Drawing From Memory: Emma FitzGerald
Written for SOAR Halifax (defunct)
Haligonians pour into a bright green third floor conference room in the Halifax Central Library. It’s the much anticipated awaited launch of author and illustrator Emma FitzGerald’s debut book Hand Drawn Halifax: Portraits of the city’s buildings, landmarks, neighbourhoods and residents. Standing room only.
Born in South Africa to Irish parents, FitzGerald moved a lot as a youngster, which has impacted her work and style. “I think the idea of home and making a memory of a particular place was important to me,” she says. Her parents were storytellers and the tradition continues in her work as memory and story wend their way through her drawings. “I draw a lot of the details. It's not so much about it being a perfect representation of the house, it's more the feeling of the house.”
FitzGerald draws live. Although the initial drawing only takes between 20 to 30 minutes, the time allows her to engage with the ephemeral nature of a place, taking in the temperature, the smell, the details. She also attracts the attention of locals and finds people offering up their own historical knowledge, memories and personal stories of each place. As she drew the community, the community drew in around her.
“I realized that there was a lot of power in the drawings and how they could evoke stories from people, or provoke stories I guess," she says. Drawing became a way to access the stories of that place.
“We all have those experiences where memory becomes so distant that you're not even sure if it happened, so it becomes almost like a legend in your mind,” she says. “I want to touch on that part of the city, that we all have our own kind of individual myths or stories.”
Her drawings began partly as a social media publicity stunt, 30 drawings in 30 days, for her house portraiture business, and partly as practice for a residency at White Rabbit in Bass River, NS. Finding she had enough drawings to justify a book, FitzGerald pitched the idea to publishers in Halifax. Successful, she decided with her publisher, Jim Lorimer, that they would expand the book’s scope to include communities outside the Halifax core.
Being without a car and travelling to locations such as Hammonds Plains and North Preston. The reality of how difficult it is to travel between communities off the peninsula became apparent. “I learned a lot about our public transit,” she says. “And also I feel like I have this embodied experience now of how these different neighbourhoods link together—or not,” she says.
Immigration stories, too, seeped unplanned into her work. Inside Hand Drawn Halifax you’ll find a story of a male taxi driver yelling “Boyfriend! Boyfriend!” at FitzGerald as she is drawing the new convention centre construction site. She then realizes he’s saying “portrait” and wanders over to find him drawing his home from memory in between calls. In her next residency in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the theme is “immigration,” she plans to work with immigrants in drawing workshops. Her aim is to access participants’ memory of home.
Judging from the huge support shown for her work, Emma FitzGerald has managed to touch a nerve in the Halifax community. She’s a modern historian, blurring the lines between fact, story and memory, as it should be.