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Gwenola Corbett’s Allegorical “Alphabody”

Updated: Nov 30, 2021

By Robyn Graygor

Gwen Corbett, admiring her “Is This All I Need?” type-work book, in her studio located in the Visual Arts building (photo by Robyn Graygor)

To Gwenola Kidd Corbett, letters are so much more than a conglomerate of symbols. To her, they are art; they are her.

Corbett, a 24-year-old graphic design major, sits picking a scab on her left elbow. Bleached curls in her hair bounce with excitement as she explains how she created the font. With a slight laugh she mumbles, “It’s about time someone interviewed me.”

Corbett named this typeface Comic Fans, after its notorious cousin Comic Sans.

Gwen Corbett’s Comic Fans typeface, which this article was originally written in (photo by Robyn Graygor)

“So, Comic Sans is a generally more accessible face,” Corbett explains. “A lot of people with reading disabilities, like dyslexia, use it as their font of choice for writing or reading. But, it’s not very usable at small sizes. It starts to bunch together, and gets really heavy, so I’m redrawing it.”

Corbett described her revision process: “So that’s putting more air into it; adding more pronounced strokes, so you can more clearly see it at smaller sizes.”

This new typeface will label the pieces of her upcoming solo exhibit, “Of Immediate Understanding and The Legibility of Gender- An Interactive Typographic Art Show.” The display can be found at the forum art space (in the stood), with an opening on Thursday, Nov 18 at 8 p.m., lasting until Saturday, Nov. 20.

Gwen Corbett displaying her “Together, To Get Her” type-work piece on the opening night of her show (photo by Robyn Graygor)

A variety of her typography will be on display such as, a hallway of casual lettering, “Together” or “To Get Her,” “The Library of Gwen (babble),” the “Is This All I Need?” specimen book, a collection of stamped letters, what Corbett likes to call “Jesus pamphlets,”“Alphabody,” and a video displaying fonts to her song “Spin Me.”

“Together, To Get Her” is meant to help translate her core objective. Each letter spelling “Together” will be placed on a track allowing the letters to move. Using this technique, the letters will spell both “Together,” and “To Get Her” depending on how they are grouped.

“Having that moment of moving something with your body that is sort of body sized, and then it’s like ‘Oh, these letters are people, like these letters are bodies,’” said Corbett. “I hope this will help people see type as a tactile thing, that they can then relate to their body.”

The “Alphabody” section of the exhibit quite literally shows letters in relation to the human body. Projected pictures of Corbett will show her posing as letters in the alphabet.

Gwen Corbett projected against the wall posing for her “Spin Me” music video (photo by Robyn Graygor)

This idea of letters relating to the human body is not unique to her show alone, but is an essential theme in her work.

Corbett feels that even her Comic Fans redrawing relates to this idea. “It feels very bodily. I don’t know, I find it so beautiful. I find the curves to be filled with love,” Corbett gushes.

“Like, I was taught to hate Comic Sans, but now I am showing love to something that I was taught to hate, which feels like the same experience as my transition,” Corbett explains. “Like, I am showing love to my femininity and experience of gender, even though I was taught to hate that.”

Gender is another key component of Corbett's work. As seen in the title of her art exhibit, Corbett often experiments with “legibility of gender.”

“I’m thinking of ways to sort of show work and have people understand me, and my gender in a more abstract way,” Corbett says. “There’s this sort of lack of understanding of who I am, or what I am, and my experience as a trans nonbinary person, it’s hard for people to sort of grasp that idea.”

By creating more complex fonts, with less obvious readability, Corbett hopes to convey this idea. “I think it’s the same idea of like when you read a word and immediately understand it, or you see a letter and immediately understand it,” Corbett says. “I want to create some of that, like you see a gender and immediately know what it is.”

Gwen Corbett’s scattered “Jesus pamphlets” on the ground of her solo exhibit (photo by Robyn Graygor)

Corbett’s design professor, Professor Benjamin Santiago, is impressed by her ability to convey such emotional messages through her type. “The level of vulnerability is pretty intense,” says Santiago. “The level of personal-ness, and thinking about the body, like the parts of letters are similar to parts of the body, and that level of depth is super incredible.”

Corbett has also experimented with legibility in a more traditional sense. Having struggled with reading for most of her life, Corbett has had to adapt.

“I’ve always had a difficult time reading, which is where a lot of this was prompted,” Corbett explains, “The way that I dealt with it, and found a way to be able to read, was to make letters.”

Corbett is now thankful for what she once saw as a struggle. “I think our faults are some of our best qualities,” Corbett says. “Like I’ve centered my life around one of my weaknesses, which is reading.”

To convey this struggle with reading in a more interactive way, Corbett has also made fonts to simulate her own experiences.

“A lot of my work is actually aimed at disabling the able-minded viewer into having a similar experience as me,” Corbett said. “Instead of immediately being struck with the word you sort of had to piece it together.”

Focusing solely on type work in a profile starring Corbett would be remiss, thinks Corbett's friend Simon Goettler. The two became close friends in high school, where they ran cross country together, but split when college came around. Geottler went out west for school, while Corbett attended SUNY Oswego; both ended up transferring to schools closer to home where they were able to rekindle their friendship.

“I feel like she doesn’t like to be put into a box. Something that’s always really impressed me about her is that she’s interested in a lot of different things,” said Goettler.

Gwen Corbett shows off pages of her “Don’t Call Me A Fucking Poser” type work book, combining type with skateboarding (photo by Robyn Graygor)

Corbett grew up in the suburb of Pittsford in Rochester, New York, surrounded by countless influences other than graphic design. For instance, her father was in a neighborhood dad band called The Chinchillas, which exposed Corbett to music from the start.

“I very much steeped in music my entire life,” said Corbett.

She played guitar, bass, trumpet, and was even part of a band called either The Chinchildren, or occasionally Claire and The Z-Boys.

The second band name stems from another core interest of Corbett’s; skateboarding. “'Dogtown and the Z Boys’ is a documentary about this skate team in California that really just revolutionized the world of skating,” explained Corbett. “I loved skating growing up. A lot of these things are just very woven throughout my life, and just very interconnected.”

Corbett credits her other interests with creating more engaging type work. She always tries to bring in extra flavor from different influences. “I don’t really like work that is made in a vacuum, or within its own little bubble,” Corbett says. “You need influence from other things, I think that makes more interesting work.”

Some of her most influential role models include Wendy Carlos (a transgender electronic music composer), The Wachowskis (transgender film and television directors), and Bo Burnham (a comedian well known for his music). She explains, “None of these people are designers, but I think they have a much more profound impact than designers or type designers.”

Many of these people have one thing in common, a sense of allegory within their existence. Corbett could talk for hours about allegories, and the stories of transgender people creating masterpieces that later are revealed to be metaphors for their identities.

“I think of these trans allegories, and that history of trans people hiding their identity in plain sight, to then later reveal like The Matrix is an allegory for trans-ness, or Wendy’s work is an allegory in that same sort of way,” Corbett explained. “Even though I’m out, I want to have the reveal that my work is allegorical.”

As her show and senior year comes to an end, Corbett has begun reaching to the future. “For the most part they [her fonts] mostly exist in my library of self-made type. Eventually I’d like to make releases for people to buy,” Corbett says. “In an ideal world something like Google would purchase it so that anybody could access it. But, that's like fucking ideal situation, like I am good for the rest of my life.”

Ellen Corbett, Corbett’s 28-year-old sister, is a graphic designer who graduated from Purchase in 2015. Ellen thinks Corbett will go far in the type design world. “Oh my gosh, she’s like so talented,” said Ellen. “So right now in design it’s really hard to find a niche that you have a purpose within, and I hope that isn’t the case. That she is flourishing in that type of world where having work that is meaningful, and I think she has that type of brilliance.”

Corbett also hopes to penetrate the male-dominated typography world while becoming an influential type designer.

Corbett explains, “Even though the majority of graphic designers are women, only very few women hold directorial positions. I want to be that person who could influence a young girl who’s getting into type design, or just design in general. It’s like, ‘oh cool, there are women in this field.’ And, then being like ‘Oh shit, she’s fuckin’ trans.’”

As Corbett mulls over the topic, she has a realization, “Fuck it, somebody’s got to. At the end of the day that’s a really big drive for me because if I don't do it... I’ve got to do it!”

Gwen Corbett, beaming behind the Visual Art’s building as the sun sets (photo by Mel Popescu)

But above all those future dreams, Corbett feels she has already achieved her life goal. “I think my greatest accomplishment so far is just fucking being me,” Corbett says, “I'm by no means done in terms of that, like my transition, or like any of that progress of self is never done. It’s an ongoing, constant, beautiful progression and that’ll be better than anything. That’s the greatest piece I’ve ever made.”



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