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Artist Emma FitzGerald redefines Halifax

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Artist Emma FitzGerald -
Photo by: Rachael Kelly

Artist Emma FitzGerald - Photo by: Rachael Kelly

Emma FitzGerald sits alone at a makeshift desk in front of a bookstore in Scotia Square Mall. In front of her are several copies of Hand Drawn Halifax, a teal hardcover book boasting a whimsical sketch of prom night at the Public Gardens on its cover.

The 33-year-old freelance artist looks up intermittently and smiles at passersby. People can’t help but look at her; she stands out sitting in the crowd. A bookstore employee later counts the books left on the table. “This is one of our best signings,” she says, piling the 12 remaining copies. “We usually sell 10 books. You just sold 45.”

FitzGerald draws to better understand her environment and capture the personality of a place. For an illustrator, this makes perfect sense. P.E.I. author Lucy Maud Montgomery inspired her to start drawing houses as a child because she “gives buildings a lot of personality,” says FitzGerald. Montgomery’s attention to detail had a profound effect. “I just started to see everything around me as having a spirit or a soul maybe,” she says. “My drawings started to reflect that.”

FitzGerald specializes in house portraiture. When looking for inspiration, she slings over her shoulder a backpack containing a sketchpad and fine-liner pen. She outlines a landmark in black ink on location, and then takes the sketch back to her studio to scan into Photoshop.

Illustrations: Emma FitzGerald

Illustrations: Emma FitzGerald

She adds colour digitally to give her sketches a smooth, matte finish. She says she slips into a kind of meditative state when drawing. She tunes into sounds, smells, and sensations, and focuses completely on a sketch till it’s complete. Her sketches breathe new life into the city, much to the delight of Haligonians.

Her publisher, Formac Publishing, printed 3,000 copies of Hand Drawn Halifax for the book’s initial September release. By October, the company had to rush a second order to meet the demand for the book. Just before the holidays, it was the top selling book at Chapters and Coles stores across Nova Scotia.

Hand Drawn Halifax retails for $24.95. But each book sold in stores results in $1.30 in revenue for FitzGerald. “It’s still a journey for me to figure out how to make a viable living doing this,” she says. “That’s why [commissioned] portraits are so important. Those two years you’re working on the book you’re working for free.”

Demand for art hasn’t declined, says Ian Muncaster, director of Zwicker’s Gallery on Doyle Street. But sales are becoming concentrated. He says corporate buyers dominate the market in larger centres like Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto.

With few exceptions, buyers in Halifax gravitate toward what he calls “expendable art”—mass-marketed canvasses found in chain stores like Walmart or Bed, Bath & Beyond. Others buy art for its story, works that have “a certain charm.”

Charm is FitzGerald’s specialty. Her naive, colourful sketches are fresh, bright, and full of whimsy. The elitist reality of the fine-art market is why FitzGerald loves illustration, because it’s far more accessible to average buyers. “Emma speaks from the heart and draws from the heart,” says her mother, Trish. “There’s no ego attached to [her work]. That’s what appeals to everybody.”

Illustrations: Emma FitzGerald

Illustrations: Emma FitzGerald

Eleven years ago, FitzGerald moved from British Columbia to Halifax for Dalhousie University’s master of architecture program. In 2007, after completing a work term in Johannesburg, South Africa, she hopped the border into Lesotho where she developed her thesis: Lesotho women’s role in architecture.

Lesotho holds special meaning for FitzGerald because it is her childhood home. In 1982, the year Emma was born, her parents were volunteering in a local hospital through an Irish aid organization. While her parents worked during the day, a local woman named Grace minded Emma. She carried Emma on her back down the main street of Maseru, the small kingdom’s capital.

“I’ll always remember Emma with her little blond head on the back of this big black woman singing songs, walking down the street,” says Trish. Emma was “always looking at things with a tremendous sense of curiosity.”

After finishing her degree, and winning Dalhousie’s thesis prize, FitzGerald stayed in Halifax for two years before returning to Africa. The work placement teaching first year design lasted five months.

In May 2011, she returned to Halifax, but became disenchanted with architecture. She decided to switch her focus to illustration full time. FitzGerald knew that to follow her goal of combining architectural accuracy with her artistic creativity she’d have to make it official. She founded Emma FitzGerald Art & Design in June 2013, and pitched her book to Formac that September.

Catherine MacQuarrie, FitzGerald’s best friend from architecture school, says she feels FitzGerald made the right decision.

“When you read Hand Drawn Halifax, and look at the sketches in conjunction with the text, you start to see a lot more of the details you might miss at first,” says MacQuarrie. What makes FitzGerald so successful in designing spaces is “her ability to observe how people use space in an intimate way. I don’t see her sketches, or the path that she’s taken with her art, as something separate from architecture for that reason. There’s a lot of crossover.”

This year, FitzGerald will publish a companion colouring book to Hand Drawn Halifax and write a sequel to her first book. Hand Drawn Lunenburg and South Shore emerged from conversations with Formac before Hand Drawn Halifax was even published. FitzGerald calls it a “logical progression” for the new year.

Illustrations: Emma FitzGerald

Illustrations: Emma FitzGerald

Last year was a breakout year for FitzGerald, filled with newspaper articles, TV appearances, craft fairs, and community work with kids at St. George’s YouthNet youth group. Her newfound sense of accomplishment, however, doesn’t stem from external success.

“By following this path of my own business and art, some life goals have become less attainable, like having my own house or having the time to invest in relationships,” she says. “But I think there’s also a realization that I would regret it if I wasn’t doing what I was doing now. Having faith in that, that I’m building toward something, and realizing that you don’t necessarily need what society says you need at a certain age…I take comfort in that.

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