Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Welcome with an Apology...


a blog where we aim to bring and share all things calligraphic from around the globe:

News, Views, Reviews, Interviews and How-tos.....

As our launch on February 13, 2009 coincides with the first anniversary of the Apology to Australia's Indigenous Peoples - a cornerstone and a pivotal moment in Australia's history – it is fitting that, given that the key group members here are Aussies, our first post shares with you the making of that document – a piece of calligraphy not only exquisite and sensitive in its creation, but a work that I have no doubt will become one of the most precious documents in our Nation's collection.

The Apology to Australia's Indigenous Peoples

work on vellum by Gemma Black

Ronnie from Calligraffia talks to Gemma Black about the making of the Apology to Australia's Indigenous Peoples

R: Gemma – what an amazing work – how did you get involved in the creation of 'the apology?'

G: Thanks Ronnie, it was an honour for me. I was already working on the Books for the opening of Parliament when I heard that the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was going to make an Apology to the Indigenous stolen generations. I made mention to my contacts that this would be the perfect opportunity for a document to be created to be held calligraphically, on vellum, for the Nation for posterity. I suggested that when the Apology was made, we talk some more about the logistic of such a piece of work. Long story short, and after a couple of meetings regarding the nature of preparing an illuminated address, the Nation’s leaders were intrigued and very keen on the concept.

R: What are the materials used in the work?

G: The motion is entirely created by hand on calf skin vellum. The skin was treated with pumice powder to help raise the nap of the vellum to make it suitable to take the pen and ink and to remove any grease marks or imperfections not seen by the human eye. This method entails a simple hand rubbing of pumice over the entire skin and gently brushed away.

The text was written first using Brause metal nib sizes 2mm, 1.5mm & 3/4mm. For legibility I purposely opened up the classical italic text to a little wider than for normal use.

Once the text block was written and checked and re-checked for errors the illuminated letters were traced on to the surface of the vellum using a standard “H” lead pencil. The letters were then outlined on the vellum using walnut ink, using a very fine pointed dip in pen. The media used to create the small illuminated letters, which are based on Victorian illuminator Owen Jones (with a bit of my own minor alterations), were artist grade Winsor & Newton designers gouache Cadmium Red Pale and Oxide of Chromium. The gilding is a straight forward 23.75 ct gold leaf on a traditional gum ammoniac size.

(detail of illuminated letters and heading)

The dot work is the standard illuminated letter dot work harking back to earlier Celtic manuscripts and their meanderings and knot work. These dots are made with a dotting tool using a bleed-proof white paint.


The Coat of Arms was traced on to the vellum and outlined using walnut ink with a very fine pointed pen nib. It has been painted with a variety of designers gouache mixed colours to achieve the correct colour matching to the original hand painted Coat of Arms of 1912. Very fine brushes have been used in this process from a 5/0 to a 20/0. Both shell gold and shell silver were used in the Coat of Arms along with Derwent Artist grade water colour pencils worked over with brushes.

R: The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd's words are quite something – How did these influence the way you approached the work?

G: Like most people in Australia I was glued to the television broadcast. I was at the University of Canberra and the hush of the crowded refectory was testament to the sincerity and the powerful speech unfolding. I remember standing beside the brick pylon with goose bumps and shivers stalking my body, saying to myself I have got to write this. So, when it came to actually writing it I was totally engulfed by the words and became one with the text. I was very aware in the lead up to execution of the work that the words in this document were the most important aspect to the work and that they were to be respected. So, to this end I chose to keep the document as simple and under embellished as possible.

R: How long did it take to execute?– and were there any nasty problems on the way (tell us the truth now – we won't tell)?

G: No, no nasty problems. Vellum is so wonderful to work with. I was so in awe of what it was I was writing, I just wrote for 2.5 hours in one short sitting for the main body of text and before I knew it I was finished. I was listing to the Prime Minister's voice in my head as I was writing. The Coat of Arms took me about 16 hours and the illuminated letters about 3 hours each. The rest of the time was in the preparations, the roughs and the ruling.

R: Tell us about the ceremony when the work was presented to Parliament House

G: On May 26, 2008 National Sorry Day, the document was gifted to the Australian people by the Prime Minister with the intention to provide a permanent acknowledgement of the past, and a reminder that we must harness the determination of all Australians to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The ceremony was conducted in the Mural Hall Parliament House with key Indigenous and Government organisations represented. It was a moving and humbling occasion. I felt honoured to be there personally plus I remember thinking “it is a good day for calligraphy too”.

Front L-R: Gemma Black, Christine King, PM Kevin Rudd & Helen Moran
in front of the document on National Sorry Day, May 26, 2008.

R: 'a good day' indeed – on both accounts.
Where is the piece now?

G: The work is now sitting in a purposely built cabinet in Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra for all to view. It sits alongside the glass Coolamon, a gift by the Indigenous community to say “thank you for saying sorry”. It is stunning to see the two gifts placed together, harmonious in their individual styles.

R: So - are there any plans to create reproductions to share around the country?.... I'm sure I'm not alone in my desire to see a copy of your work in every school and public building in the country.... a very visible reminder of the nation's apology.

G: Reproductions of the Apology is not for commercial resale. A number of very highly reproduced facsimiles were presented to each stolen generation member as well as a special print prepared for every school in Australia. These should have been received by each school before the start of the 2009 academic year. Two major institutions also have a fine art facsimile in their collections.

Also, I wanted to have the preparation and execution of the document recorded and subsequently, working with a wonderful young filmmaker Ricardo Skaff, we now have a superb 20 minute DVD which will be shown in Parliament House. I am happy to be invited to show the DVD personally to any group large or small who would like the opportunity to view the Making of the Apology Manuscript.

R: Thanks Gemma – not just for a wonderful piece of work, but for sharing your thoughts here.

G: It has been my pleasure.