Instagram, inking and impact

by Luc Benyon

We catch up with artist Gemma O’Brien, whose social media success has been a chance for her to explore the potential for the performative nature of type.

This is the level of fame that Australian artist Gemma O’Brien now finds herself dealing with. It’s emblematic of the way her work lives on beyond its creation – on social media and in branded content. She’s paradigmatic of artists who are as much about performance as the work they’re creating.

But it wasn’t always going to be the case. After dodging a law degree, she came to design fairly late.

“In my design degree, we learned about fonts, typesetting, and line spacing. I found all the rules quite boring,” she explains. A course with a letterpress artist was to be her epiphany moment. “He showed me that fonts were physical. They were in a drawer you could pull out, and even spaces were a piece of metal. Suddenly everything made sense to me.”

“I found all the rules quite boring”

During her studies she stumbled across the work of hand-lettering supremo Jessica Hische. “I was crippled,” she admits. “It was the exact answer to what I was thinking about in my design degree, which was: ‘I love this history of typography, but how can it be accessible and contemporary?’ Jessica had done that, and created a hugely inspirational body of work.”

“I love this history of typography, but how can it be accessible and contemporary?”

Like many illustrators, she’s found that building a reputation for a specific craft and style has helped her gain recognition. In the last three years she’s received increasing volumes of commissions for large-scale, handlettered and illustrated murals, and it’s these with which she is now synonymous. She’s pragmatic as to why that is, saying: “I don’t know if it’s a general trend or because I’ve shared more of that stuff on my Instagram…”

Social media has certainly driven the commissions from brands. Often they request that she posts live Instagram stories, time-lapses or behind-the-scenes images. Murals encourage passersby and onlookers to share the artwork on their own social media, to the delight of sponsors.

A somewhat reluctant advocate of social media, O’Brien sees the benefit of it, but is not likely to spend all day responding to her fans. Likewise, she shies away from clients who just want to tap into her huge social following. “I want to keep it as authentic and true to what I’d normally do anyway.”

O’Brien is convinced that the digital world increases our fascination with the physical. “It’s the awe of human performance… the elements, the materials, and the fact that something could go wrong. There’s a high level of anticipation, it’s almost like theatre or live sports.”

As to what makes lettering of particular interest: “With letters there’s that initial need to want to make sense of it. Even if it’s a part of a letter, you’re already trying to identify what it’s saying. There’s that ‘finish the sentence’ thing.”

Many onlookers fail to realize the work that has gone on before the live component. A long process consisting of a proposal and approval process with a client precedes the actual painting. The result means that what you see is a lot more predictable than you might think. “I’ve never had a spelling error,” she explains, but “in the painting process certain things can go wrong”.

“It’s the awe of human performance …the elements, the materials, and the fact that something could go wrong. There’s a high level of anticipation, it’s almost like theatre or live sports.”

Naturally, outdoor works offer unforeseen circumstances. One film for a cider brand features Gemma on a scissor lift, in the rain, painting an outdoor ad. Diplomatically, she explains: “That’s not my favorite kind of working conditions.” Quite understandably, she prefers painting indoors, and has plenty of requests from galleries and brands for indoor work.

This also has the benefit of neatly avoiding comparisons to the street art scene. “I’ve done outdoor walls but I do want to separate myself from the street art space. I think there are amazing street artists who do incredible work. But I’ve always felt more comfortable in interior spaces which have the opportunity to work in large scale.” She identifies her style as fitting between art, graphic design and street art.

Her work sits as part of what she calls “this explosion of amazing lettering artists all around the world”. Rather than see others as a threat, they are generously treated as a supportive community. “Because there’s a demand there can be so many voices within that [world]. People are creating things which can be considered lettering or typography and which have diverse styles and approaches within that umbrella.”

O’Brien has certainly benefited from this popularity. She has recently returned from judging the ADC Awards in Bermuda and is planning her next trip to Sweden. Needless to say she enjoys these opportunities. “In Laguna Beach in California, in March last year I had a show in a gallery. It was perfect, after hours I could go for a run or a swim…”

Beyond the romantic idyll, place is a crucial part of the work she creates. Not only will she plug herself into a location-specific Spotify playlist (New York and Portland are favorites), but she’ll extensively research the location before beginning a piece.

“When there’s something foreign or unknown to me it’s good to get some cultural references, perhaps flora and fauna.”

“When there’s something foreign or unknown to me it’s good to get some cultural references, perhaps flora and fauna.” But there’s also a sense that this is a designer still learning her place in the world, and adapting too much to client demands will impact her identity. O’Brien talks passionately of building up her own body of style, technique and pattern.

When it comes to discussing technique she is shy, almost apologetically talking about her passion for lower-case k’s, for example – “you have to change the angle of your hand, for some reason I feel that’s very enjoyable!” she giggles.

When pushed, she’ll go into detail, explaining how she prepares for a mural. “If I’m working on something, even for a large-scale mural, the drawing will be only A2 or A3 size. Working at that scale is a good level of detail, and then once I move onto the wall it scales up.” What works best? “The fewer number of words or phrases, the better potential there is for intricate illustrations, and maintaining legibility.”

Much of her work displays a breathtaking skill, which she modestly brushes off. In one example, a word disrupted impressively by a swirling whirlpool pattern is simply dismissed as a simple “process”. It’s almost as if she doesn’t know how good she is.

This is a talented artist, just at the beginning of an incredible journey: one fan sent her a picture of her take on the word “ink” tattooed onto themselves and conferences fly her around the world to deliver keynotes... But she remains focused on her oeuvre. She’s excited about her new-found love of using color, and sees her next big challenge as non-Latin scripts.

Performance and online content is driving O’Brien’s burgeoning popularity. But it’s down to her magnificent grip of detail, paired with an instinctive understanding of impact. It remains to be seen whether hand-lettering murals can ever achieve main stream success. But for O’Brien that’s not the point, she just wants to make great work. If she keeps doing what she’s doing, it feels like her masterpiece is yet to come.

This feature is extracted from The Recorder Issue 5. You can order The Recorder Issue 5 from our Shop.