Interview #58 — Christina Luo
Interview by Amie Mai
Christina Luo is a calligrapher, artist and the creative director of studio Fox & Flourish.
We spoke to Christina about fonts, freelancing and building a home away from home.
You’ve recently relocated from Canada to Australia! How did this move come about and are you finding yourself at home in your new surrounds? Did you have any particular expectations of Australia before this?
! My partner Michael moved here for grad school, and I followed suit with our dog Margot a year later. Melbourne was one of the top cities I wanted to do an exchange at during uni but couldn’t afford to at the time, so I’m glad the universe somehow found a way to get me here.
It was certainly a challenging start, but it’s been over a year now and I finally feel at home. We live in Fitzroy North and I’ve tried to design a little life here, with a shared studio in Collingwood at Schoolhouse Studios and lots of visits to the lovely establishments of Fitzroy. I try to take Margot with me everywhere so I know all the dog-friendly spots. We do have our weekly (if not daily) bubble tea cravings which we’ll drive to the city for—that’s one important thing this neighbourhood is lacking!
Luckily, I was able to visit Melbourne before relocating, so I had a good sense of what I was getting myself into. However, before Michael arrived, we had a very limited view of what Australia was like. I was following a few Aussie fashion labels and artists so that was my small glimpse into the cultural side, but I’m pretty sure Michael based his expectations on that one Simpsons episode about Australia. I remember one of the first images he sent me was of a group of Asian students in front of a Chatime, which legitimately confused and excited me because I never thought, nor was ever told, to imagine a culturally diverse population in Australia. It was comforting to know that I’d be in an environment similar to Vancouver.
"Melbourne was one of the top cities I wanted to do an exchange at during uni but couldn’t afford to at the time, so I’m glad the universe somehow found a way to get me here."
Can you tell me a little about how Fox & Flourish came to be? Where did your love of type come from? How have you made it to this point?
Fox & Flourish initially served as a temporary moniker when I started recording my calligraphy/lettering progress on Instagram. At the time, Facebook was the most used platform and I was too embarrassed to show my friends this weird grandma hobby of mine, so I resorted to instagram as a visual diary, thinking it would be hidden away. I was completing my degree in communication/publishing and interning at a nonprofit at the time, so I’d take on small commissions for coworkers’ weddings or work on tattoo designs for friends. One thing led to another and instead of getting a comms job in tech after graduating, I registered for a business number and signed a lease at a studio!
I have this origin story I tell at every workshop I teach, which starts with me being in grade four and convinced I was going to be a graffiti artist. I loved the graphic representation of words, where in theory, the artist only had one fleeting moment to get it right. I traded ‘tags’ of friends’ names for Twix bars on the playground and studied the walls of street art in Chinatown when we visited our grandparents. The obsession continued and showed up in every creative school project I could get away with, slowly morphing into a love of design, handwriting, and typography but not really knowing what it was or that it could ever be a job. I was drawn to the depiction of words and letters in a technical, yet creative, way.
Fast forward to the practical years of young adulthood and being forced to choose a potential vocation, I took my love of words and convinced myself that I wanted to be a journalist. Joined the school paper and everything! It didn’t end up going that way, but I’m glad I took a detour into the world of writing and media literature. It absolutely prepared me for the 24/7 advertising campaign that is social media marketing.
"I have this origin story I tell at every workshop I teach, which starts with me being in grade four and convinced I was going to be a graffiti artist. I loved the graphic representation of words, where in theory, the artist only had one fleeting moment to get it right."
What is it like having a cross-continental partnership for Fox & Flourish?
Working with our Vancouver calligrapher Michelle is a dream come true. It all developed very organically as she was my first private lesson student, then apprentice, and hire. When the Australia relocation became a ‘when’ rather than an ‘if’, I knew right away I needed to find a trustworthy person to have a long distance (working) relationship with. Having Michelle on the ground taking care of our Canadian clientele is the next best thing to cloning myself—we studied the same thing, she’s basically a mini-me but much cuter.
"At the beginning, it was a fumbly mess of ink blobs, nibs tearing through paper, and random flourishes added for no reason. It might sound cliché but my practice will always be evolving for as long as I continue working."
Describe your creative practice. How has it evolved since you started making? Did you study lettering or graphics design/are you self-taught?
The practice of calligraphy has a learning curve that is quite artisanal. Even if you want to produce a contemporary-looking end result, you still have to learn the ins and outs of the traditional tools first. At the beginning, it was a fumbly mess of ink blobs, nibs tearing through paper, and random flourishes added for no reason. It might sound cliché but my practice will always be evolving for as long as I continue working. Every six months or so I’ll compare my new and old work and I can see such a huge difference, even if I’m not actively practicing a certain style/hand. It’s good and bad because sometimes a client will want a style from two years ago that my hand literally cannot recreate due to the technical improvement of those muscles.
Calligraphy-wise, I’m self-taught via the Internet and books, save the first calligraphy workshop I took with Martin Jackson, who is an italics-style veteran. He worked on Bill and Melinda Gates’ wedding. When I decided to start offering workshops, I took advanced classes to refine my style and dig into the technical aspects a lot more. I wanted to make sure I could answer any question that students could throw at me. Having a graphic design background helps with the digital production side of things too.
Graphic design and lettering often draws inspiration from artwork and styles from different time periods and cultures. Have you ever had to navigate the issue of cultural appropriation in your work?
This is not talked about enough and I’m so happy to be answering this question. Of course, in the typography world, we are all familiar with the ‘chopstick’ fonts donning many-a-restaurant around the globe. Since I work mainly in Latin-based characters and styles, I have not had too many problematic requests with the projects that actually go through.
However, a recurring theme in my life is being mistaken for a Chinese or Japanese calligrapher when I tell white people what I do, or when they approach me about a project. I had an hour-long Skype meeting with a potential client who never looked at my portfolio and assumed I could perform Japanese calligraphy at a store launch. It was really awkward to have to explain that I don’t offer that service, and luckily I was able to refer her to an amazing *actual* Japanese calligrapher friend.
"To have control over a pen and ink, to push a pull clay into a ceramic bowl, to tie a million knots into a beautiful wall hanging—I think that gives people a sense of individuality and power that social media algorithms sometimes takes away.."
You have worked with a lot of big name brands like Gucci, Lululemon, Mecca and L’Oreal. How do you balance your artistic sensibilities with your clients’ needs and aesthetics?
Calligraphers often offer a small set of popular styles for the name-brand jobs, and it works out because they usually want a variation of the same style! It’s generally hard to assert your creativity to larger brands with all the red tape, so I think it’s great that in this line of work, you can default to a ‘stock’ look that works across the board, that’s also easy to pump out. It’s the smaller clients that have a bit more of an edge and an imagination, so in those cases I like to explore the possibilities a lot more vividly.
Even though we are living in an increasingly digital world, it seems that interest in traditional arts and craftsmanship is in fact on the rise. Can you speak to this?
Absolutely—teaching our classes has revealed the most about this topic to me. I was so surprised that a lot of the people taking our classes were 9-5 workers/doctors/corporate types who had no intention of becoming professional calligraphers. They simply wanted an offline activity that was slow, meditative, and purposeful. I think the popularity of craft is a direct response to the rapid rise of technology, which can often feel out of our control. To have control over a pen and ink, to push a pull clay into a ceramic bowl, to tie a million knots into a beautiful wall hanging—I think that gives people a sense of individuality and power that social media algorithms sometimes takes away.
"As the oldest sibling, I’ve been in charge of translating the slowed-down speech and threatening written letters from white people to my parents since I could talk, whilst also filtering out/protecting them from the aggressive remarks sewn throughout."
How do you navigate your identity as a Chinese-Canadian? What is your experience of living and working in Australia?
I’ve gone through many phases of being Chinese-Canadian: curiosity, realisation, ignorance, acceptance, and finally a full and forgiving self-embrace. My parents immigrated to Vancouver from Guangzhou in their mid-twenties and immediately had three kids. Being in my mid-twenties now has me completely perplexed as to how they pulled that shit off. People think of Canada as a peaceful and conflict-free place, but a quick history lesson will reveal that it’s a huge work in progress. As the oldest sibling, I’ve been in charge of translating the slowed-down speech and threatening written letters from white people to my parents since I could talk, whilst also filtering out/protecting them from the aggressive remarks sewn throughout.
I’ve only been open about these experiences recently, and I’m having wonderfully candid conversations with friends who went through a similar childhood. Now I’m trying my best to surround myself with neighbouring narratives through what I read, the friends I make, and the media I consume. It’s a really important time to champion the stories and creative endeavours of POC, which is why I love initiatives like Liminal so much.
There are a lot of parallels being a WOC in Australia and Canada. Like I mentioned earlier, I eventually knew of the large Asian population here, but living in Fitzroy felt so far away from that. I went to every gallery opening, store launch, and yoga class I could crash in an effort to be a part of the community, and I was often one of two or three POC in the room. I’ve since purposefully expanded my reach and am happily celebrating the Asian-Australian creatives I am now lucky to know.
Professionally, my clients are usually wealthy white women who throw parties or are in charge of throwing parties, so a lot of my mental energy is still used to cater to that specific demographic without losing myself/my shit, and taking any opportunity I can to speak about my experiences as a woman of colour in a predominantly white industry.
Do you ever experience artists block? How do you get yourself out of a rut?
Yes and no. Sometimes it seems like my default mode is being in a ‘block’ and I need to actively seek things out or be assigned a job that will awaken the creative part of me. This might be a boring answer, but at the end of the day I see myself as a service provider who needs to be given a brief and a couple of visual references. Within that framework, I can problem solve using the tools I have, which happen to be lots and lots of pens!
On the business side, however, I am always ideating about how to improve Fox & Flourish, so I feel frustrated when I get in an entrepreneurial rut. In this vein, I listen to podcasts like How I Built This, StartUp, and 99% Invisible to get those juices flowing. Talking it out with my studio mates and my lettering bestie Leona Fietz certainly helps as well.
What does your average day look like?
For me, there's no such thing as a typical day. Sometimes I'm holed up in the studio working out a digital commission / grinding out place cards etc. Other days I'm on-site at a wedding, store event, or company office (this is more rare), or out sourcing supplies. On rainy days I like to cosy up and do the bookkeeping and the non-creative parts of the job.
You have a cutie shiba-inu called Margot that you brought to Australia! Tell us about your doge and how she came into your life.
She’s actually half Japanese Spitz, and has the exact personality of one: sassy, confident, sleepy, and cuddles only on her own terms. She definitely got the cat-like nature of her Shiba side though! Basically at 20 years old, I had this insane and impulsive need to bring a a puppy into my life. I pretty much googled ‘shiba inu’ on a classifieds site and her little face popped up, I put a deposit down for her before I even met her and rode a ferry to pick her up two weeks later. I like to think that it fast tracked me to my ultimate life goal, which is to be a crazy old dog lady who never goes out at night and writes letters for a living.
What is your dream project for Fox & Flourish?
I have so many iterations of what I envision F&F to be in the future, but the current dream project is to design a typeface, either for a client or as our own product. It’s a huge amount of work and I’m still studying up on the foundations of typography, let along the practical applications of actually creating a functional one. I’m usually drawn to things with immediate gratification, so the slowness of this process is a nice change.
Do you have any advice for emerging artists?
Get familiar with the business/logistical side of art as soon as possible. That way you can set up a solid system for the admin tasks, and get to the art making part much quicker. (Or find someone like an agent who will figure it all out for you!)
Who are you inspired by?
Ali Wong. I just recently watched her new Netflix comedy special and it’s every bit as good as her first. I find a lot of relief and inspiration in comedy, and the no-holds-barred way she approaches womanhood and motherhood as a POC. Also, laughing off any residual stress before digging into a project is key.
What are you currently listening to?
Musically, young Asian hip hop artists like Rich Brian, anders, and Yaeji who make me feel super old and unaccomplished, yet very proud, haha. Plus, a lot of instrumental artists like Sam Gouthro for when I need that sans-lyrics goodness.
Podcasts currently on rotation are Keep It!, Ear Hustle, and my guilty pleasure, a self-care/beauty podcast called Glowing Up.
What are you currently reading?
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang, after attending her talk at the Wheeler Centre this month. Savouring every chapter by taking it slow because it’s so, so good.
How do you practice self-care?
Applying various balms, oils, and serums to my skin for at least 20 minutes every morning and night, and when I’m not doing that, then researching what balm/oil/serum I should try next. I’ve truly fallen down the skincare internet rabbit hole and very much into K-beauty at the moment, no shame.
What does it mean to live as a Chinese-Canadian in Australia?
Learning as much as I can from Asian-Australians and POC while I’m here, and applying this knowledge wherever I end up going, whether that is back home to Canada or elsewhere. I feel truly energised in Melbourne!