and wordmark from Segalini’s school thesis

Segallini’s ISType logo

He moved to Rome where he was unhappily employed as the in-house typesetter for a publishing house. The schedule pressures plus the lack of appreciation for his expertise led to a dramatic truth-telling session with his boss that ended in immediate unemployment. He started freelancing and assisted artist/designer Vladimir Radunsky on a children’s book, Fire! Fire! Their budding collaboration ended prematurely when Segalini accepted an invitation from Marek Brzozowski to teach at to Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He remained there for only one year but it was there that he met his friend and future ISType partner, Onur Yazıcıgil.

Through all off his transitions and dislocations Segalini labored on his original typeface design, Hemingway, inspired by his favorite novel, The Old Man and the Sea, but without formal training in commercial type design he needed to be versed in the professional end of the art. He learned to be judicious in sharing his original ideas after innocently seeking advice by posting his in-progress sketches for public critique on Typophile’s forum. The type gods protected him in the form of John Downer who telephoned from the States to warn him against the pitfalls of posting unfinished work.

Segalini designed Hemingway to “carry the meaning of sharpness and harshness,
and at the same time to show a stiff and a soft quality –
the same qualities in which the nature of the sea is revealed in the novel…
the fairness of nature.”

Additionally he learned that there is a huge technical chasm between the creation of a design and the production of a commercial typeface. That chasm was leapt with the help of Steve Jackaman, proprietor of International TypeFounders, creators of the Red Rooster Collection, based near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. When we learned that Jackaman mentored and hosted the young Italian for a month in his family home we had to call and ask the reason for such generosity. The answer was two fold—first, Segalini had a referral from the late type designer Phil Martin, and secondly the design of Hemingway showed commercial potential. Jackaman “selects type designs and designers based on their potential, perhaps not always immediate, but with an eye to the future.” When Segalini arrived with the genesis of Hemingway, Jackaman realized that major refinements would be necessary for the family’s eight weights as well as a new approach for the uppercase characters. With thirty-years of typographic experience behind him Jackaman has observed that mentoring and advanced technical instruction are what separates commercially viable type designers from those who are merely creative. The majority of the technical work for Hemingway was completed after Segalini left for his new position in Turkey. The face is now available for purchase and was selected for the UK Creative Review Type Annual 2011 in the Display Types category. Red Rooster is currently working with Segalini on a second design, Pacioli Old Style.

After his year in Ankara Segalini moved to Izmir and his current position where he now appears to be putting down roots— recently receiving a university medal for 5 years of successful teaching. In addition to teaching he co-chairs the ISType Conference and maintains a seriously extensive list of links on his website The site is definitely worth a visit.

Segalini in front of typographic detail he designed for the university’s
design building 
and his Guia Script Pro in use on packaging.

Now married to his Turkish wife, Esen, the father of young daughter and anticipating the birth of his son in the autumn, and new born son, Segalini must juggle the challenges of designer/educator/parent. How to balance his typographic work with the demands of teaching? What will it be like to raise his children in Turkey? Economically Turkey is in a much better situation than Italy and seems likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Having once been a parent/teacher/designer ourselves we advised him to concentrate on staying put, enjoying his young family and creating more beautiful typography.

Sheila Waters : Granddaughter, Mother and Queen of Calligraphy

November 9, 2011 § 4 Comments

Date of Visit: October 2011
Location: Fairfield, Pennsylvania
Associated Link: Washington Calligraphers Guild
All images copyrighted, photos by Eric Allen

If after 5 years of study one can become proficient in calligraphy and after 15 years of practice a master, what level is obtained after a 60-year career? According to Hermann Zapf in the case of Sheila Waters you become the Queen of Calligraphy (or so he inscribed in a dedication to her). Our visit to Mrs. Waters’ studio convinced us that Mr. Zapf was correct plus we would additionally suggest the titles of calligraphic granddaughter of the legendary Edward Johnston and the mother of calligraphy in the United States.

The view through Sheila Waters’ studio window.

The Waters’ Residence
Normally we visit destinations that are open to everyone but this trip was a special glimpse into the private world of master calligrapher Sheila Waters. Our drive to the Waters’ residence in southern Pennsylvania brought us to the gently rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, warmed in the autumnal glow of late October. Peter and Sheila Waters built their home overlooking those hills shortly after Mr. Waters retired from his position as the Chief of Conservation at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The couple had one of those special marriages in which distinct yet complimentary talents created an even stronger whole. Mr. Waters, considered the father of American library conservation, was a master bookbinder and an innovator in book conservation. His techniques saved priceless manuscripts and rare books after the flooding of the Arno River in Florence, Italy in 1966. For three months Mrs. Waters assisted her husband by editing, drawing plans and elevations for equipment plus hand-lettering the treatment and condition cards used to describe each item reclaimed for the National Library in Florence. He in turn would critique and make design suggestions to his wife’s calligraphic compositions. Although Mr. Waters passed away in 2003 his spirit is still evident in his beautiful book bindings and his career continues to be honored by his wife at various events and speaking engagements (most recently at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC on the observation of the 45th anniversary of the floods).

Peter and Sheila at work and the treatment and condition cards used in Florence.

Early Life
Born Sheila Salt in 1929, Mrs. Waters was one of the many London area children evacuated to the English countryside during World War II and it was in that period that she displayed her first formal hand lettering on a poster for the war effort. Seeing what her twelve-year-old hand produced was interesting, unfortunately not the first prizewinner but given meritorious notice. We were also able to view a nice selection of her earliest work demonstrating her strong skills in drawing and design.

A poster lettered at age 12 and Sheila’s first manuscript (pair not scaled)

Sheila’s formal art studies began at Medway College of Art in Rochester, Kent where she elected several different areas of study. An extremely driven student (with the modest goal of becoming one of the best women artists in the world), she compressed the first two years of courses into one, followed by a year in which she studied stone and zinc-plate lithography, typographic design, book binding and hand type setting. In her last year she concentrated on calligraphy, which she characterized as “an epiphany.” (She was compelled to learn more about calligraphy after being hired to letter a sign declaring “No Tomatoes Today”!) To earn her national design diploma she completed some rather rigorous final exams: a three hour written exam on the history of writing and illuminating manuscripts and an intense design challenge completed in two weeks time.

Examination piece after one year of calligraphy studies ©2011 Sheila Waters

An important element in her education came during six months of weekly study visits to the British Museum where, despite being only 18, she was given special permission to observe and copy directly from the priceless manuscripts, including the 7th century Lindisfarne Gospels. One can see how the ancient manuscript’s letterforms, displays of color and control of intricate decoration influenced her later work. At age 19 Sheila was awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Art where, along with her entire first year class, she attended the required Wednesday calligraphy class of Dorothy Mahoney. Mrs. Mahoney had been a teaching assistant to Edward Johnston (1872-1944), the man most credited with the revival of fine calligraphy during the Arts and Crafts period. Johnston’s teaching method, based on his reconstruction of the principles of formal writing, was primarily carried forward by women: Anna Simons (1871-1951) in Germany, Irene Wellington(1904-1984) at Central School of Arts and Crafts in London and Dorothy Mahoney (1902-1984) at the RCA. Mrs. Waters’ interest in calligraphy developed into a career choice despite the derision of other studio teachers who undervalued calligraphy as “Dorothy’s knitting.” Perhaps that sort of prejudice is the reason that the calligraphy classes were primarily female.

Dorothy Mahoney with Sheila Waters, Dorothy Mahoney’s text

Mrs. Mahoney taught in the same room in which Johnston lectured and she drew demonstration letters on Johnston’s original chalkboard. Mrs. Waters recalls her teacher as a forthright and trustworthy individual with an upper crust accent that was sometimes the object of student impersonations. Mahoney’s strength was her spot-on critical eye, equally strong for calligraphy as well as all other artistic mediums. Her calligraphic style diverged from Johnston’s in that Johnston moved toward a condensed hand but Mahoney preferred the more open Italian Humanist italic and Roman minuscule. Today one does not hear much of Mrs. Mahoney, most likely because she was primarily a teacher and she was practicing her craft in a time when calligraphy was losing ground in typography and design studies.

Professional Life in England
Shortly after graduation Mrs. Waters’ professional career began to flourish. She was inducted as a fellow into the prestigious Society of Scribes and Illuminators, a group founded in 1921 by Johnston’s students. Additionally Alfred Fairbank (the father of modern italic handwriting) hired her as one of 10 scribes who produced the Royal Air Force Roll of Honour memorial books. Over the next twenty years she worked with Hans Schmoller, (typographer and successor to Jan Tschichold at Penguin Books) by designing and executing a myriad of maps for various publications. The work was entirely hand done and often involved her combining information from typographic maps with the author’s text and then hand writing the names in italic or Roman minuscule. One particularly immense project, The Campaigns of Napoleon for MacMillian publishing, required 73 maps, 43 in two color separations and one with multiple overlays on frosted mylar. Seven exhausting months of long days and late nights paid off when the maps were singled out for praise in Paul Standard’s book review for The New York Times. Not only was her professional life booming during these years, her marriage to Peter Waters was blessed with three sons—a period she describes as her most productive.

Pencil sketch for map, palette of blended colors for text work

Teaching & Commissions in the United States
In 1971 Peter Waters was appointed Chief of Conservation at the Library of Congress and the family immigrated to the United States on the QE2. With the previously unknown security of a regular paycheck a home was purchased in Bethesda, Maryland. A year later Mrs. Waters started a calligraphy program for the Smithsonian Institute’s adult classes as well as her own private instruction where she built a stable of calligraphers. In 1976 she organized a group of her students to create the Washington Calligraphers Guild, now over 500 members strong. In 2009 a special exhibition “Sheila Waters: A Retrospective, 60 years in the Calligraphic Arts” was mounted in Strathmore Hall Arts Center, Bethesda MD.  A comprehensive fully-illustrated journal was designed using a custom digital typeface (not yet available) created by Mrs. Waters’s son Julian Waters, himself a master calligrapher and frequently a teaching partner with his mother. However, Julian’s well-known typeface Waters Titling, designed for Adobe, is available for purchase.  (Information on obtaining copies of the Retrospective journal can be directed to this email address, Both Julian and his mother have been asked for advice from digital designers who are trying to create believable script typefaces for use on the computer. They generously help despite their growing resignation that more digital scripts will mean less potential for their hand lettered commissions.

Sheila Waters at 80 cover, Julian’s font debut @2011 Julian Waters

it begins (detail)Among more than 200 pieces in the exhibition were four of the most important highlights of her career:

Under Milkwood translated to blind embossed.

1 Under Milk Wood
Sheila’s famous manuscript of Dylan Thomas’ radio play Under Milk Wood. A private commission from Edward Hornby in 1961 was finally completed in 1978 (life had a way of getting in the way of completion). Remarking on the seriousness of this commission she noted, “ I realized that this major work would outlive me and in another 500 years I would be evaluated by the quality of the work alone.” The text was executed in her personal adaptation of Carolingian and decorated with 25 of her illustrations. The actual manuscript is now in the Wormsley Librarycollection of the late Sir Paul Getty in the UK.

Less that 12 inches wide yet a giant in contemporary calligraphy © 2011 Sheila Waters

2 Roundel of the Seasons
Produced in 1981 this work is considered her masterpiece. The calligraphy, color selection, miniature painting and design were produced after 1,000 hours of concentrated work. The process was not easy, there were times that she was discouraged and debated not finishing but suggestions from her husband helped her strengthen the final piece.

Tor House

3 Tor House
Numerous weights and textures were used to reflect the emotions in Robinson Jeffers poem.Foundations of Calligraphy

4 Foundations of Calligraphy
Ms Waters’ influential textbook Foundations of Calligraphy, (2006). Reprinted 2008.

The study and practice of calligraphy has gone in and out of vogue as part of design studio curriculums over the past century. (While we were attending grad school the emphasis was not on letterform but on moving letters, words or paragraphs around inside of a square or rectangle to get the right composition. There was little or no discussion of letterform creation.) Currently however there is a surge in experimental lettering and digital font creation—with or without instruction in calligraphy and calligraphic history. Mrs. Waters advocates for preserving our calligraphic heritage by practice, not just by viewing historical documents. “We have to take care of the core of the art form we love so much and hand it on unspoiled to the next generation.” For those who wish to really understand lettering it is important to undertake serious study and for that there is no equal to Sheila Waters’ text, Foundations of Calligraphy.

We asked her advice for the novice who is interested in building a solid calligraphic base and were told that the best route is to learn all of the basic historical hands. She has concerns about the viability of calligraphy as a career in the age of computers but there seems to be no end to artists who practice the art for the sheer joy of making letters. (Here is a short clip of a her discussing pen angles)

Currently Sheila conducts weeklong intensive master classes for invited or recommended students who arrive from all parts of the globe to study in her studio. An Epson projector has replaced the Johnston’s chalkboard method but her techniques remain as grounded in tradition as her former teacher’s. The studio is spacious and well lit with individual workstations and plenty of books, displays of Mrs. Waters’ work plus treasures such as rubbings and a stone engraved sample by Edward Catich. A nearby kitchen and table provide the class with a break area and all of the students have accommodations in the large house. Gourmet dinners are catered and served upstairs in the evening. Additionally her schedule includes workshops away from home, such as at Camp Cheerio and the annual international conferences.

Teaching Studio

The teaching studio

It is impossible to overvalue the impact of Shelia Waters on contemporary calligraphers or the current understanding of calligraphic lettering. With 20 years of summer workshops, the Smithsonian classes, the Washington Guild, her private classes, her articles for Letter Arts Review and her textbook, she has done as much as humanly possible to pass on the legacy of traditional calligraphy.

Sheila studio

The queen and her waiting subjects, (below) a contented Mopsie napping nearby.


Six hours after our arrival we drove away armed with a copy of the beautiful retrospective journal and also a copy of Foundations of Calligraphy carrying her favorite inscription.

mutal love of letters

Springtime of Argentine Art & Design : Marina, Yani, Elosia and Evita

October 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

September/October 2011

1. Marina Soria Studio 
Palermo District, Buenos Aires

2. Yani Arabena (with Guille Vizzari )

3. Eloisa Cartonera Cooperative
La Boca District

4. Evita Peron Museum
2988 Lafinur Street in the Palermo

Christine Kirchner and Gaucho (© 2011

While macho gauchos rule on the Argentine pampas there is a decidedly female presence in the city of Buenos Aires. With the upcoming elections looming large the ubiquitous campaign posters of incumbent president Christina Fernandez de Kirchner remind us that Argentina had the first non-royal female head of state in the western hemisphere. In the 1940’s Evita Peron, wife and women’s rights advocate, established the first government humanitarian aid and social support programs for the struggling Argentine underclass. Today grandmother activists picket weekly to bring attention to their “disappeared” children and grandchildren, (victims of earlier police regimes).  During our visit we decided that it was fitting to visit with Argentine women artists and designers of the city.

Marina Soria in her studio (© 2011

1. Marina Soria Studio (all images copyrighted)

Marina Soria is a calligrapher/artist who frequently is the sole Argentine (or for that matter South American) representative of her field to the outside world. She was first awakened to calligraphy as a fusion between her fine art painting and graphic design when a guest artist, Carole Johnson, demonstrated calligraphy in a graphic design class at the University of Buenos Aires. Soria was able study for a short time under Johnson who left behind a Xeroxed copy of a calligraphy instruction book when she returned to the US. (Books on calligraphy instruction were rare in Argentina)

Despite a successful career as a graphic designer in an advertising office and teaching typography and layout at the University of Buenos Aires Soria’s heart was yearning for calligraphy. In 1998 she traveled to San Diego to attend her first calligraphy conference where she took classes with Sheila Waters and Thomas Ingmire—all while 6 months pregnant with her third daughter. Describing Ms. Waters as the essential link between Europe and new world calligraphy, Soria has a deep admiration for Ms. Waters’s work and was thrilled for the chance to learn strong traditional calligraphic foundations. A complement to that traditional work was Soria’s study under Mr. Ingmire, a pioneer in experimental, non-traditional calligraphic styles. After these initial inspirations Soria continued her studies for the next 15 years later—including classes with Brody Neuenschwander, Ewan Clayton and a year of sumi-e brush painting and many more international workshops. She gravitates to free and expressive work—for her staying inside the geometry of traditional letterforms is “like trying to dance inside a cube.”

Teaching letterform and history (© 2011

We arrived at her Palermo district studio on a day full of diversions: two of her daughters had broken their collarbones on a recent ski trip and were just out of surgery, she had taught a class earlier in the day and she needed to get her third and youngest daughter to an appointment in a few hours. Nonetheless we had a lovely, unrushed visit (the sort of thing only an experienced mother and teacher can pull off). Marina’s studio space, an oasis of calm in the city, is open and light with several small rooms off to the sides of the main area. Her bookshelves are full of volumes about calligraphy, typography and art and her chalkboard was full of letter formation and stroke patterns drawn for her students. She prefers serious long-term students and her teaching is not in regularly scheduled classes but rather as individual projects executed on a cooperative schedule worked out between teacher and student. Once she was challenged to teach calligraphy to a fine artist who only wanted to know the forms of letters for a special project. While able to write a letter the student was not able to combine them into a word or a sentence.  What Soria took away from that experience was that the essential basis of calligraphy is a system, not individual shapes, and she urges all calligraphers to get the system right before going off in experimental directions.

Details from Soria's piece "Russian Icon" for the Moscow Museum (© 2011

We asked her if there was a unique Argentine letterform, and if so what sets them apart from European? Soria answered that Jesuits brought their calligraphy from Europe since there were no indigenous Argentine scripts. The European gothic lettering was then blended with indigenous motifs.
The only precursor of calligraphy could be found in the ancient tradition of the flourishers, “el Arte de los Fileteadores,” or ‘arte porteno.’ This craft basically decorated and ornamented wagons, trucks and buses with fillets, calligraphic writings, specially gothic, flourishes and zoomorphic figures mixed with popular icons of the Argentine (such as the tango singer Carlos Gardel, patriotic symbols and religious motifs. [Check out Alfredo Geneovese’s site for a full explanation .] During the mid-1970’s the ornate letterforms were banned by the government as unreadable but now they are reemerging on restaurant signs and in touristy areas. Even if there are less examples of this art, “fileteado” is celebrated as a trend of Argentine style.  These letterforms add to the period feel of downtown where one can still ride a wooden subway from 1910 and shop in elegant Victorian buildings.

el Arte de los Fileteadores

To promote calligraphy Soria and several others formed the first calligraphic group in South America, the Calligraphers of the Southern Cross (1997-2006). The group was instrumental in promoting calligraphy as an art as well as influenced several college design courses to include calligraphy in their curriculum. Despite a current surge in popularity there is no calligraphy collection in any major museum in Argentina. Soria’s work has been exhibited in the 2010 and 2011 National Textile Show, the International Book Fair in Argentina and in numerous art galleries. It is possible that her work is more known outside of Argentina where it has been shown in numerous important venues and is included in major museum collections in Berlin and Moscow. [For her exhibition list see]

Soria's Bovine Alphabet is derived from cattle brands used on the Argentine pampas (© 2011

Soria feels that the growing popularity of calligraphy comes from the “rarity of the human made mark. We are accustomed to machine-made marks and take their perfection for granted, however because we are human, with hands and eyes that need coordination, we appreciate when we see creations made by other humans. Whether it is dancing, playing a musical instrument or calligraphy, we know what our own anatomy is capable of performing and, from that reference point, we can gain respect for what other humans accomplish.”

Her biggest challenges come in the evolution and development of her personal style as well as not overly impressing her style on her students. She tells them, “Don’t worry as much about being good as being yourself.” For Soria, and for most calligraphers she knows, calligraphy is a spiritual pursuit, almost like a dedication to the OM. Certainly after our visit with Ms. Soria we were feeling centered, relaxed and content before we spilled back into the busy afternoon streets of Buenos Aires.

[That night we went tango dancing at a milonga (a dance hall with classes and free dancing sessions)… even on weeknights the milonga starts about midnight but the hour is fine since Argentine dinner is at 10 or 11pm. The food is terrific and inventive. Malbec is the drink of choice to accompany all of that Argentine meat. Then we flew to Salta for a week to experience both the amazing landscape and the Inca culture. No calligraphy but tons of handsome textiles, humitas, llama steak, more wine…)


2. Yani Arabena and Guille Vizzari

Yani and Gulle with their first sketch book and Love Saves the Day poster

Over coffee in a bookstore in Palermo with the young design team of Yani Arabena, a designer and calligrapher, and Guille Vizzari, a designer and typographer, we learned the genesis of couple’s collaborative work. Yani graduated from the University of Palermo, whereas Guille has a degree from the University of Buenos Aires. It was Yani (pronounced Johnny in English) who suggested the pair work collaboratively by sharing one sketchbook, one taking solo possession of the book for one week and then exchanging it with the other for a week. There were no restrictions other than they had to build upon the other’s work and could not remove any mistakes. About half way through the book their romance blossomed and enhanced their synergy. Now Yani initiates their joint projects alone with her calligraphy, leaving blank spaces for Guille to fill with illustration or hand lettering. Guille then scans and digitizes their hand drawn work into Illustrator, striving to maintain the freedom of the lines and calligraphy.

Since calligraphy was not offered in her school Yani was fortunate to have the opportunity to study under and then become the teaching assistant of Silvia Cordero Vega. Vega had studied under Brody Neuenschwander and it is easy to see their artistic influences in Yani’s work. For inspiration today Yani follows the work of a number of expressive designers, letterers and calligraphers; Jessica Hische, Marian Bantjes, Yves Leterme and Laura Varsky. On the traditional side she admires the work of John Stevens, Sheila and Julian Waters and to expand her knowledge base in traditional calligraphy she traveled to Camp Cheerio in North Carolina for a calligraphy camp in 2010 (

Y&G work on ceramics and magazine illustration (© 2011 Y&G Design)

Guille’s cites Herb Lubalin as one of his greatest influences, lamenting the fact that it is so difficult and expensive to get books of Lubalin’s work in Argentina (he especially desires to see Lubalin’s Blue Book in person). Because Guille has a firmer grasp on English he described to us the graphic design program and the teaching methods at the University. The department has an enrollment of 300 students, all attending entirely tuition free, and (from what we could understand) are all instructed in one large common area by numerous teachers. It is normal for design instructors to begin teaching for several years without receiving pay. The couple team-teach Typography I in the first year of the 4-year program off of the computer. Students use vinyl rubs down letters to learn technicalities of typography (anatomy, letter spacing, etc.) In the second semester computers are introduced for more experimental work. Another course named “morphology” covers composition, color and theory. Two semesters of the history of graphic design are required.

It was wonderful to meet these young designers who are so energized and committed. Their work has started to be recognized outside of Argentina, recently they participated in an exhibition of silkscreened posters at the Chicago Art Department ( To Yani and Guille, color, energy and the rhythm of Argentine life sets their country’s typography and calligraphy apart from the rest of the world. When asked about the typography community in Argentina we are assured that typography and calligraphy are gaining a lot of interest through organizations dedicated to the profession. The first Argentine type conference Letter.2 was recently held in BA on October 4th and the largest design conference in South America, TMDG, occurs annually every October. Certainly if the energy and enthusiasm of Yani and Guille are indicative of the new generation of Argentine calligraphers and designers, Argentina cannot help but  gain prominence in world design community.

(By the way if you are looking to hire a guest artist or teacher team, these two would love to work in Europe or the US. ) Thanks to Jason Urban of for suggesting this interview.

3. Eloisa Cartonera Cooperative

Demonstration of the cardboard binding, the exterior and Che poster

During the Argentine economic crisis of the early 2000’s a cooperative group, Eloisa Cartonera, developed a publishing model that changed the publishing scene in Argentina and inspired at least a dozen other similar publishing projects across Mexico, Central and South America. The premise is that books made from recycled materials can be produced at affordable prices. Each book is a unique creation with stenciled or hand-painted covers. The cooperatively produced cardboard covers and hand printed offset text pages reduce the sale price considerably lower than mainstream mass-produced books and making them available to a wider audience. The bulk of the texts are avant garde materials from Latin American writers from Argentina, Chile, México, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Brazil and Peru.

For a tiny store front in a lesser trafficked part of the city, Eloisa Cartonera has had plenty of press coverage and attention. On the day we ambled in a documentary team from Switzerland also arrived to discuss the various intricacies of procuring materials and producing the books. Here is what we gleaned from our Spanish comprehension and the Swiss filmmaker’s helpful translation:

A. Eloisa is the name of a past love interest of a founding member, however she was never a part of the group.
B. The material for the cardboard bindings is purchased from cartoneros, or garbage pickers. The pickers have been officially recognized by the city and given health care and job protection.
C. To be eligible for purchase the recycled cardboard must be clean and flat.
D. The cooperative obtains permission from the authors to publish their work with no fee.

The colorful interior book display of Eloisa Cartonera Cooperative

The place is a riot of color, the book covers, the painted walls and the decorations all lift you out of the griminess of the street outside. There is a definite insouciance about the production methods. Book interiors are stapled and glued and then covers are stenciled or hand lettered with paint. It is fast, fun and not the least precious. We bought a few books and later found that under the crude exterior was some exquisite writing.

Street Stencils and Carlos Cruz-Diez Installation at MALBA

4. Evita Peron Museum


On our last day in BA we visited MALBA and Xul Solar museums but still felt compelled to find out more about the woman whose grave we had visited and whose name and face we’d seen numerous times during our stay. In contrast to Eva Peron’s mission to help the underprivileged her museum sits in a rather upscale neighborhood. On our  afternoon walk to the museum we threaded our way through the mothers, nannies and chauffeurs picking up children who were being released from the local private kindergartens.

The museum is housed in an elegant mansion through which the exhibition travels from the ground floor up into many high ceilinged spaces. One begins in an almost empty room where a film of Evita’s burial is projected large onto a blank wall. This unnarrated introduction impresses the uninformed of the extent that the people of Argentina (that is the common people) worshipped their unelected representative in the government. The displays of crowds and flowers stunned us (for reference think of the funeral of Lady Dianne and ratchet it up a bit). To satisfy the popular demand Evita’s body laid in state for almost 2 weeks. The second Mrs. Peron threatened the mighty so much so that her dead body was then kidnapped and spirited off to an unmarked grave in Italy —but not until one of her fingers was cut off, her nose destroyed and several stab wounds were inflicted. Fear and loathing of a powerful woman can bring out the worst in the envious and weak.

Evita as cover girl actress and near her demise

Evita did what the government and the rich of Argentina failed to do —recognize and help the neediest and their children and for that she won their hearts. Because she was the impoverished and illegitimate daughter of a wealthly man many in the upper class consider her a revengeful gold digger (possibly corrupt) but honestly, does her background matter when she did so much good? And would someone please show me an elected official, anywhere in the world, that cannot be found corrupted on some level?

Goodbye Argentina, we hope to return again as soon as possible.

The World is their Oyster, Design in Portland, Oregon

August 19, 2011 § 1 Comment

July, 2011

1. Flint Design
1231 NW Hoyt Street
Portland, Oregon 97209

2. Nike World Headquarters
Action Sports Division
One Bowerman Drive
Beaverton, Oregon

3. Lloyd Reynolds Exhibition
Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery
Reed College Library
3203 Southeast Woodstock Boulevard, Portland

Flint Design

While in Oregon we caught up with Professor Margaret Richardson who teaches History of Modern Design at Portland State University. Ms. Richardson, an eloquent speaker and author on art and design since the early 1980’s, has written for publications including Print Magazine, How, and U&lc and wrote Type Graphics (Rockport Publishers), 2000. Professor Richardson generously invited us to join her summer session students on two class trips, Flint Design and the Nike World Headquarters in nearby Beaverton.

Flint Design, owned by Catherine Healy, is located inside a nicely converted industrial building in the Pearl District of Portland. The firm specializes in packaging, servicing a number of local food manufacturers (the well-known Tillamook Creamery, Nancy’s Yogurt) and wine and beer producers, (Kona Brewing and several Willamette wineries). Catherine and her small band of designers offer a complete service flow: research, naming, identity, packaging, branding and marketing.

Catherine showed the extensive project books compiled for each client showcasing the research, inspiration and the logic behind a suggested design solution. Above all else we were most impressed with Catherine’s sophisticated and philosophical discussion of her process — plus her take on the practical aspects of working with clients over long-term relationships. ** Students take note, speaking about your work is not necessarily something you will learn in the classroom but it is one of the most important skills a designer can cultivate. **

[Since the next day was the start of the 4th of July weekend we took in the sights and tastes of Portland—Voodoo donuts, wine and cheese at local wineries, oysters at Pacific Seafood Company in Pacific City on the coast, picnics and walking in Bob Straub State Park, excellent restaurants everywhere. Plus roses in full bloom]

Nike World Headquarters

On the Tuesday after the 4th of July weekend we again joined the class, this time at the epicenter of the sports behemoth, Nike. The 200-acre Nike headquarters is hidden from public view, completely surrounded by a high earthen berm that is backed by dense rows of mature evergreen trees. The implication is clear—random visitors are not invited. One enters an arched gateway identified only by Nike’s red swoosh. The main entrance had a Taj Mahal like approach— centered upon a long rectangular pool of water. The campus unfolds ahead of you in a series of buildings, each named after a sports legends, (Tiger Woods, Mike Schmidt, Nolan Ryan, etc) surrounding a small lake. Sculptures and artwork abound. Everything is manicured, well maintained, and sparklingly rich.

We joined the class as they assembled in the Nolan Ryan building and were met by a PSU graduate and current branding director for Nike Action Sports, Damion Triplett. Damion guided us into a conference room where he introduced us to the work in his division—one of Nike’s smallest categories with “only” about 140 team members and 500 million in sales after almost 10 years of carefully building their brand. Mr. Triplett described their target market (snowboarders, skateboarders, surfers and BMX bikers) along with the challenges he faces compared to the more conventional sports divisions of Nike. Action sports clients are by nature, edgy and hip risk-takers, rapidly picking up and discarding trends. Because the entire process of product development and launch can take up to two years, Triplett and his team must be a combination of trend-spotters, design innovators and soothsayers.

Margaret Richardson, Damion Triplett, Nike Lake, No Finish Line

Triplett described a two-pronged approach to their marketing. One is periodic releases of short run collectible shoes that are only carried in smaller “mom and pop” stores. These releases are supported by special point-of-purchase displays—(he showed us an example of a hand-painted risers used for shoe display). High performing athletes, such as skateboarder Eric Koston, have been signed to endorse these limited editions. The second involves mass-market campaigns targeted across the entire action sports category. We viewed a number of the upcoming commercials, all featuring ‘rock star’ action sports figures but no product, only a Nike logo in the closing frames.

We viewed a number of handsome corporate manuals and sales manuals but Damion’s most impressive strengths lie in his agile and inventive problem solving skills. With a background in industrial design and theater set building he has learned to both plan ahead yet be adaptable to last minute curve balls, proving the value of a creative mind (even within the constraints of a corporate environment). The genre of action sports deals out a unique set of problems, for example retail store mannequins often have 6-pack abs and over-developed arms suitable for lines such as Abercrombie, etc but they do not fit the body type of a surfer or skateboarder; or edgy T-shirt slogans suitable for action sports types cause trouble in the main stream world (as in the case of a tee-shirt campaign using phrases such as “Get High,” “Ride Pipe,” which did not go down well with the Mayor of Boston.)

(Images from the

The team was gearing up for the Nike sponsored US World Cup of Surfing (the 2011 events concluded in August), an event that attracts tens of thousands of board shorts/bikini clad youth. It is likely that the event offered Damion a fair share of opportunities for surfing through his own problem solving.

We left Action Sports and Margaret’s class behind and walked across the campus, (treading over a “Nike, There is No Finish Line,” bronze sidewalk plaque) to the the Nike Department of Archives (DNA) exhibitions, “40 years of the Swoosh” and “The Bowerman Centennial.”

The celebration of the Swoosh anniversary included the release of 28-page booklet exclusively for “the benefit of Nike employees” but you can see it online at a number of sites, Slam online  and a Steven Heller article , the complete  logo story can also be read online.

The handsome centennial exhibit centered around a vitrine that held the original waffle iron used by Bill Bowerman to create his new, lightweight running shoe sole. Most of the shoe prototypes on exhibit were thought to have been lost but were unearthed during a construction project at Bowerman’s former home and workshop. The DNA staff were conducting a number of guest tours but when free they were very helpful in answering questions and offering information.

Waffle iron, an unearthed prototype, early waffle soles

The campus is not open to the general public but someone made a YouTube video which gives you a better idea of the facilities Finding America.

Lloyd Reynolds
 A Life of Forms in Art
Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery

I was disappointed to learn I had missed the exhibition, A Life of Forms in Art,  but I phoned to request to see the archives and was excited to learn that the exhibition was still hanging intact. An appointment was set and I drove to the green, leafy, summer-slumbering campus to see Reynold’s work. It is clear that Reynolds, an artist who had strong convictions and passions, expressed himself freely in his teaching which partly helped raise his calligraphy class to a “cult status.”(This was back when it was normal for a professor to express both cranky and loveable sides without fear of students slamming them on or end-of-the-semester class evaluations)

A self-taught calligrapher, Reynolds held a Masters of English Literature which explains his lifetime interest in the “three Bills: Blake, Morris and Shakespeare.” Former student Chuck Bigelow described Reynolds’s teaching as follows, ” calligraphy was the visible means of literate expression and, through that, a gateway to the history and lore of civilization. Moreover, it was a link between one’s own simple, utilitarian practice of handwriting and the accumulation of knowledge and scholarship through the ages.”

Notes on student work

Reynolds started teaching at Reed in 1929 but concentrated on calligraphy from 1949 through 1969. Some of the most influential type designers of the early digital era, including Sumner Stone and Chuck Bigelow, were introduced to letter design in Reynolds’s class. Reynolds built up an international reputation, was awarded many honors and starred in a 20-part series on italic calligraphy for public television. One of the episodes was playing on a large screen in the exhibition which was wonderful because you got to see the man in living action. A YouTube video clip discusses rhythm and gives you an idea of his thoughts on writing.

Reynolds demonstrates writing via video

Reynolds was a “William Morris Socialist according to the Stephanie Snyder, the Reed College Gallery director and curator of the show. It was fascinating to read about his experiences with J. Edgar Hoover. Because Reynolds had been a member of the Reed College Young Communist League the FBI summoned him to testify in front of the House  Un-American Activities Committee to “name names.” He refused, saying, “I am no hero, but I hate to get down on my knees unless I’m planting or looking for collar buttons.”

Reynolds also invented an improvisational calligraphic form he named “weathergrams.” These were haiku-like poems (10 words of less) drawn with ink onto small pieces of brown kraft paper. The weathergrams were hung on campus trees and allowed to weather through an entire season.

Our whole trip was 10 days but it flew by like a weekend. There is so much to see in Portland and the surrounding area. Luckily the next week we were at Wells College (in the finger lakes region of Aurora, New York) taking a summer class with Portland School of Art professor and master printer Barbara Tentenbaum. Although we’ve attended the Wells Summer Intensive several times previously, this time our eye was caught by an old poster (lettered by Lance Hidy) advertising a lecture by Reynolds at Radcliff in 1976.  Small world.

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