Shirley Al

Graphic Designer and Artist


Published, EAC Communiqué, Summer 2004


ith impossibly red magnolias which burst from a background of silver, Shirley Al’s design for the Elora Festival’s 25th Anniversary poster live up to impossible expectations for this Jubilee year. It is selling wildly: a collector’s item. But really it is no accident. Look at the 2004 brochure, the exquisite colours, the poetry of font combinations. They reflect the eye of a graphic artist with skills developed through years of observation, assessment and total commitment to harmony and detail. In many variations and with characteristic quality, Shirley Al’s work is being seen everywhere.

About 7:30 in the morning or in the evening light, Shirley can be seen bicycling around town or out to the countryside, her Nikon camera in the bike basket. She loves the springtime, when the leaves seem to pop into life. The images she gathers, combined with her own drawings, provide the materials of her designs, layered and mutated through digital magic. Trips are made to Waterloo Library, and she arrives home with an armful of books to ponder. The process is focus, the focus of an educated graphics observer.

A Saskatchewan girl, Shirley pursued fine arts and teaching degrees. After a fling in Europe, she came home to find she spoke a different language. She finished her Honours BFA in Waterloo in ‘79. One day she came through Elora, and while sipping a lemonade at Floreal’s, she decided: “This is where I want to live”. Just out of University, she opened an art gallery on Mill Street : “Nepenthe”. A brave move, but she found she was not a shopkeeper. There were too many wasted hours, away from creativity.

Life took her to Palo Alto, California for four years, attending a school of design. There she focused on graphics and product design. At that time graphics were done by hand, with the precision of the Rapidograph pen, cut and paste techniques, making film in a dark room. It was hard, but it ingrained the basics of fine judgement in a young designer. At this time, in the early ‘80s in Silicon Valley, Shirley saw the unveiling of the “Apple” logo, and watched the birth of revolutionary computer graphics.

 At once romantic, practical and humorous, her imagination is set in free flight.

In ‘84, she was travelling back from California, crossing the mid-west south of Saskatchewan, free to go anywhere. She decided not to go home, but come back to Elora. She remembered: “I was happy there and had friends”. She became the product designer for Lambda Crystal in Fergus, and when it folded, she started Liberty Graphics, on Mill Street, Elora.

Still, Shirley felt a great need to learn skills. She took work at Thompson Graphics in Paris, Ontario, commuting every day. During her eight years with Thompson’s, computer graphics saw a huge revolution, and she was well placed to keep abreast of the many changes that were to come. Styles are ever evolving in graphics, and it is important to know how to interpret a client’s wishes in the contemporary idioms.

But life is too short for commuting. After eight years Shirley said “Enough! I want more time for me. I went out on a limb. You know they say, ‘Take the step, and the bridge will be there’. So it has been for me.” She would freelance from her home in Elora. The very day of this decision, the bridge appeared for her to explore clay sculpture at The Elora Pottery.

The hours are long and uncertain, designing for the Elora Festival, the Sanderson Centre in Brantford and the Federated Health Charities. Deadlines are solid. Whether you’re ready or not, even if it means all-nighters of work, as in theatre the show must go on! But despite the stress, Shirley has made time for Monday sculpture studios at the Elora Pottery. Wistful, poet-like heads with colourful hats and turbans, horses blest by the fire-god of raku, the uncertainties and mysteries of sculpture have opened new, amusing paths for creativity. At once romantic, practical and humorous, her imagination is set in free flight

Shirley is sharing Studio 79, a small space on Geddes Street, with sculptor Riki. Visit her on weekends in the summer, or during the Studio Tour in autumn.

Unfortunately graphic design also means dealing with committees. “Some clients are hell to work with, some a blast,” Shirley says. She’d like to divide her time in half, part given to graphics, the other half to sculpting, painting, gardening and travel.

We have not seen enough of the fine lines of her drawings, or the results of her augmented colour sense on canvas. But they will come, she says. It’s all a matter of time.

by Beverley Cairns, Summer 2004

UPDATE – 2005

In April 2005, Shirley, along with Riki Weiland and Jo Lomas, moved to a small stone studio that they called “The Studio Elora”. It’s a happy creative space where they conduct workshops and share inspirations.