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



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