Atmospheric, lively and obsessive are just a few of the words Emma FitzGerald uses to describe her work. Take one look at the Nova Scotia-based artist’s illustrations, or flip through her best-selling book Hand Drawn Halifax, and you’ll quickly see why. Though FitzGerald is a trained architect who’s worked on multi-storey residential projects in the past, she’s now found her niche as a visual artist who illustrates homes, cities and whimsical scenes.
FitzGerald came up with the concept for her book following a seemingly simple social media experiment: to post one drawing of her neighbourhood (Halifax’s North End) a day for a month. The illustration blitz was meant to be research for her house portraiture business, which she launched in 2013, but soon developed into a full-blown passion project. Her followers shared the images, leading FitzGerald to acknowledge the possibility of getting her illustrations printed and bound. After pitching it to three publishers at Word on the Street (a Canadian publishing festival) and further fleshing out the concept, she partnered with Formac Publishing to create Hand Drawn Halifax.
Since then, she’s followed up her best seller with Hand Drawn Halifax, The Colouring Book, and continues to work on prints, cards, custom house portraits and freelance illustrations. With art, travel and architecture at the core of FitzGerald’s work, we caught up with her to talk about the places she calls home and her latest creations.
Julia Eskins: You were born in Lesotho, a small kingdom in Southern Africa, yet spent most of your childhood in Vancouver. How did these early years of travelling across the globe shape your interest in place-specific work?
Emma FitzGerald: My parents are Irish, and had moved to Lesotho from Ireland for two years, soon after they were married, to work in a hospital. I was born halfway through their time there, leaving before I could remember it. Lesotho is surrounded by South Africa, which was under apartheid rule at the time. In fact, there is a baby photo of me taken on a beach while on holiday in Durban; I am sitting under a sign that reads "White People Only". It was while I was growing up in Vancouver that I became aware of these realities from family albums and my parents’ stories. I quickly realized my own privilege in being able to move so freely through the world. I think this led to a sense of seeking to understand the world around me, and a desire to know the stories people have to tell. I’ve definitely also been inspired by the sense of adventure my parents had at such a young age, and that keeps me diving into new situations, whether far away, or close to home in Halifax.
After travelling the world, including working with Peter Rich Architects in Johannesburg, South Africa, you chose Halifax as your home. What about the city do you like most?
I enjoy living with easy access to the ocean, locally grown food at the markets, and I have a wonderful circle of friends who inspire me. There is a lack of pretension in the Maritimes that also feels great.
What’s one of the biggest misconceptions about Halifax, or something that someone who’s not familiar with the city may not know?
I think when I first moved to Halifax 13 years ago there were not the same conversations that are happening now around diversity. I am seeing a shift, where diversity is not just present, but celebrated. The North End neighbourhood that I live in was considered dangerous, and I was told point blank not to live there. Now, it is being gentrified, which is a challenge, as people are being displaced. However, the same neighbourhood also voted for the first African Nova Scotian councillor in 20 years this past election, the young and hopeful Lindell Smith. It will be a long time before Halifax is as diverse as bigger Canadian cities, but honouring the existing minority groups who have contributed to the city already is the right direction to be heading to.
What are some of the places you frequent in the city?
I go to the Brewery farmer's market on a Saturday, where I can buy fresh local produce, followed by a walk along the waterfront, which is an important ritual for me. During the week, I'll go for a quick walk up the Citadel to get some fresh air.
You’ve participated in several artist residency programmes including Largo das Artes in Rio de Janeiro, and the Santa Fe Art Institute's thematic residency in New Mexico. How does being positioned in a new place and travelling influence your artistic point of view and process?
Now that I run a business selling house portraits, I find that going on a residency is important from time to time. It gives me the chance to pause and tune into myself as much as the new place. There is suddenly more time to read and reflect, and I also get a chance to produce new work. The challenge is finding the balance between seeing the new place I am in and diving inward in a studio setting. My work while on a residency tends to be more conceptual. When I was at the Santa Fe Art Institute, all of the other artists in residence were making art that was very politically motivated, as the theme was ‘Immigration/Migration’. This served as great education for me on issues that continue to be very pressing.
What are you working on now?
I have been working on a new book about the South Shore of Nova Scotia, following the same premise of Hand Drawn Halifax. All the drawings are done using black pen on location, and coloured afterwards in Photoshop. The text is mostly based on anecdotes that people share with me while I draw. All the material is with my editor now, so I am waiting to get my drawings and text sent back in a book format. It is an exciting and nerve-wracking time. If all goes well, it will be in bookstores by fall 2017! ■