In Conversation: Murielle Doré

Murielle Doré is French-Canadian calligrapher, knitter, and entrepreneur based in Zürich. As a daughter of a primary school teacher, Doré held a pencil in her hands long before starting school, and from that moment on, it was love at first sight. She now writes her own story between Switzerland and Quebec, after a five-year chapter in San Francisco.

All images by Murielle Doré unless attributed otherwise.

Murielle Doré, image Francois Perron

Murielle Doré, image Francis Perron

In the spirit of ‘Beginnings’, tell us a bit about your origin story, from Canada to Zürich, and how you came to be doing what you’re doing now, with wool and ink.

I landed in Zürich almost four years ago, after living five years in San Francisco. Like many expats, I followed my husband, who is also Canadian, and who was hired in 2007 by a tech company in Silicon Valley. We lived apart for a year, during which time I worked as a teacher (I had just graduated and was eager to start working), and started my Master’s degree in linguistics in Montreal.

Knitting has almost always been present in my life. My grandmother taught me the basics when I was eight or nine. Although I wanted to know more, she didn’t really have the patience to show me more, and said she would rather knit for me than teach me—so for years, I only made scarves. During the year that preceded my move to San Francisco, I took private lessons in Montreal. It opened a door to a world of possibilities: socks, hats, mittens, sweaters, and more. In San Francisco, I worked in a yarn store, where I discovered a whole community of passionate knitters, as well as wonderful yarns, especially from indie dyers. The knitting world is very alive in the USA. It’s quieter here, in Switzerland, although it’s also present and active. It’s through knitting that I first met people here. And still now, every week, a little group of knitters that I’m part of meet in a brewery for ‘Stricken und Trinken’ (Knitting and Drinking).

Calligraphy came later in the journey. I started only two years ago, but it was love at first sight.

When did you first gravitate towards calligraphy as a practice and art form, and why?

I remember my sister receiving a calligraphy beginner’s kit when we were teenagers, and I was really jealous! I did use it quite a few times. It was for italic writing, and I was fascinated by the little leaflet explaining how to hold the pen at the right angle, which stroke to perform first, second, etc. I didn’t pursue it at the time, but kept nurturing this penchant for writing. I’ve always valued good handwriting, and have never stopped polishing mine.

my-tools-1

Fast forward to the Summer of 2014. A friend of mine posted a video on Facebook where we could see a close-up of a pen in action. If I recall, the name of the ink was stated before each sequence, and I was mesmerised by the movement and the scratching sound of the nib on the paper. I thought to myself: ‘I want to do that!’, so I searched for ‘online calligraphy course’ and found one that caught my eye right away. It was for Copperplate writing, a classic and elegant hand, which resonated with me. I took the course during the fall, when I had time to practice, and was instantly hooked. I found some similarities between calligraphy and knitting: in both activities there are repetitive actions, which I find very soothing. The consistency that you achieve will yield an even, beautiful result. It takes a lot of time, but the reward is grand.

If I have to create something on the spot, then the pencil and sketching pad are my best allies.

There’s no escaping it: calligraphy is linear, and when working with words, we must ‘start at the very beginning’! So tell us what goes through your mind when you first sit down with a fresh sheet of paper. And if ever you don’t know where you are headed, how do you begin or get over your ‘resistance’?

There is a lot of work that happens behind the scenes, if I can say so. When I create something, I almost always see it in my head beforehand. I rarely improvise. However, before using the pen and ink, I will always do a little sketch to validate the visual balance and composition between the words, and see where I can add flourishing, if needed.

I proceed the same way when I do a commission for a client. They usually provide the words, and I give them some time to shuffle around in my mind until they settle down, and then I sit and use my tools. If I have to create something on the spot, then the pencil and sketching pad are my best allies.

I rarely feel resistance, fortunately. However, there are occasions where I only have one try (if I’m writing on a surface with a watercolour background, for instance). If it happens on a day when I have a shaky hand, I have to make sure to warm up sufficiently with some exercises to ease myself into the right mood. I noticed that I have to feel confident, otherwise I can guarantee that I will mess up! In this case, it’s better to put things off until a better time.

practice-makes-progress

Most people would assume that a writer or calligrapher sits at home working in monk-like solitude, and yet calligraphy has taken you to some interesting places in the world. Can you tell us a bit about where you’ve been and what in particular you found inspiring about being out of your home environment?

I do, indeed, spend a lot of time on my own, but there is a huge community of calligraphers online (mostly on Facebook and Instagram). And from time to time, we meet face to face! Locally, I’m a member of the Calligraphy Guild of Switzerland. I have attended two workshops and recently the general meeting. They were all very interesting, and through them I met wonderful people, and could practice my German (a vast majority of the members are from the German part of Switzerland). I’m probably one of the youngest, if not the youngest, but the great thing about it is that I can speak with calligraphers who have 15, 20, or even 30 years of experience.

Before joining the Swiss Guild, I took advantage of a visit to Montreal to take private lessons with Joy Deneen, a very talented calligrapher and just a wonderful person. These were my first lessons face to face with someone, half a year after I had started learning calligraphy. I was afraid I might have developed bad habits, but fortunately, it wasn’t the case. Joy gave me insightful advice that helped me tremendously, and broadened my practice.

The biggest highlight though has been to attend the annual conference of IAMPETH, an association of calligraphy lovers located in the United States, but open internationally. Their week-long conference was held in Portland, Oregon, last July. I attended half-day and full-day workshops with different calligraphy masters. I learned new skills, new writing styles, I experimented with new nibs, inks, papers. I met dozens of passionate people of all ages and backgrounds. I could also trade stories with other calligraphers who are also trying their luck at turning calligraphy into a business, which was very illuminating.

Last but not least, I’m going to attend a workshop in Turin, Italy, in February 2017 with expert Massimo Polello, which I’m very much looking forward to.

I always find that meeting other calligraphers gives me new ideas, new impulses. These moments of collaboration are always very, very enriching!

Calligraphy is a way to press the ‘pause’ button, and go back to this comforting feeling of holding a pen in your hands.

About your equipment, do you have preferred inks or nibs to work with? Or does it depend on the job at hand?

I tried a few nibs and pen holders before finding my favourite ones. I’m now writing almost exclusively with an oblique pen holder (as opposed to a straight one), and although there are very fancy ones in wood, the plain old plastic version works just fine for me. My preferred nib is the Nikko G, a Japanese nib used by manga cartoonists, but also calligraphers. I also like the Brause 66EF, which creates thick and thin lines that are more contrasting than with the Nikko G.

As for the ink, I like the sumi ink very much. The black is very intense, even when you dilute it in water, and it has a nice shine once it’s dry. These two (the Nikko G and the sumi ink) are my go-to equipment. When I write on dark paper, which I love, I will then use Dr. Ph Martin’s Bleed Proof White. Finally, when I want letters that are elegant and glamourous, the Fintec Palette provides wonderful hues of gold, silver, mother of pearl, and many more!

close-up calligraphy

Handwriting was once our most practical way of keeping records and holding our stories, spiritual texts and history. Yet, today, we live in a technologically advanced world, where we have apps that (for example) allow us to write by hand with one finger on our phone screen. We also have access to myriad fonts and graphic tools, not to mention the ease of voice-to-text … I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but why would anyone bother with calligraphy?

Hehe, indeed! I would say that we could also ask: why do people learn carpentry in their spare time, or how to bake cakes? There is plenty of furniture and cake already! It’s true that technology has replaced so many occasions where we used to write with a pen and paper. Sending a letter back in the day would take us maybe 30, 45 minutes, plus the time to go to the post office. Now, we can write 10 emails in that same amount of time. In a sense, technology saves us time, and makes us efficient, but at the same time, it accelerates and multiplies the number of tasks that we can squeeze in a day. Is this speeded-up pace really a good thing? I sometimes wonder.

Calligraphy is a way to press the ‘pause’ button, and go back to this comforting feeling of holding a pen in your hands. Also, as for many craftspeople, you take pride in creating something yourself, where each step of the process is as important, and contributes to the final product. In a world of ‘instantness’, going through the production of an item may give you a certain sense of control, where it’s all about your own skills and decisions.

Regarding all those fonts that are already there for you to use, they are truly abundant and undoubtedly useful. In my view, they serve a fair number of people who are pleased with them. But I think there are also those who value handwritten calligraphy and will seek it out. They both have different audiences, and each serves its own.

We live in an age of mass content. How do you view and use social media, in terms of getting your work out there in the world?

I sometimes have mixed feelings towards social media. They can be a wonderful support, and a way to connect with the world in a positive way, but they can also be sharp-edged and hurt you. Getting my work out there is rather easy. What’s sometimes difficult is to get people to see it! I noticed in the past year that it’s now more difficult to get your posts to reach your audience, unless you are ready to pay or you have a combative approach to the field. I’m not big on self promotion, launching contests, or encouraging people to share my posts. I respect it, and I’m sure that having a clear marketing plan attracts new followers, but it’s not really who I am. It’s a lot of pressure! I prefer instead to go at my own pace, which is a much slower one, but it might be better in the long run. I try to share regularly what I’m working on, and always reply to people’s comments. I highly value their opinion, and I try to keep the dialogue going.

As a writer of text, calligraphers have a very close relationship with words. Are there any words you don’t (or especially do) like writing? If so, why?

I’ve never faced a word that I didn’t like writing so far. In the actual act of writing calligraphy, one no longer thinks about the words, or the letters. The focus is on each individual stroke, on managing spacing, and on keeping a balance so that it is visually appealing. This being said, some words are more challenging than others. Ones that do not have any ascenders or descenders (for instance, the letters b, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, p, q or t),  like the word ‘ascension’, might sometimes look a bit flat, but you can always dress them up with some flourishing.

I love to play with composition. The positioning of the words should always reinforce the message they convey. It’s a nice thing to observe, when sketching, this ‘ballet’ between the words. They will shuffle around (or I should say that I shuffle them around!) until each one finds its proper place.

Within the alphabet, the upper-case K and R are my bêtes noires. I need to give them some love!

What has learning calligraphy taught you? And what made you decide to teach others?

I think calligraphy is a great demonstration of how every little gesture and movement counts and contributes to the final picture. You might not see progress day-to-day, but after consistent effort, in the end, you see something beautiful taking shape. I observe some similarities between my calligraphy journey and my adjustment to our life in Switzerland. I sometimes doubted whether my efforts (in learning German, trying to integrate) would lead somewhere, but I can say now that they were not in vain. Like with calligraphy, it takes time and patience, but it’s worth it.

Murielle Doré teaches, by Francis Perron

Image courtesy Francis Perron

Regarding teaching, although I’m not working as a teacher in the school system anymore, I still like it and miss it. When I launched my business mu tricote la vie, I concentrated my efforts in product design (cards, signs, chalkboards) and a calligraphy service. After a while, I realized that other people might like calligraphy as much as I do, and would like to learn how to do it. Word of mouth did its work, and I had a wonderful opportunity to teach a brush pen workshop in November to a group of women in Rüschlikon. We had a great time, and I hope to repeat it in the future.

And, finally, The Woolf special question: What is one of your favourite works of fiction, and why?

I love the work of Kim Thuy, a Canadian author who was born in Vietnam. Her books Ru (2009), Man (2013) and Vi (2016) are on the thin side, but they somehow spread through you, and never leave you indifferent. Her words have a lot of poetry and she manages to describe all sorts of situations, even terrible ones (like when she tells us about her experience as one of the boat people) with accuracy, and yet with a softness that makes you deeply understand and connect with her. I savour every page. Every minute spent with her is moving and precious.

Another story has been following me for a number of years now, and it’s The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I read it over and over, and every time, I understand parts of the book differently. I have a growing collection of different copies from countries I visit, and they are very close to my heart.

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You can read more about Murielle Doré and find ways to connect with her via her website: www.mutricotelavie.com

For her collaboration with Alëna Sevastsyanava at Wink Stationery: www.instagram.com/winkstationery

Author: Libby O'Loghlin

Novelist, social entrepreneur, narrative media coach and consultant, media literacy educator. Co-Founder + Co-Creative Director of The Woolf Quarterly; Co-Founder of The Powerhouse Zurich.

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1 Comment

  1. Fascinating topic. I don’t think I would have ever thought of there being private lessons for knitting or caligraphy. I love handwriting – even though mine is terrible. I rejoice whenever I get a hand-written letter from friends or family – you see so much of their personality in the pen strokes.

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