A Conversation with Canadian Artist and Calligrapher Lorna Mulligan

As our faculty interview series travels the globe, we are happy to circle back home to talk to Montreal based artist Lorna Mulligan! With a degree in Fine Arts from the University of British Columbia, Lorna teaches watercolour, calligraphy and more at the Visual Arts Centre and Dawson College. She served on the board member of La Société des calligraphes de Montréal for many years, and her work has been featured in Letter Arts Review and Bound & Lettered, as well as a wide variety of exhibitions in Canada and Europe. With the collective Les Calmars, she published the book Dans l’encre du temps last year. Read on to learn more about her artistic journey and how she approaches combining text and image.

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Where did you grow up and what first sparked your interest in art? Which came first, your love of watercolour or lettering?

I grew up in Vancouver, on Canada’s West Coast and have always been making art. My background is in fine arts, primarily in painting, drawing and in graphic design (I worked as a designer to support my artmaking practice). From early on, my editorial design influences spilled over into my art with the inclusion of text in my paintings, as well as the fact that I have always tended to work in series. For many years my lettering and calligraphy was influenced by my knowledge of typography.

I moved to Montreal in the early 90s and around that time I got serious about using watercolour as a medium and about learning traditional calligraphy. I missed the Pacific Ocean terribly, so I have managed to get out to the East Coast Maritime provinces often to get my hit of salty air, gaze off into the blue horizon and swim in the cold Atlantic waters. My watercolour kit and calligraphy tools are always with me on those trips.

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What is the first hand that you learned, and which hands resonate with you most today and why?

The first hand that I learned would be Italic. I did a series of large paintings entitled Six Scottish Women in the late 80s. Based upon family heirloom brooches that my mother gave me, some invented stories and actual history, I created these fictive-document paintings about six women. Doing the calligraphy part was truly enjoyable and it was then that I decided to learn from a professional calligrapher. In Montreal I studied with Yannick Durand, who had been trained in Toulouse with Bernard Arin. She insisted that I start with the Italic hand even though I wanted to jump to Uncials. I’m grateful, as I still adore the many elegant variations that the Italic script has to offer and I return to it often.

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Which teachers have made the deepest impact on you and your work and why?

I feel it important to integrate whatever I learn from a workshop teacher into my own artistic concerns. My artwork draws primarily upon the interactions of landscape painting, abstraction and written words, the crossover between calligraphy and fine arts.

I wish to acknowledge the teachings of Yannick, who got me off on the right path. Since her passing, I have taken workshops with numerous calligraphers and have really appreciated learning from those teachers who tend to think deeply about words and their meanings, not just about the technical aspects of calligraphy. I have enjoyed studying with Thomas Ingmire, Yves Leterme, Brody Neuenschwander and Ewan Clayton to name a few.

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Where do you create, and how have you organized your work space? What is your best time of day, and do you have any particular routines or warm-ups before you begin?

I have a small (but messy) desk space at home for course planning, but most of my work is done in the studio space that I share with two other artists. I love being there and although I teach a number of art classes a week, I spend two to three full days each week in the studio. Sometimes I’m very active (and exhausted after two hours of work) and other times, I just go there to sit and think. Mornings work best for me. After a brisk walk (and with coffee in hand), I arrive at the studio and put on some music.

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What are three of the most essential tools for your practice and why?

The brush… always some sort of paintbrush. I enjoy working with watercolour brushes (good quality sable ones) and with nice Oriental brushes. I love pigments, watercolour and rich black inks. I also use scrappy old house painting brushes, sticks and found tools for their expressive mark-making capabilities. The calligraphy tools that I use most are the pointed pen and the ruling pen.

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What has been one of your most meaningful commissions or projects? What made this project particularly special, challenging or rewarding?

Since I am not a traditional calligrapher, I don’t do many commissions or contracts, although I have had some unusual contracts including texts for tattoos, a design for a headstone and commemorative presentation books. My time is more devoted to teaching art, to my own art practice and in preparing exhibitions of my paintings and calligraphic works.

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As a fine artist, what is your approach for incorporating text and expressive imagery? Is the composition typically planned, or do you have pieces “waiting in the wings” for when the time is right to add lettering?

This varies depending on what project I’m working on. Often the text leads the visual exploration, and at other times, the calligraphy develops during the process and occasionally it is an afterthought. When text and image are intertwined, it can demand a lot of thinking, planning and composition studies. I find that working in series allows me the freedom to try different text and image options in a more spontaneous, gestural way. I always do small thumbnail composition plans or value sketches to start. As a painter, I do have a multitude of painted “backgrounds”, just waiting for that correct text to go along with them. Then, the question is always: what words, what style?

Recently one of my artist’s books was accepted into Art of the Book 2018, an international book arts exhibition which is travelling across Canada for a year and a half. In fact, it took me almost that amount of time to create the book that I submitted! A View from the Treetops was inspired by an excerpt from Thoreau’s essay, Walking, and I really took my time to get all of the elements of this book working together correctly – the drawings are done in ink using calligraphy tools and branches, the text sits discreetly on each page, and certain pages are hand-tinted in rich greens and purples.

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You will be teaching a course entitled “Loosening up with Calligraphy and Paint – Where Chaos Meets Composition”. What knowledge and skills will students gain from this experience, and how would you describe your style of teaching?

I’m a well-organized teacher who also enjoys experimentation, so my classes combine a certain structure with looseness, allowing students to go out of their comfort zone with guidance and to have lots of fun in the process. Composition is paramount and we’ll enjoy both its spontaneous and more thoughtful aspects. Students will gain confidence in their ability to put together different visual elements into their calligraphic pieces – that delicate juggling of written text, line, colour, movement and composition.

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How would you describe the calligraphy community in Montréal? What does community mean to you, in the context of the lettering arts?

Montreal has a great community with our local guild, La Société des calligraphes de Montréal, a very active group. As well as being a member of the Society, I have had the immense pleasure over the past twelve years of being part of Les Calmars, a small collective group focusing on contemporary calligraphy exploration. We met weekly to work on our calligraphy, both traditional and experimental, to exchange ideas and critique. We would take turns leading the group in creative exploration and would often do collaborative group projects. I wrote an article in Bound and Lettered about our group after we had published our book, Dans l’encre du temps, which celebrates our work and our time together.

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Outside of calligraphy, what are some of your other interests and hobbies? What might be something about you that people would be surprised to learn?

I enjoy travelling, especially to the seaside, walking and hiking, cooking and eating good food, having a wee dram, listening to music and… dancing. I love to dance.

Lorna Mulligan

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