Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the 80’s that I felt compelled to get a professional family photo portrait. But there were so many things to consider: Should we go Walmart, Sears…or hire a fancy photographer? What will we wear? And most importantly, what will I do with the photo? Frame it, I guess, and hang it on the wall. Not the living room though…the 1980’s are over! Maybe in the hallway. We could take it down a few years later, when we redecorate, and giggle at it two decades from now: “Oh, look honey, remember that sweater? Look how skinny Mummy was! Do you remember when Daddy had hair?”
I abandoned the idea. Maybe a family portrait just wasn’t for us.
But then I discovered Emma Fitzgerald, a Halifax-based artist who creates custom house portraits. I had found the perfect alternative to the studio portrait! After a quick email correspondence, we set a date to meet.
Sipping coffee at a local Halifax coffee shop (so much more relaxing than Walmart!) I tell Emma all about my family. I show her some photos from over the years, and a digital image from Google Street Maps, which embarrassingly, shows my front deck littered with summer mess: a beach towel, a broom, some children’s toys. “The broom is ironic,” I tell her “it’s always out there, but I rarely get a chance to sweep the front steps.” “Hmmmm…” says Emma.
Emma asks more about my family’s interests. My husband collects CDs, synthesizers and old reel-to-reel tape recorders. “That’s his room there,” I point to a front window. I tell her about our Anglo-Irish backgrounds, my love for gardening and the general chaos that comes with having kids.
I show her where the kids’ rooms are (sometimes she draws people in her houses, or even just little hands and faces peeping out of windows). Emma listens intently and takes notes. I give her a flash drive containing digital images, and I invite her to dig through my Facebook albums.
A Vancouver native, Emma moved around a lot as a child, and began drawing at a young age. She tells me that in a box in her living room, which doubles as a coffee table, she has a drawing of every place she has ever lived.
After beginning her study of Fine Art at the University of British Columbia, Emma spent her third year at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris. She then followed her BFA with two more degrees in Architecture from Dalhousie University, Halifax. One year ago, she left the architecture world to start her house portrait business. “I like to celebrate memory,” she says.
One day, Emma received a call from a young man who wanted portrait done of a building on Morris Street in Halifax, where he fell in love with his wife. The picture would be a gift for her, he said, and he’d like it to include some tulips, since he always bought her tulips when they were dating.
Several weeks later, Emma received a new commission, from an older man who wanted to surprise his wife with a picture of the place they had lived in when they were first married. The address? The very same building on Morris Street! It turns out that both men had lived in flats there -with their soul mates – at different times.
Emma calls this building in Halifax, “the love house.”
Emma’s other commissions include a factory in Richmond, B.C., a familiar Vancouver backyard, and several local businesses in Halifax, where it seems that these days, everyone wants a house portrait!
Although she enjoys sketching from real life, Emma is equally happy to create a portrait from a photo or a series of photos, combined with a short interview by phone or email. From a business point of view, this means that she can accept commissions from all over Canada- or even from all over the world!
There’s even a book on the way. Formac Lorimer will be publishing a book of Emma’s drawings of Halifax neighbourhoods later this year.
Emma is creative and sentimental, but also totally efficient. Her typical turnaround time for a house portrait is 2-3 weeks. I get the call a week after our meeting to say my house portrait is ready.
The print is beautiful and bright, and heavy. It’s on fancy paper: “cotton rag”, apparently. This means the print will last forever, as long as I take care of it, and use an acid-free frame. This is relative gobbledygook to me, but it doesn’t matter; my print is already a prized possession, which I will frame professionally, and offer a place of pride on our family’s wall. Yes, maybe even in the living room. Why not?
My single archival quality print comes with four small postcards that are identical. Two of these will be framed for my children, so that they have a memory of their first home. I wish my parents had done this for me!
I look more closely at the drawing and notice a shamrock in the front yard, and a Union Jack (one of our sofa cushions!) visible through front window. There are toys and gardening tools strewn here and there, and my daughter’s beach towel hangs on the railing. In his window is my husband’s reel-to-reel tape recorder and his CDs. He will be touched when he sees this. And there is the broom. The one that never gets used!
A studio photo portrait captures a moment in time, but my house portrait immortalizes an era in our family’s life. Through the whimsical, but carefully considered house portrait, Emma Fitzgerald has not only captured our home’s character, but our family’s spirit: crazy, messy, chaotic love.