Channin Fulton | Gemma O’Brien at LCAD
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Gemma O’Brien at LCAD

Gemma O’Brien (Pseudonym: @mrseaves101) is an Australian designer-artist who specializes in lettering and typography. She’s worked with clients Volcom, Adobe, Smirnoff, and the New York Times. She has been a speaker at prestigious conferences such as Typo Berlin and was bestowed the Award of Typographic Excellence by the New York Type Directors Club in 2014. Recently, she was approached by Laguna College of Art + Design to create an installation of her work as an artist-in-residence [of sorts] and yesterday officially marked the last day of Gemma’s temporary hand-painted typography exhibition at LCAD Gallery.

Some of the San Diego Letters crew, Phoebe Cornog (@phoooebers), Roxy Prima (@roxyprima), and I drove up to Laguna to attend the opening reception of the exhibition on March 3rd, 2016.

We got the opportunity to meet Gemma in person and speak with her for a little while about passion for lettering, inspirations, and tips of the trade. It was a pleasure to introduce ourselves and Gemma proved to be a very terrific soul whose loyalty to the lettering arts is both meaningful and inspiring.

Social media platforms like Instagram, where @mrseaves101 has accumulated over 90k followers, can sometimes be a messy place for artists and designers looking to get their work out to the public and market themselves. Because of Instagram’s accessibility, it can be particularly over-saturated with amateur lettering, copycat work, and people who have no problem providing rash, harsh, or unhelpful commentary. In the midst of that mess, Gemma as artist-designer is a social media success story.

But all this got me thinking on an even larger scale. The digital realm brings us new challenges. How do we connect with the user on the other side of the interface? How much information do we share or withhold on web? How do our digital conversations vary from our face-to-face conversations? These are all things I thought about after attending the exhibition. Not to mention, in recent years, I’ve been thinking about how can we improve the way we communicate through the computer using visual, human-centered design solutions and even art? What is web art?

According to the gallery placard [not my words], the concept behind Gemma’s show reads:

Gemma O’Brien’s exhibition, of large scale, hand-painted, site-specific, typographical murals, is made up of a series of short words and phrases that are drawn from our digital interactions. “I liked the idea that this language can be so mundane yet if taken out of context, speaks to bigger questions of lived experience – relationships, human connection in the digital age, the desire for legacy and meaning.”

The show is comprised of four key pieces of text drawn from password forms, wifi-connection error messages and captcha tests: “Remember Me”, “Re-establishing Lost Connection”, “Prove You’re Human” and five iterations of “OK”. Viewers are invited to engage in a physical-reading experience, by walking through the space, decoding the phrases and finding links between them.

A variety of contrasting bold, typographic styles are united by the sole use of black and white. Influences of her natural surroundings in Australia are integrated with the letterforms – flowers, plants, ripples and patterns of the ocean. O’Brien intentionally pushes the legibility of the words with dizzying dot patterns, and word breaks, in order to slow down the reading process and appreciate the letterforms in their own right.

The process of creating the installation itself also presents a desire for authenticity and represents an intersection of technology and the hand-made. The original drawings for the show are made through a combination of techniques: calligraphic brush lettering, illustration and manipulation of digital fonts. The exhibition is as much about the process of painting as it is the final piece.

… “the majority of text we encounter on a daily basis is purely for communication. I am interested in drawing attention to the breadth and beauty of typographic styles in themselves while invoking reflection on language, design, and “the human” in the digital age.”

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Tangent Alert: With particular regard to Instagram (the social platform of my choice), I’ve been thinking lately about how anyone who so desires can pick up a nearby pen, and dive right in to drawing letters. I think this is both a hindrance and a draw to the lettering craft. Emphasis on craft*. Lettering isn’t something you can really become good at without study and practice. Good lettering comes from the learning and understanding of letterforms, context, and concept.

I am the first to admit that I have a long way to go in this craft; the art of making letters. It’s a passion of mine and it’s extremely humbling to see people like Gemma take that passion, study it, talk/write about it, and then work it out for herself visually. I think that lettering, just like any other craft or vocation, involves doing your homework. It means studying the greats of the past. I wonder how many people who have taken up lettering as a trend (Lettering is a trend: http://www.printmag.com/featured/hand-lettering-flexible-adaptable-typographic-art/) know top names in the type/lettering world like Doyald Young, Louise Fili, Matthew Carter, or Jessica Hische. Well, J. Hische is sort of like “DUH everyone knows her” but what about just coming up with a list of top 10 letterers/typographers/designers that influence you? Chances are, you won’t be able to list names like a history book but having a small arsenal of influences can get you rolling in excitement and inspiration!

We’re so obsessed with getting “followers”. God forbid we follow more accounts than follow us. Having design heroes and heroines and following them is not about name-dropping or sounding academic. It’s simply about appreciation, respect, and understanding the history and future of the craft. And I think that makes us better, more innovative designers and artists. It should also give our work a unique personality.

The goal in saying this is not to discourage people from taking up lettering. Opposite, in fact. Learning to hand-write well, in an elementary state, contains its learning retention perks. Connect hand-writing with stylizing letterforms, and you’ve got communicative art. Art should be made by everyone.

However, don’t estrange its origins. Don’t lack curiosity for that tail of the “Q” or that terminal of the “a” you just drew. It might have been inspired from a coloring book typeface you subconsciously loved as a kid, or a logo you stared at on the subway yesterday.

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Gemma proves that if you have passion for design, it’s important to just start creating. Dive into it. Just do. Work hard. She worked to gain a reputation in the type and lettering world, starting with blogging about letters and typefaces around her local environment, documenting signs on the streets, local advertisements, etc. I would assume that involved a lot of research and effort to compose.

For myself, a concern has always been that I sometimes lack the patience and confidence to just experiment. I know that I am not alone in this. Many designers can place expectations on themselves, which can paralyze them if they’re not careful. True art-design synthesis involves some degree of experimentation. Experimentation requests fearlessness.

This is a quality I see in design heroines like Gemma, and that I strive to seek out for myself. Thank you for coming out to California and showing off your work, Gemma!

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Professional Photo Credits: Xun Chi, @chixun