Chalk it Up to Talent

Written by: 
Jessica DeLeón
Photography by: 
Spencer Heyfron

Dana Tanamachi’s (’07) use of a simple, cheap instrument has thrust her into the national spotlight.

Tanamachi’s chalk lettering has appeared on the cover of O, The Oprah Magazine and the West Elm catalog and in a full-page article in The Wall Street Journal.

Her career began as “sort of a happy accident” when she started doodling on a chalkboard wall at a friend’s party in Brooklyn.

“I didn’t think anything of it,” she says. But impressed partygoers asked her, “Oh, did you just do this?”

Every time Tanamachi attended a party at that house, she would come several hours beforehand to play on the chalkboard wall, a welcome retreat from a full-time job in which she worked at the computer all day.

“There was freedom in it that I really wanted,” she says.

People began posting pictures of Tanamachi’s work online -- and it took off from there. Her first commission came from a friend of a friend who saw her images on Facebook. She joined Twitter. She began working on installations for the Rugby Ralph Lauren flagship store in New York City, among others.

Tanamachi researches ahead of time for each project, looking through old typography books and a file she keeps of vintage artwork. “It really just comes out once I start sketching,” she says. She’s currently working on projects for merchandise packaging, magazines and books. She’s also traveling frequently, working on installations and lecturing to colleges and professional organizations.

Eric Ligon, associate dean for academic and student affairs in the College of Visual Arts and Design, remembers Tanamachi was a “real joy” as a student and hardworking.

“Her work is really popular now because she is good at what she does,” Ligon says. “The typography is hand rendered and great fun.”

He notes that the real charm in her work is its completely temporal nature, while so much of what people see now is rendered in pixels or printed with “often ‘spirit-less’ accuracy.”

“The notion that this work can be gone merely by accidentally brushing up against the board is intoxicating to me,” Ligon says.

Tanamachi says UNT’s communication design program gave her a great foundation, especially the intense exercises in Ligon’s typography classes. Students are given three typefaces that cannot be found on a computer and have to render a given phrase 10 times in that font with pencil, strictly through observation and measurement.

Tanamachi heeded the advice of Ligon, who encourages students to network and learn more about their field by collaborating with professionals in Dallas and attending monthly meetings of the Dallas Society of Visual Communications. She also sought out another mentor, Meta Newhouse (’07 M.F.A.), a graphic designer who was then working as a teaching assistant, and they often talked at the Art Six coffee shop in Denton.

“I’m so glad I ended up at UNT,” Tanamachi says. “It is such a great place for the arts. I didn’t know that going in. I still tell people about it.”

Q&A with Dana

Degree in: Communication design What is it like to work with chalk? When you work with chalk, you get dirty. That’s the best part. You’re in there, working with your hands. It’s not pristine.

Toughest part of her job: Keeping up with email. It has nothing to do with the chalk. The chalk is the easiest part. It’s the managing of everything that’s a big challenge.

Most rewarding part of her job: I love people’s reaction to my work. I feel like there’s a sense of joy people get from just looking at it. Chalk is such a humble medium. You don’t expect something big to come out of it.

Favorite place in Denton: My favorite place to hang out and eat was El Guapo’s. I still really miss it because New York doesn’t have any great Tex-Mex.

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