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‘Sardinia has this great mix of every type of feeling you want: the sunshine, the ruggedness and amazing food.’

Gems in this

Photo>>>Jeremy Shaw


Explore Playbook

Feature by Interview: Michael Canning; Words: Giulia Mendes

Travel is the driving force behind the work of world-renowned Australian artist and designer Gemma O'Brien.

Whether it's a street sign while discovering a new town or during a trip to somewhere she's booked a last-minute ticket, creativity is always within reach. From the early stages of an internationally recognized career ignited by her blog, For the Love of Type, Gemma started her travels around the globe and has never stopped. She travels regularly to speak and present at conferences and workshops in cities like Paris and Dusseldorf and most recently an art residency in Sardinia. We chat with Gemma about where some exciting projects are taking her next, how the white-sand beaches, turquoise waters, and rugged coastline and community of Sardinia have shaped her work so far and her favorite spots to visit on the Italian island.


On being internationally renowned early in your career

It all began for me about 15 years ago when I dropped out of law school and switched to study design. From that point, it was like all my creativity had been unlocked. Over the years, I started in design but have always done a little bit of art as well. I had a few big breaks in the early stages of my career; I started a blog pre-social media called For the Love of Type that kick-started some international recognition at a very young age; I got invited to speak at a conference in Germany and came back and wanted to really build my career from there. It's been a great experience so far.

On travel as a driving force for your work

Travel has been a significant part of my practice, whether it’s design conferences, workshops, or painting installations, a lot of it involves me physically going places. It’s also a huge part of my inspiration; when I go on these trips, I get this big boost and come back to the studio with  a new set of worldwide trinkets and ideas from the journeys. When travel wasn't possible because of COVID, I realized how important it is for my creativity. Being in Australia is quite far away, so often, if there's an invitation to speak at something or different projects that come together in this mix of all sorts of destinations, I feel very lucky to be able to travel and experience.

On where art has taken you

This year it's been a big one so far — I did a workshop in Paris, a trip to London to meet my new agent, a conference in Dusseldorf, and an art residency in Sardinia. I'm about to head off again to Mexico, New York, Brussels, and Valencia, quite an eclectic mix of places.

Details of Sardinia captured by Gemma O'Brien while on her art residency on the Italian island. All images courtesy of Gemma O'Brien.

On finding inspiration in details and cultures

I'm a very experiential person; I like to adventure as much as I love time in the studio, working on artwork or projects. I get inspired through physical experiences, like walking into a gallery to a big installation or just discovering a new town and street signs — that's where it all started for me, noticing different typography in my environment. And to see that, in different cultures, is like a mind explosion for me. I instantly have to stop and look at things or take photos every five minutes when I walk. Curiosity and adventure are really part of my personality and my practice. It's a huge influence on the way that I work and gather new ideas. I could spend hours shopping in a grocery store in a different country, noticing the slight differences, finding things that feel familiar but are just a little distinct.

On visiting Sardinia for the first time

June 2022 was my first post-COVID trip, and I had multiple destinations. I landed in London, and as I got to Heathrow Airport, I felt like I couldn't do a big city at that moment. I only had a carry-on, so I made a last-minute decision before leaving the airport. I had heard about Sardinia from a friend many years ago — that it's a place where people live forever, a Blue Zone. So I just booked a ticket on a whim and flew there without any expectations. It was amazing! It’s an island surrounded by beautiful beaches with this rugged kind of landscape of rocky mountains in the interior and beautiful peaks between small towns and villages. And it has this great mix of every type of feeling you want: the sunshine, the ruggedness, amazing food, and beautiful fruit trees were in bloom. The appeal for me was this outdoor lifestyle, very interesting people and history. The beach vibe is very unique; it doesn't feel as saturated in terms of tourism as other places in Italy might be over the summer.

‘Travel is a huge part of my inspiration; when I go on these trips, I get a big boost and work with a new set of worldwide trinkets and ideas from the journeys.’

On Sardinia’s crystal-clear beaches

There's a little beach called Cala Fuili. You can go from the town of Cala Gonone and either kayak or rock-hop, going along the rocks, and you will get to this tiny, beautiful beach with turquoise water that is really, really quiet. It’s just sublime. I’d definitely recommend doing that. And also this amazing beach on the island's west side called Is Arutas; the sand is actually made of tiny grains of quartz and is absolutely beautiful.

First row (left) of Baby Luna Italian espresso bar. Second and third rows of Sardinia and details of Gemma's art residency. All images courtesy of Gemma O'Brien.

On a stop for an authentic Italian espresso

My personal favorite is doing a walking tour of regular Italian espresso bars. I'm not talking about fancy-type coffee shops but old-school Italian espresso bars. I particularly love the ones that serve robusta espresso, where you pay 1 euro, with plastic furniture and locals coming in to chat. One I loved stopping by on my morning rock-hopping adventures was Baby Luna.

On your favorite beachside town

There are so many beautiful spots in Sardinia, but I'd recommend going to Cala Gonone. It's a quiet little beachside town — quaint, beautiful, not overly touristy and you can do hikes from there.

On the creative hub

On the other side of the island, there's a small, more rural area called Milis, where there's an art residency. For anyone creative, it's called Nocefresca, and they have a variety of artists coming. There's a hub where people live and work, and it's a completely different vibe to the beach; you're more in a mountain fruit growing, farm-type setup, having fresh oranges every day.

‘I could spend hours shopping in a grocery store in a different country, noticing the slight differences, finding things that feel familiar but are just a little distinct’.

On a Sardinia travel hack

I’d say that you need to hire a car because even though there are buses and the island is small compared to places like America or Australia, you're there to make the most of it, so it's great to drive. There are big highways through the middle, but you want to be able to drive to little beaches and spots along the way. So definitely hire a car and maybe book it in advance because the area is pretty small that they can book out.

On exploring a new language

Once I was in Sardinia, I was just so intrigued and wanted to come back, so I found this art residency. About six to ten artists are there at any time, and some come for a week. I was there for three weeks; others stayed for six months. You can work on a self-directed project that is usually somehow connected to the place. I was really interested in exploring the Sardinian language and nature and finding overlaps. I painted a mural installation while I was there, and I'm still working with some of the words and phrases I collected during that time and will develop those into artworks. I had a very interesting and amazing experience doing my art residency there. You think of an art residency in Italy, and you might imagine yourself in a field painting flowers or this very luxurious vibe, but it was also quite challenging. You're in a place where there's not a huge amount of access to art supplies as easily as in New York or another big city, so you've got to make do.

Gemma O'Brien and her murals. Third row (left) by Maddy Ritchie and right by Jeremy Shaw. Fourth row by Xun Michael Chi. All images courtesy of Gemma O'Brien.

On connecting with locals

Imagine a small town where everyone knows each other, and this group of people, different artists, now come in and out to see the kinds of work people do. The locals are super friendly. It's got this great community vibe. There's very little English in a lot of places where they speak either Italian or Sardinian, so you find other ways to connect with people. Plus, the scenery is beautiful; it's a great place to go if you want to get something creative done. And if you find yourself in a small town called Milis, or Arborea, and you want to say goodbye to somebody, say Adiosu  — that's a specific way of saying goodbye in very local language. You'll get a big smile from anybody if you say that at the end, and they'll probably be so surprised you know how to say it.

On other projects and current experiments

There's one cool installation I'm about to start working on. It's a pop-up exhibition in Sydney in this amazing space in the city center. It's a blank canvas with 10-meter-high ceilings where I will bring together a lot of my experimentations, a little bit of a deviation from my existing work into this space, and more fluid gestural work. I've got some packaging commercial projects coming out, too, and I'm also doing experiments in my studio space in Redfern, Sydney, which used to be a gallery. I've been doing a few open studios, where the doors are open for an hour on a Sunday afternoon, and people can come in and see my creative process. It's been a really nice way to share my practice with the local community. I travel so much and have had this career scattered all over the place, so it's nice to be in the Sydney community and able to share my work in a hands-on way, not so much digital. Another experiment is seeing if I can create this 10-meter-long, giant roll of paper artwork — It’s like a laboratory and quite fun.

On places you always return to

Los Angeles and Berlin are both very important in the story of my career. The first artwork I ever sold, I used the money to buy a ticket to LA many years ago. Since then, it's always been this entry point. If I'm going anywhere in the US, I'll have a stopover in LA — It's one of my favorite spots. Berlin was the first place I got invited to speak at a conference, and I've also been back there multiple times. It's very rideable by bike and has this nice mixture of cultures; I really like it. Those are my go-to places I return to happily and anytime.

‘Sardinia has this great mix of every type of feeling you want: the sunshine, the ruggedness and amazing food.’

On a window or aisle seat

If it’s a short flight, I’d go window because I like to look at the view as I'm landing, but I'm an aisle person for long-haul flights. I like to get up and walk while transitioning to the time zone — I wake up at weird times and do laps in the aisle.

On what you always have on your carry-on

I always carry a trigger point ball with me. It's like one of those tiny tennis ball-sized, but harder. You could use it to roll your face or massage your arms on a long-haul flight. You place it underneath whichever muscle might be tight — in my case, my painting arm — and put pressure on it. It's basically giving yourself a little massage while you're traveling.

On a song that reminds you of Sardinia

I had a playlist on my first trip there, and there was this song called Seabird by Babehaven. It's quite a relaxing, early feeling, and the lyrics reminded me of Sardinia; it was just the right vibe when I was there. I listened to it on repeat on various sunset strolls.

On Sardinia in one word


Not the idea of escaping from Sardinia, but escaping to Sardinia.


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