Marilyn Zornado is an animator, bookmaker, calligrapher, educator, and mentor who has fostered Portland, Oregon’s creative community for decades. In this conversation, we discuss her history and her unique approach to creative work.
RV: Firstly, do you think of yourself more as an artist or as an educator? I’m not sure how to describe you.
MZ: Well, education is at least half of my creative work. I find it inspiring to be around other people, and that aspect of my work is really important.
I recently started a studio, because the Oregon College of Arts and Crafts closed, and it played such an important role in the community and in my own creative life. I felt like there was a void that needed to be filled, so I revamped my own studio space to create a classroom, provide equipment for people to pursue book arts, and make a shared space for the crafting community. Of course, we aren’t offering any classes at the moment, but I want to perpetuate that kind of energy and creativity.
RV: Text and writing, in all its forms, seems to be a consistent theme in your work. You are often working with poetry and the written word, but also using letters and the act of writing as an expression of art. Where did that come from?
MZ: Well, I grew up in Portland Oregon, which has a deep tradition of calligraphy. It goes back to the work of Lloyd Reynolds in the 1950s and 60s. Reynolds was a professor at Reed College, and he taught creative writing and art history. He developed an interest in calligraphy, and he started thinking about how writing affects culture, and how it affects history. He realized that the act of writing itself, the pen on the paper, is an act that shapes who we are and how we think. He was actually accused of being a communist, and was targeted by the Un-American Activities Committee, where he repeatedly refused to testify. At the time they called you a communist for just being against fascism. Kind of like today.
Reynolds started teaching calligraphy at Reed in 1949. The college didn’t really have an art department, but they let him have a little studio school, and it became incredibly popular. And our local public broadcasting station gave him a TV show, so he did calligraphy on TV. Calligraphy is hard to shoot, because anywhere you put the camera it’s in the way of the writing. I later met the photographer for that show, and apparently they shot him with mirrors so they could capture the writing without the camera getting in the way.
Anyway, that was the first time I saw someone doing this beautiful writing. And what was important to me as a kid was that it was always in motion: it wasn’t static and finished, it was a beautiful process, as well as a beautiful result. Calligraphy is incredibly dynamic; you go fast on the upstroke and slow coming down, and you can see these motions and releases so clearly. I have always wanted that in my work – I always want to see writing being done.
Later I decided to become a graphic designer, and studied graphic design and calligraphy in college. After I graduated, I was able to take a class from Reynolds himself, who was teaching at the Portland Art Museum, which had an art school at the time (it would later become the Pacific Northwest College of Art). So now, when I teach calligraphy at PNCA, it feels like I’m continuing the tradition. The building needs calligraphy.
RV: So then how did you get involved in film and animation?
MZ: After I got out of college, I didn’t have any clients and couldn’t really make it as a freelance graphic designer. I got a job at Tektronix, which was a huge tech company at the time. I knew they promoted from within, and I knew there wouldn’t be many people there with art degrees. I started there building circuit boards, and then got a job in their photography department, developing images for their printing plates. You got to spend all this time in these dark rooms; it was very mysterious. Then a job opened up for a graphic designer in their TV and film department, so I got that and began designing graphics for their training tapes. We would hand letter these cards, and fill them in with Pantone colors and shoot them.
We had access to a high tech switcher, the kind used by all the big studios. So we would make all these effects with fading our graphics, and using the big studio cameras to zoom in and stuff. One time we painted an oscilloscope that was 20 feet tall for a set we made, and we had all kinds of fun with these projects. So I learned a lot about film and video working there, going to the lab and working with the equipment.
So naturally, because of who I am, I started giving parties and going to parties, and the film community people were closely related to the animation community. I started meeting people, and the animation people were the most interesting people at these parties. It was during this time that I first met Joan Gratz.
I was also hosting weekly film screenings for my department at Tektronix, checking out all these films from the library and showing them at work. It was a huge time in animation: so much great work was being done, but it was also so hard to actually see animation. There were very few ways to get and watch the films, so I would check out films from the National Film Board of Canada, and all the Norman McLaren films… they had all the great ones.
I was completely enthralled with animation, but still had this desire to bring lettering to life, which was always my goal. So I wrote a grant and got funding for my first film, The Alphabetic Key to Human History. I was still working at Tektronix, so I used all our studio equipment to make my film. I don’t think anyone ever saw that film but me, but it was my first and it was a big deal to me at the time.
I was also traveling a lot to try to see animation. There was a festival in Seattle, so I went to Seattle to see animation. Then I fell in love, went to Europe, and went to the Zagreb festival in Croatia. And Joan was there, but she barely acknowledged me, because she was busy hanging out with people from the National Film Board of Canada, and the guys at Aardman, which had just started up.
Then I got laid off from my job at Tektronix, and had to move in with a roommate, and was freelancing from my bedroom. My roommate was one of Joan’s best friends, and I got to know her better because she was over all the time. Joan mentioned that there was a job open at Vinton Studios, which seemed perfect for me. So for one day a week I worked for Patty Groening, Matt Groening’s sister. Matt wasn’t yet doing The Simpsons; he was still doing Life in Hell, but I worked for Patty one day a week and freelanced the rest of the time. So that’s how I started working at Vinton, and eventually became a producer there.
RV: That was when you and I first met. You were working on The PJs, and had recently completed your film Insect Poetry. You also made the film about Spring Poems, and Old Time Film, and I went to that show you did at the bar where you were writing on the walls with the glowing paint… so you do animation and performance and showcases and books and teach: are these all working progressively toward a single creative idea you have in mind, or are they different things that capture your imagination in the moment?
MZ: Well, that’s my super power. I can write, and I can write big, and that’s what I really like to do. I love the act of writing. I don’t particularly like to plan in advance; I like the act of doing it. Lately I’ve been working with TV Paint, because you can record your writing in TV Paint. But it’s a little slow, so it’s not the same.
It’s almost like a dance. The letters are alive, you know? The ink is alive. The paper is alive. I want to show it, and that’s what I look for in my art.
The shapes of letters are so inspiring. I love the shapes of the letters. And then I love poetry, too. So it’s perfect for animation, because animation is short. And poetry is short, when it’s good. So those are all the things I work with and try to capture.
Last year I did a showcase for Walt Whitman’s 200th anniversary. I got the Northwest Film Center to agree to screen it, and I chose 12 or 13 poems and had people agree to make films for it. So I put together this program with poetry readings in between each film. And it was really well received; we had a full house at the art museum to attend the screening. It was a lovely way to honor him.
So I did the Whitman thing last year, and this year I did a similar thing for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. We had eleven artists and animators, including Joan Gratz, Teresa Drilling, Joanna Priestley, and Deanna Morse create or share works related to the environment and poetry. The program includes everything from digital animation and clay painting to works done by children in grade school. We couldn’t do a public screening, of course, but you can watch it online. We had 1000 people show up to our initial screening on Zoom, so that was impressive.
RV: Do you like making these kinds of shows and showcases, rather than just working on private projects?
MZ: Absolutely. [counting to four on her fingers] I love having animation festivals, and events where you can drink, I like having my friends around, and I like seeing lettering animated.
I mean, I really love animation festivals, and I had a great experience organizing the Platform Animation Festival in Portland. But the problem is that you have to create a film and hope it gets in, and they can reject you. Then you can get bitter, because you spent all that energy on the film, but you’re not invited to the party, and I just thought:
Who needs all that? I can do the work on my own, and then just put it in a showcase, which doesn’t need a judge or jury. Nobody is going to say you can’t do that, and I don’t have to report to anybody.
I have also discovered that if I create a big deadline like a public performance that can’t be moved, it really motivates me to finish things. I need that kind of incentive to get me working and keep me productive, so I create them. Otherwise, when you get stuck on things, it’s easy to let yourself get distracted and take a nap or do dishes. The work is hard, and the risk of missing the deadline helps me get past those hard moments, to decide that something is good enough and move on. It forces me to make decisions and accept that something is done.
RV: That’s honestly a genius idea.
MZ: Teaching gives me energy, and it gives me ideas; it helps to motivate me. I like having a gang of people around me, and I get to manage not just my own film, but all these other projects. I need a lot of stimulation and energy, and that big scary deadline with the risk of embarrassment to keep on moving ahead.
So I just decide what the showcase is going to be. I talk with Joan, we talk about who we want to invite, and then I just go ahead and do it. The Whitman show got invited to Experiments in Cinema, this really cool festival in New Mexico, and they invited me there as a guest curator/artist, which is really how I like to think of myself. I couldn’t go, because of the pandemic, but it was great to have the program recognized in that way, and we all got a little bit of money from that. It also got invited to Screens Around the World, where they project from giant projectors onto buildings around the world. I love that, because I absolutely love big things. And I don’t have to set up the projector.
Showcases also just encourage people to experiment. I loved animation when it was done on paper, when it was crafted, and there was chatter… it’s more real and authentic than the perfect films everyone makes today. I want to encourage that kind of creativity, which is another thing that’s great about teaching. I love that tippy feeling where things could go wrong; it adds so much energy. That’s why I like to have live performance elements in my programs, rather than just screenings: it creates space for unpredictable moments.
RV: What’s your favorite tool?
MZ: The Pilot Parallel Pen. It’s a calligraphy pen, and I fill it with Apache Sunset Noodler’s Ink. It’s a beautiful yellow color that goes into orange, but I also dip it so I can get different shades, and you would not believe how gorgeous it is.
RV: And what are you up to now?
MZ: On Friday afternoons, I have a Zoom club with my friends where we all do calligraphy in our own studios and work quietly and show each other our work. I am making postcards to send to remind people to register and vote, and it’s really nice to have that feeling of connection. Also having a weekly commitment helps to keep me focused.
Marilyn’s studio offers classes and workshops, and is also available as a working and event space. She is a joy and an inspiration, with a wonderful way of supporting and caring for others, so it’s well worth your time to visit the studio and get involved.