Saturday, August 31, 2019

South Africa - a reflection

SOUTH AFRICA – a reflection

South Africa, what can I say. As I reach the time in my life where I have more memories behind me than I may have ahead of me, I can say I am extremely grateful to have visited South Africa. From day one, 31 July 2019 to the last, 28th August, I was treated and welcomed with such generous hospitality. I consider myself very fortunate to have been invited to teach calligraphy in SA and for the workshops to have gone so well. One thing I can say with certainty is that calligraphers the world over are connected by the craft of letterforms, a spirit and camaraderie like no other. The trip would not have been possible without the huge effort of one woman Dirmu Gouws. To Dirmu, I offer my humble thanks.

After one night spent in Johannesburg with Anne Marie & David Moore and a day out with Paddy Balsdon, I started my teaching tour in Port Elizabeth. Sue & David Patton kindly dropped everything, even packing boxes & moving, to entertain and welcome me. The Cnut Charter Hand was our workshop theme, and my eager participants had a weekend of delving into a letterform from the 10th century. They engaged with analyzing early manuscripts, decorative capitals … and very fine food catered by the group for everyone to enjoy. Erin’s corn & chili soup was to die for!

A real highlight of my PE time was the visit to Addo Elephant Park. An amazing adventure all of it’s own. To be right in the middle of up to 35 elephants at any given time was in the true sense of the word, awesome. But I digress. Thanks to Sue and Erin for giving me an experience of a lifetime. And to top it all off, many of the class participants joined me for an impromptu lunch on my day off after the workshop.

From PE to Cape Town and into the warm & sharing arms of Bev & Colin Gillespie was a treat like no other. To find such likeminded people to talk books, words, people, mysteries & politics was stimulating in itself. Provided with material on people, arts & crafts in SA I had my own little apartment aside from their home where I could hide away at times and read, or join the conversation at other times. Through their eyes I was able to see a side of South Africa I have been longing to know about.

There were two workshops in CT. The first, an amazing group of very talented people created backgrounds for calligraphy, collage & mixed media, with lettering taking it’s place as the backgrounds demanded. Oh the lunches … again the lunches were a delight with Con Meyer creating delicious bobotie, lasagna and salads etc. for all to share. It was my first, but certainly not last, bobotie. I have the recipe!

Our second CT workshop was an evening workshop over two nights where the participants wove Italic letters with delight. Again the importance of history was a focus in the learning and the group was keen to know more about this aspect of our preparation.

A highlight for me in CT was a visit to Robben Island where many South African political freedom fighters including Nelson Mandela were held as prisoners. I went by myself and enjoyed the knowledge gained, the thinking time it allowed me, and the treacherous water crossing to get there … and back. The barren and bare nature of the island was a harsh enlightening for me, of the wretchedness and hardship of any person who had been incarcerated there.

Bloemfontein was an unknown place to me before going to SA. An Afrikaans town which was full of languages and sounds new to me. I picked up a lot of new words and again enjoyed the company of very talented people. Everyone was determined to learn more and more about our craft. We studied the Trajan inscription, with a great deal of fascination. We drew, painted and wrote solidly for three days with the participants producing amazing works. The workshop was held in the private studio and home of Willemien & François Kruger who treated all of us with a fine welcome and generous hospitality. Our lunches every day catered for, so no demands were upon any of us apart from being busy with our craft.

I didn’t see much of the town itself except a fabulous art shop, a sweet café and … of all things … a beauty salon. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to stay with a young Afrikaans family in SA. 

Back to Johannesburg, wow! Again I was greeted with warmth and generous hospitality. Pearl & Paul de Chalain were perfect hosts who made sure I had everything I needed and a whole lot more. Pearl has a highly equipped studio and classroom where we spent three days considering the early art deco movement with a little history thrown in. One of the great things about calligraphy travel is that you see how particular lettering and art/craft movements in time impacted on various places. It is the art deco period that I find the most diverse around the world. We looked at a whole variety of deco lettering styles and work with painted, penciled and penned the essence of Art Deco into our work. All participants excelled in their outcomes.

Pearl & Paul continued their hospitality by continuing to host me over the duration of the next workshop.  We drove back and forth to Pretoria, another mostly Afrikaans town so close to Johannesburg that they will surely meld one day. For each of two days I taught a workshop called Alphabeats: rhythmic letterforms.  Again we started with analyzing the skeleton roman capital but diverged here by using this skeleton as a basis for adding weight and changing the forms to create letters that play off one another. Again, it was a workshop with outcomes that exceeded the participant’s expectations.

On the first day off after the completion of all my workshops a very relaxed Pearl and I visited the Cradle of Humankind out at the Maropeng & Sterkfontein caves at Magaliesburg 60km northwest of Joburg. Both of us could not have been more fascinated and delighted to find an installation there called The Long March to Freedom, a monumental celebration of South Africa's struggle for freedom & democracy. As for the Cradle itself, the major discoveries in these lands have shifted the focus on the origin of our species to Africa. I can’t quite put my finger on it but for me, coming to Maropeng, gave me real sense of place. I have had this feeling in other places such as the Australian outback, the New Mexico desert and the divine forest of Taiwan. Strange eh?

I could not have left South Africa without a better impression and understanding of the rich cultural history of its varied peoples, arts & crafts and its country.  Thank you so much to all involved.


Gemma Black 31 August 2019



Friday, August 30, 2019

A Conversation ...

A Conversation with Australian Calligrapher Gemma Black

Today, we’re going Down Under! Based in Australia’s island state of Tasmania, Gemma Black is an artist, calligraphic designer and familiar face on the faculty of past international calligraphy conferences and symposiums. She is a Fellow of the Calligraphy & Lettering Arts Society (CLAS) and has worked as a scribe to the Commonwealth of Australia. In the interview below, Gemma talks not only about her background and favourite tools, but also shares details about the stirring apology documents she created for federal government.

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Where did you grow up and what first sparked your interest in letters?

I lived in Sydney, Australia for my first nineteen years with my parents and eight siblings. We all went to Catholic schools and the handwriting of the day was a copybook Italic with a broad-edged dip-in metal nib and ink. For four years we were not allowed to use any other writing implement apart from a pencil. So, I guess I could say letters found me! A specific memory would be standing in the school laundry in an apron while my uniform was being washed for all the ink I had spilled thereon. The nuns used to say to me, shaking their heads, “Your poor poor, mother, we can’t send you home looking like that.”

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What is the first hand that you learned, and which hands resonate with you most today and why?

The school Italic was perhaps a little more rigid than, but similar to, Irene Wellington’s italic copybook style. It was the first hand I learned and it is still one of my favourites and most versatile. Having studied italic with Gaynor Goffe (UK) and then Ethna Gallacher (AUS) I find the less flourished Italic a legible and very fine hand for all my government formal documents. I am well versed in many hands but apart from Italic, I am truly a versal gal. The formal versal and all its variation compound forms push my boundaries when creating exciting new letterforms.
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Which teachers have made the deepest impact on you and your work, and why?

I have always believed that you can pick up a little something from every tutor but some special people have made a deep and meaningful impact on my lettering career as support, stimulation and inspiration. If I had to choose just a couple they would be Gaynor Goffe as I studied with Gaynor for two years on the Roehampton course where we became close both calligraphically and friendship wise. Ethna Gallacher, as I spent a year studying first hand with her on a course called “Calligraphy in the Making” here in Australia that I later based my yearlong course “The Way of the Pen” on. Thomas Ingmire, for all those exceptionally hard versals and Trajan capitals on his yearlong Graphos course and finally and more latterly, Ewan Clayton for giving me so much more of an understanding of the spirit of the letter and an even deeper understanding of my own spirit and self within the letters.

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Where do you create, and how have you organized your work space? What is your best time of day, and do you prefer to create in silence or with music in the background?

As I type, I have been spending my days moving home and studio. The new studio, like the old, has good space and light within our home. I like to work a regular 9 to 5 day, though that changes according to the type of commissions I have on my schedule and whether I have some tight deadlines. I love working in the stillness of the early morning, so I may be up very early before breakfast with a hot black coffee to start my day. My partner David plays oboe for the symphony orchestra here in Tasmania, so there is always genteel oboe music filtering in and out of my space. Our schedules are both blessedly full and when his is not the music, words are my thing… you’ll see.
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 What are three of the most essential tools for your calligraphy practice and why?

I would say I am generally a broad nib gal and make use of a range of edged pens. Whilst I do a pretty mean Copperplate it is not my fav. Of the broad nibs, I can’t do without my “Horizon pens” – the full set. One winter I tossed up between new winter boots or a set of Horizon pens. You got it, the pens won and I never did get the boots. I am also a Brause kinda chick. I love them and find more often than not they are my “go to nibs” most particularly for my compound versals. Finally, in the writing implements I have to add my ruling pen used to draw fine and expressive letterforms, I love it/them! There are many old ruling pens I carry with me and always find just the right one for every task. I know you said three but I am going to add one more and that is the pencil – “everything starts with a pencil”.
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Could you share about the process behind the apologies that you created for the Commonwealth of Australia? How did you approach the design for each document, in regards to the lettering and imagery? Was there any aspect that was particularly challenging?

The most challenging aspect of the apologies was the emotional attachment I had with the wording. I have done four Apologies now for our Federal Government and on each occasion I have been moved to tears. I am however, a professional. I see my work with the Apologies as my duty – a gift for me - to create a feeling of sincere artistic endeavor without overdoing ornamentation or in other words showing off. Once read, I am able to put my mind in a professional frame of mind and hope and trust that people who have been affected by any of these traumas can read these documents and find sincere heartfelt apologies and start a process of healing.
The technical process is basically the same for each document. After liaising with the government officials concerned, sketches are drawn, graphics considered and then the rest is up to me. I use a minimally flourished classical italic as my text block. It is legible and very pleasant to read. Perhaps a little wider spaced than I would normally do as I am keeping future audiences in mind who will be living in a totally digital world. Mostly I create headings with versals or lightly decorated gothic capitals, all drawn. Last of all, I recreate the 1912 version of the official Australian Coat of Arms, upside down. After all the hard work this is the most enjoyable part of the document.
Once the documents are completed they are professionally photographed to allow for high quality reproductions to be made and given to those people who identify with the Apology.

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You will be teaching two classes at Rendez-vous: Retro Deco and Rhythmic Capitals. What knowledge and skills will students gain after participating in these classes, and how would you describe your style of teaching?

I coined the title Retro Deco to indicate that the course content would be a retrospective look at Art Deco lettering and graphic style. Participants will gain a greater insight not only to the well known Macintosh period but also its origins in the Wiener Werkstätte movement and its influence on the American paper maker and Deco artist Dard Hunter.
As for Rhythmic Capitals, if I were asked what course I jump out of bed in the morning to run and teach, this would be it. A thoroughly enjoyable look at skeleton forms and what it means to have sound skeletons and how important that form is to the end result, the letter. The participants will revel in the joy of adding flesh to those bones and creating amazing interactive lettering designed pieces with lots of colour. Colour in the backgrounds and colour in the foreground as well as the drama of black and white. I call them “alphabeats”!
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How would you describe the calligraphy community in Tasmania and Australia as a whole? What does community mean to you, in the context of the lettering arts?

Here in Tasmania, there has been an ongoing communal love for lettering dating back many decades, with two Societies and small special interest groups flourishing for many years. Interest waxes and wanes as in any artistic discipline though a hard core of fine calligraphic artists enjoy shared interest through their groups.
I am keenly interested in the continuance and perpetuity of the teaching and evolution of calligraphy and lettering. This, I feel, can only be achieved through healthy community relations and proactive behaviour of special interests groups. Whether there are ten in the group, a hundred or a thousand, studying the past, practicing now and looking to the future and primarily enjoying the journey should be our goal.

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Outside of calligraphy, what are some of your other interests and hobbies? What might be something about you that people would be surprised to learn?

Having studied printmaking, bookbinding and watercolour disciplines as a young adult I use these allied arts to feed into my primary love of calligraphy. Other than those, I read voraciously. Books, newspapers and journals become my company. Or, I work whilst listening to audio books. When I am not working with words I listen to them. A couple of calligraphers I know do the same and we enjoy swapping the best audio books we’ve listened to.
Family time is important. Giving of myself as much as I can to my children and grandchildren before I hit the dust is the most enjoyable pastime ever … pure joy!
On a final note and if you have read this far, good for you: I am sure you will be surprised to learn that I am a synaesthete.

Gemma Black


Thursday, August 22, 2019

"The Johannesburg Group"

"The Johannesburg Group"

Catherine, Marj, Jill, Antonette, Pearl, Barbara, Louise, Dianne & Jeff

 And per se and!

Meet Tiny. What a woman!

Here is a wonderful array of work from the Retro Deco three-day course in Johannesburg. Thank you to all my diligent participants who worked ever so hard to achieve these works. A huge thank you to Pearl de Chalain for being the the mover & shaker for the JB group. Also my thanks to Pearl & Paul for their generous hospitality.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

First stop Port Elizabeth, SA

I thought I would share with you this "animal stand-off" that I filmed.  Enjoy.

It was an interesting visit to Port Elizabeth, my first workshop in South Africa. The people were extremely pleasant and I was very well looked after by my hosts Sue & David Patten. Apart from the class, which was super, Sue took Erin and me out to Ado Elephant park where I experienced some of the most awesome moments of my life. To be in such proximity as elephants, zebra, warthogs, lions, buffalo, eland and other antelope was truly exhilarating.
I thought I would share this video with you all, enjoy.

Onward to Bloemfontein, South Africa

From Cape Town I moved onward to Bloemfontein in the Free State where I met another wonderful group of talented calligraphers.  Everyone could speak English of course but their first language was Afrikaans. I enjoyed listening to the classroom banter even though I had no understanding whatsoever of what they were saying. I am enjoying trialing SA cuisine in particular melktert and bobotie. Many thanks go to my host family Willemien, Franna, Dian & Mika Kruger for their hospitality and warm welcome.

The subject for our three day workshop was
"watercolour cut-back technique using Trajan letters".  
Please enjoy these wonderful outcomes.

Visit my website too!

Visit my website too!
In-class illumination demonstration

Something about Gemma

My photo
Blackmans Bay, Tasmania, Australia
I am an Australian, a letter designer & calligrapher. I enjoy working with letters and grounds, teaching and mixing with like-minded people.


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