Gemma O'Brien

When I was little, I lived with my mum, dad, and big sister in a house that dad built on Mt Glorious, forty minutes north-west of Brisbane. When I turned six, my parents divorced, and my sister and I went to live with Mum in Brisbane. Every second weekend we’d stay with Dad up on the mountain. A few years later, Dad moved further away to Canberra, and that was when I officially became a Frequent Flyer. 

Mum would drop us off at the Qantas gate and Dad would pick us up when we landed; and because we were so young and travelling alone, we wore little red badges with big white letters reading “UM”, which stood for “Unaccompanied Minor”. I have fond memories of these flights. We’d sit in the last row where the flight attendants could keep an eye on us, and we’d always get separate kids meals, miniature coloured pencils and activity books. Fast forward twenty years and I find myself flying with almost the same frequency for conferences, workshops, and murals. Travelling is a major part of my life and career. Even one of my favourite projects, The SpewBag Challenge, was born as a result of air travel.

I never imagined a career in art and design would involve so much flying, and these days I think I’m addicted to it. I like everything about it: packing, filling out the customs form, standing in line, boarding and choosing the same seat from my “UM” years. There’s a structure to flying that rarely occurs in my work life, and also a sense of detachment and space that I really enjoy. International flights from Sydney still don’t offer WiFi, and that means 15 hours of being truly disconnected. Also, travelling far from home, at least for short periods of time, seems to keep me calm and grounded. 

The most significant part of regular travel is gaining a new perspective. After each trip, I come home and see what I’ve left behind a little differently. I used to think that to be a successful creative you had to leave Australia and move to New York or Berlin. To “make it” in Australia, you had to “make it” overseas. I’d been taught to think that the creative communities abroad had more energy and offered more opportunities, that being surrounded by like-minded people created a buzz that allowed you to work better and faster. But the more I travelled abroad, the more I started to see Australia with fresh eyes and I realised that success doesn’t depend on location — it depends on you. 

Last year, I received an email from Qantas, wishing me a happy twenty-year anniversary as a Frequent Flyer. Looking back, I see that while I’ve been very fortunate to have travelled as far and wide as I have, the real reward was in realigning how I view my life, career and sense of home. Australia is always the longest flight away, but there are advantages in being so remote. For one, the distance gives you room for reflection and the ability to work without distraction. I’ve also realised that there’s strength in having a connection to where you come from, and being close to your family and friends beats being surrounded by the world’s best creatives. Your quality of life is just as important as the quality of the work you create, and I’d much prefer to spend my weekends at the beach than in the studio.


Gemma O'Brien

Gemma O’Brien is an Australian artist specialising in lettering, illustration and typography. After completing a Bachelor of Design at the College of Fine Arts in Sydney, Gemma worked as an art director at Animal Logic and Fuel VFX  before deciding to fly solo as a commercial illustrator in 2012. Her typographic work takes on a variety of forms, from calligraphic brushwork, illustration and digital type, to large scale hand-painted murals. She splits her time between advertising commissions, gallery shows, speaking engagements, and hosting hand-lettering workshops around the world. Her clients include Playboy Magazine, Nike, Volcom Stone, Kirin, Westfield, Heineken, QANTAS, and Diet Coke. A number of her projects have received the Award of Typographic Excellence from the New York Type Directors Club, in 2015 she was recognised as an ADC Young Gun and in 2016, named one of PRINT Magazine’s New Visual Artists: 15 under 30. 



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