Bon Vivant Interview Series with Gemma O'Brien

In what is an overdue introduction our first interview with a female Bon Vivant. Sydney-based typographer, hand-letterer and illustrator Gemma O'Brien discusses with BNVVT how she goes about crafting her own version of the good life. Honing her skills through university and international placements, she has had the fortune of working with some distinguished clients including Woolworths, Canon, Adobe, Volcom, QANTAS, Smirnoff and The New York Times. She also expresses her passion for pen, ink and vectors by running regular hand-lettering workshops, gallery shows, and attending speaking engagements around the world. Gemma has also worked as an art director at Animal Logic, Fuel VFX and Toby and Pete before deciding to fly solo as a commercial illustrator in 2012. Gemma discusses with us some of what makes her tick as well as some very specific and different career predictions. You can follow her work and exploits on her Instagram under the pseudonym MrsEaves101
Photo by Elle Green
What drives you both professionally and personally?
I guess my drive comes down to keeping myself challenged. I have a constant need to develop new skills and try different things, and the connection between hard work and reward gives me incentive to keep on pushing the boundaries of my creativity.
Do you have a personal motto that guides you?
Not really. But I believe in hard work and always trying to see everything from a positive point of view. Being proactive and seeking out the things you want in life is something I think is important too.
What do you consider to be the key elements to a Bon Vivant?
For me it’s outdoor activities all day, studio work all night. I like bike riding, fresh fruit, a swim in the ocean, and regularly laughing till I nearly pee my pants.
What one item do you have take with you wherever you go?
I always have my iPhone on hand for taking photos and writing notes or ideas as they come to me. I usually have a little paper notebook too.
Carry on or checked luggage?
I love feeling free and taking only carry on, but if I’m travelling for a workshop or to paint a mural, I have a lot of materials to pack and have to check my luggage.
What other mode of transport other than air do you most enjoy? Bike riding, walking, and piggybacks.
Be prepared or make do?
I am very much a make-do person, however lately I’ve been endeavoring to be more prepared. Being too prepared can lead to disappointment if something unexpectedly changes, and make-do can leave you in an anxious heap at the very last minute. I think both are necessary and perfect in balance.
Who inspires you and how?
Creative people who push their skills and don’t stick to a single style. It’s easy to create something popular if you’ve done it once before, it’s hard to continually create something new or different that diverts from trends. Some people I’ve been inspired by recently are Tina Lugo - an amazing erotic illustrator from New York - she makes very pretty/rude pictures. Ken Barber & Martina Flor - two great letterers whose work is amazing and backed by a wealth of typographic theory. 
 Photo by Alice Marshall
How do you go about creating your ideal life?
I am not someone that sets specific goals within specific time limits. I just try to keep on creating, and churning out new ideas and take it as it comes. I try to balance commercial work and personal work, with teaching, travelling and conferences, and then relax in between. So far, so good.
Who is working behind the scenes?
I’m a one-woman-show when it comes to a lot of my creations, but I do have an amazing set of producers from my agency, The Jacky Winter Group, who work behind the scenes on commercial projects. I’ve also got three housemates who put up with the sounds of me working until 4am and a boyfriend who is readily available for pep-talks and snort inducing laughter. My mum calls me regularly to make sure I’ve been to the dentist and done my tax returns too.
What are some of the thorny issues you find yourself dealing with whether ethical, emotional, practical?
People don’t think about being a graphic artist as something that’s ethical. But when you’re creating stuff for the commercial /advertising world there are definitely issues that arise. I guess I am constantly juggling which creative projects to take on, thinking constitutes “selling out,” and deciding which jobs are worth sacrificing creative integrity for money.
What advice would you give to people out there thinking of starting their own business/pursuit of dreams?
Focus on creating really good work first, and then build everything around that. Create the work that makes you happy, not the work that you think people want to see. Easier said than done!
What gets you excited about waking up in the morning?
Fear of deadlines, the excitement of creating something new, and this smoothie called the “Zombie Nerd Smoothie” which they make at a local Redfern cafe. It’s raspberry, chocolate and ice cream and is LITERALLY the most delicious beverage you’ll ever taste.
When was the last time you laughed until you cried? This happens almost every day. I recently laughed till I cried when I saw my a photo of my friend feeding a hot dog through a wire fence to Red Symons from “Hey Hey its Saturday”.
What's happening for Gemma O'Brien on this day in 2019? Gee whiz. That feels far away. I’ll be 31. It will be January 19th. A Saturday afternoon at 5:38pm. It’ll be summer, and hopefully I’ll be in Sydney. Maybe on a beach. Maybe I’ll be getting married to Jason Crombie in Mexico. Maybe I’ll have moved on from typography to illustration and fine art. Or maybe I will have completely dropped this whole design thing and be studying geology or astronomy. I dunno. But I feel like I will be pretty happy. I’ll put an alert in my iCal now to let know if any of these predictions pan out.