Robin Galante is a San Francisco-based artist whose work I first noticed as part of the great podcast Nocturne, where she drew the show’s logo and makes an illustration for each episode. Last year she published two visual essays in The Bold Italic, and continues to post work on Twitter and Instagram.
One of her biggest subjects is her neighborhood and more broadly, the city of San Francisco. Galante depicts the ways that the city is changing, and in documenting it is celebrating what is there and what we need to fight for to make urban life worth living. We spoke recently about her work
How did you come to art and end up as an artist?
Art was my first love. I started drawing around the time I learned how to walk. One of my earliest memories is sitting at the kitchen table before dinner, surrounded by colored pencils and crayons. My mom was an amazing artist – she painted gorgeous landscapes and bold, graphic stuff too. She showed me the magic of creating something out of nothing, using only my imagination. And she taught me some techniques, like shading and perspective. And she told me never to go to art school, because it would take away the fun. Not sure if that’s true, but I followed her advice and I’m self-taught. I did take one class in college – the teacher wanted us to draw a still life of an apple. I got bored and added a dragon to the apple and it didn’t go over well.
You’ve made two really interesting pieces for The Bold Italic and I wonder if you could talk a little about how these pieces came about.
I’ve always enjoyed reading The Bold Italic, and decided to approach them with some of my art. I wrote them an email with some of my paintings attached and asked, “How can we work together?” The editor responded and asked me to write an article using some of my illustrations. I had no idea what it would look like, but I had a collection of paintings of my neighborhood and kind of wove the story around the pictures. It came to me pretty easily, and was fun to put together.
From the start did you know that you wanted the pieces to be these heavily illustrated essays? By which I mean, why did they need so much art, why not a comic, why not an essay with 1-2 drawings? You seem to think in this combination of words and pictures and how they interact.
Yes, I definitely do think in words and pictures. At first, it was an assignment, so I did the best I could to fulfill the editor’s “brief”. Then I fell in love with the format. It’s like a picture book, only it’s online and it’s for adults – although kids could read it too.
I love putting something pretty on the internet. It’s like planting flowers in a shopping mall. The internet is so commercial, full of advertising disguised as content. Not to mention it’s a fearful place: “5 Signs You Have Cancer!” and “10 Things You’re Doing Wrong in Your Relationship” and then there’s politics and all of that. When I go online for too long I always feel hungover afterwards.
I want to craft stories that are worth slowing down for, and that make folks feel happy and hopeful, rather than buzzed or depressed. We’re on our screens all the time, why not make it a positive experience?
One of your concerns as an artist is drawing and depicting San Francisco. Which is a city that’s been going through a lot of changes. As you’re working on these drawings, do you have this sense that these streetscapes and buildings might soon be wiped out? So many neighborhoods in so many cities feel very tenuous right now.
Yes, that’s definitely on my mind. The city has changed so much and you’re right, the charm and character of the neighborhoods here feel very tenuous. When I paint a street in a neighborhood, or a city scene, I feel like I’m trying to preserve it.
But rather than write an article lamenting these changes, I want to celebrate what’s still here. Maybe people will be inspired to walk around their neighborhood and get to know it better. Get off Amazon, go to the local hardware store. Go to the movies, the bookstore, the coffee shop.
If we start thinking that San Francisco has been “lost”, and we give up on our city, then we miss out on what’s still here and we lose even more.
I love the podcast so I have to ask, how did you end up drawing the logo and artwork for each episode of Nocturne?
Vanessa Lowe, the producer of Nocturne, reached out to me in 2014. She and I were aware of each other since we were both part the music scene here, but hadn’t yet crossed paths. She saw my dream drawings and needed help with the logo for her new podcast. After the possum logo was done, she thought it would be cool to have illustrations for each episode. It’s been such a blast working with her, we’ve become really close friends, which is a huge bonus. And it’s been cool to see Nocturne garner such a following.
Do you listen to the podcast episode before drawing each one? Do you have conversation with Vanessa Lowe? Or how do you work on them?
I used to listen to each episode multiple times and draw while I listened. Now, because we are working with KCRW and have a different work flow, Vanessa will send me a “blurb” about the episode, sometimes some raw audio, and I’ll create a painting based on that. Vanessa lets me do my own thing and gives me free creative reign, which is awesome. There are very few exceptions, and then when we do work together it’s a super smooth process.
You also have on your website, samples from this picture book you drew Emily and the Magical Library and I’m curious about the experience of drawing it. Because of course it is much more than forty related pictures, they are in conversation in a much more involved way than other projects and what was it like?
That was my first official commission and it was a lot of work. Talk about jumping in head-first! It was a great way to learn how to work with a client and create art that was consistent in style. Since there were 40+ illustrations needed, I was intimidated at first – like, “how am I going to do this??” But I did it, which gave me confidence.
It was hard to decide what to draw for each scene, so I pretended I was making a movie. As I read the story, I came up with “shots” that would be in a film, and each shot was an illustration.
I am a bit obsessed by your dream journals, which you post on the site, which are these confusing and surreal and fractured pieces which really duplicate the feeling of a dream. I’m one of those people who almost never remember their dreams but I’m curious about making them and how that is different from how you typically work on other projects? Or is it different?
The dream drawing series has been really interesting to do in so many ways. I’m fascinated by dreams, and have always had very vivid ones. I’ve had lucid dreams since I was little. The process of illustrating my dreams is very intense. Unlike my other art, I don’t take a break if I’m working on a dream drawing, I’ll work straight through the day until it’s done. At which point I finally get to eat and go to the bathroom.
The drawback is, I get “stuck” in the dream for that day. So I don’t shake it off in the morning, which is what I think we’re meant to do, and it can put me in a really strange mood. Then I start questioning the nature of “real” versus “dream” and I know it’s time to go outside or do laundry. I haven’t done dream drawings in a while because it messes with my mind a bit.
But after spending so much time recalling and illustrating my dreams, they have become extraordinarily vivid. It’s wild.
What is it about watercolor that you love?
I love that it’s easy to clean up! And I like that I don’t have absolute control, that I have to constantly think and adjust. On one hand it’s really precise, but I like that there are surprises.
What’s the relationship between your music and your visual art? Or is there one?
I think of music and visual art as two different languages. I love both. Music, for me, is a bit more moody and solitary – even with performing and all of that, if I’m writing a song I’m in a room by myself, getting in touch with things in an intense emotional way. Painting makes me feel lighter. So lately, perhaps because there’s so much darkness in the world right now, I’ve been more drawn to visual art.
I haven’t brought the two together yet, I tend to do one or the other pretty much exclusively. I either think in pictures or in music, and for the past few years I’ve been thinking in pictures. Both art forms have their place, and I feel lucky to be able to express myself in these different ways.
So what are you working on now? Or what kind of work do you want to do next?
At this moment, I’m working on another story for The Bold Italic, and I’m taking commissions. I love drawing portraits of people’s homes, of places they love, like restaurants and parks, bars and cafes, so that’s been really fun.
I also have an exhibition at the San Francisco Main Library in 2021, January through March. I’m super honored to have been invited to show my work there, and I’m very excited about putting that together.
I love that when I share my work online or in person, it starts a conversation. People reminisce and share memories. It’s become bigger than just making art, as doing this work has introduced me to fascinating, wonderful people, many of whom have become friends. Mainly, I’m just following my heart and seeing where it takes me.