Gemma Black is a pretty impressive lady. As a professional calligrapher, she has worked on manuscripts of incredible national significance, including the Apology to Australia’s Indigenous People and the National Apology for Forced Adoption.
What's more, she’s also a dedicated, disciplined, and delightful person, so we asked Gemma what it’s like chasing her beautiful, unique dream.
Could you explain calligraphy and illumination?
Sure! The English word calligraphy comes from the early 17th century. It is from the Greek word kalligraphia, from kalligraphos ‘person who writes beautifully’, from kallos ‘beauty’ + graphein ‘write’. So, in a nutshell, calligraphy is beautiful writing.
A person who does this is called either a calligrapher or a calligraphist. Illumination is simply using colour to highlight, adorn or illuminate one’s work. The use of gold leaf to give the work real pizzazz is called gilding.
When did you know you wanted to become a calligrapher, and why?
When I was a late teen my father gave me some certificates to write on for his workplace, because I had good handwriting. I had an inkling then that I should do more with this writing thing… I loved it!
I was in my early twenties when I really knew I wanted much more to do with calligraphy. It is hard to explain why. Why does one person fall in love with letters and the next person doesn’t? Crazy eh?
What path did you have to take to become a calligrapher?
There are no formal courses in Australia to become a calligrapher. These days, and when I was younger, you had to study with as many calligraphers as you could, through calligraphy societies and like-minded groups.
I started my more serious training in England through Digby Stuart College at the University of Roehampton. This was a two-year course where I received tuition from some of the best calligraphers in the world.
What challenges have you faced along the way and how have you overcome them?
I was studying at a time when computers were starting to become the norm and fewer people were actually writing anything much. I was moving in the direction of fine penmanship when everyone else was learning computer skills.
I guess the challenge for me was being taken seriously. I just kept plugging away, creating works of lettering art that computers couldn’t do, involving techniques such as painterly effects, gilding with real gold, illumination and gold tooling. I continued to study with as many calligraphers as I could find.
Not only did I study calligraphy – and I think this is really important – I studied printmaking, bookbinding and watercolour as well. All of these other disciplines allowed me to develop much more fully as an artist. I became a lettering artist, a designer and calligrapher allowing all these other disciplines to feed into my work.
What is so special about calligraphy?
Some people, like me, just love letters. I have tried to get my head around why I truly love what I do and I have come to the conclusion that it is quite simply the fact that I love our twenty-six Roman letters & the ampersand!
I love learning about history, the origin of letters, their development, how to create them, how a shape evolved, how many hundreds of ways a letter can be used, their meanings and their myths. Calligraphy is fascinating and encapsulates much much more than simply letters and how to arrange them beautifully.
What skills do you need to be a calligrapher?
Oh, that’s a good one. The obvious answer is training in letterform, tools and a variety of media to work with but that is not all. You have to be well disciplined, you must take time to practise and do more practice and just keep at it. You must not expect the quick fix!
Do you have any advice for young women who want to pursue their dreams?
Many young women have made their dreams reality. It can be done. It can be hard work but being passionate about what you do is a key factor in achieving your goals. Be positive and proactive in what it is you want to do. Be open-minded too. Make sure you don’t kill yourself over it and as success is not normally instant, you have to keep at it.
If you have to support your passion with a part-time job, even a full-time job for a little while, it can be done. Give of your passion and yourself to others, stand up for why you love what you do even if it is designing funky new socks… everyone on the planet needs socks!
Do you have any tips or tricks for people who would like to experiment with calligraphy or even improve their handwriting?
Find a tutor or a mentor, grab a friend and go and have some lessons.
Of course it is not for everyone but there can be fun in trying. As to improving your handwriting this can be great fun too but you do need to go back and be prepared to systematically do a few writing exercises every day and you will improve.
What's your favourite breakfast food?
Cappuccino with toast & honey!
What's your favourite living-room dance song?
Now I am going to show my age - Dancing Queen by ABBA.
by Brooke Duncan
Images supplied by Gemma Black