Laila Rezai is one of a large number of artists who have fallen in love with type. The California-based Rezai experiences letterforms as aesthetically beautiful and imbued with meaning. She tells me her inspiration comes from the late Maya Angelou’s interpretation of how words possess a tactile quality in that they seep into the walls, the furniture, our psyche, making them part of a taxonomy of our individual expression. As a graphic designer, Rezai has spent years staring at letterforms in the context of design, and appreciates the care with which font designers craft them—each one unique, as its own character. I am always curious how “typo-painters” choose, work with and ultimately claim type as their own. So I asked Rezai to talk more about her interaction with type.
What do letterforms mean for you and your art?
In my art, I often typeset several words that I want to imbue within the composition, and then fragment the words so that they’re only interpreted as abstract shapes. And yet, my original intention is still part of the piece. People outside the realm of design experience typography as purely utilitarian. I want them to see more of the architecture of a letterform and the nuances that are visible when scaled or contextually interpreted as part of an artistic composition.
There are many artists/designers who are turning type into larger works. Where does typography intersect your life?
Typography intersects my life on a lot of fronts. It’s what I interface with daily as a graphic designer. As an artist, it appears in almost every piece that I make, having become a signature of my work. Even in pieces where the type can barely be seen, I’ve intentionally hidden words within layers of the piece … as though I’m in a quiet conversation with the viewer. I also think that in the same way that a foreign language can sound appealing, I enjoy exploring foreign typefaces in contrast to Roman characters that I’ve been exposed to for most of my life.
You paint meditative pictures of flowers and such. Is type a form of quiet and meditation, and if so, how?
I don’t necessarily find type to be meditative, as much as it’s an expression of my intention, using a system of communication. I find a lot of beauty in exploring the specificity with which type designers make the choices that they do, constructing a particular font or font family. I especially enjoy the variations that are hidden within glyph palettes. It’s almost embarrassing to admit that I ignored glyphs for most of my career, and have taken a greater interest in them in the context of my art.
You often hear the standard question made to type designers and graphic designers, but I’ll ask it a different way: What do you find to be the most artistic or, shall we say, rhythmic type, you’ve worked with?
One of my favorite fonts when I’m working on larger art pieces is Didot. I think of that font as a classic super model that’s elegant, with refined features and beautiful curvature. The contrast between its thicks and thins really show themselves when scaled to larger sizes. If Didot the font was a woman, I think she would have been Audrey Hepburn.
What started your career as a painter, and what’s next?
I started making fine art in response to sitting in day-long finance classes when I went back to graduate school to get my MBA. At that time in my life, I thought I was going to become a “business person” and give up graphic design altogether. Ironically, business school fostered an anxiety within me about distancing myself from my creativity. Like a voice that was summoning—I missed the tactile experience of making things with my hands. Excel spreadsheets and economic formulas are interesting, but they don’t feed my soul the way that artmaking does. Simultaneously, someone that I’m very close to and is a fine artist by vocation reinforced in me that creativity is to be expressed and not ignored. Seeing him practice his craft inspired me to do the same.
When I think about what’s next for me, I have to reference where I’ve been to know where I’m headed. While I spent two years making smaller works of art, a personal health issue led me to create bigger art. My health challenges turned out to be a gift in an odd package, because they provided clarity in terms of where I wanted to channel my energy. When I considered what I want to leave the world when I’m gone, I decided that I wanted to leave my art. Knowing that, I plan on continuing to make art and am equally interested in the business of art. I also want to be part of the conversation of empowering designers and artists to value what they make in the context of commerce. I believe that creativity is a gift, and unless those who create understand by valuing what they make, they won’t be able to signal to themselves, their communities or the marketplace of their contributions.
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