Melissa Garden has a vitality that is echoed in her sketches of flora and fauna (which also happen to be her favorite subjects). As a child growing up on a ranch in the Napa Valley, Garden would be the kid who hauled dead animals home, or filled pockets with bits of moss or bark—anything that caught her eye would be fair game for the budding artist, who would then sit and painstakingly sketch out the object in question, committing to memory the line of a curled leaf or displaced snail.
Yet, Garden is not just the insanely-talented illustrator and artist who has helped create our iconic label, along with the California-infused prints on our range of graphic tees, she’s also mother to three-year-old Alexander (who goes by ‘Alo’ for short, after his great-grandfather Aloysius), vocal activist, avid gardener, and owner of what is probably the largest collection of clogs in the Bay area (yes, really). She has a rich, deep guffaw when she finds something funny and a warm demeanor, and when you meet her for the first time she’ll bear-hug you with all the exuberance of a dear friend. We caught up with Garden at the Compound Gallery—an artist’s studio in Oakland where she has been creating her drawings for the past seven years.
On being Californian…
My family came and traveled west with the Donner party, and then they split at the pass so they made it to Sonoma. But the Donner party didn’t. I’m 6th generation and my son is 7th generation Californian. I grew up on a big ranch in the Napa Valley and I would spend all day, every day, outside.
Growing up… the way I experienced the world was trying to understand it through drawing and so I got a degree in illustration and I got a Masters in Natural Science Illustration… because I wanted to completely nerd out. Because that’s my happy, meditative space. It’s being there and sitting and drawing out every single detail. Every leaf, scale, or feather. That is really exciting for me.
Once you draw something you never forget it. It’s completely internalized. I can tell you exactly where I was when I did any of these drawings. It’s my mind-map and memories and I love it.
It’s a little bit of a hardy pioneer spirit – people bringing whatever they could carry and making the most of that and make connections and take those meager resources and make something really beautiful. And being here affords you that opportunity because there are so many pleasant and beautiful things about the state inherently that you don’t have to… I don’t want to say that you don’t have to work as hard but there is an ease—the climate is good and so you can find time to garden and make and explore.
The Californian community spirit is very much, ‘Hey, what do you have, what do you do?’, come throw it all in and make something out of it. Let’s find a way to share our interests and resources and enjoy each others’ company.
On art and activism…
I think that when you make so many beautiful things for a living you also want to make sure that there’s some specific meaning and that part of my job as an artist is being an educator and to lend to people who may not have the ability to concisely convey specific ideas. It is just part of speaking about all this beauty and focusing on all that is happening, I don’t know, it feels imperative, it doesn’t feel like I have any other option. It just comes naturally to me and I express myself through this work and so it doesn’t always just stay polite and pretty.
Sometimes it is about giving people tools that they maybe don’t have the resources or time to make themselves.
Another one of our collaborators Heather (Hardison) and I printed 600 posters for different rallies and marches and we will spend a night in here pulling silk screens and she’s an amazing Letterer. We’ll work together and make ourselves of service because I think that’s really important – to make ourselves of service and to educate and to make ourselves, kind of operatives for truth… and beauty.
So that’s pretty basic, right? At least it should be.
On art and motherhood…
I think that by force of necessity, (after becoming a mother, my art) has become a little bit more honest, because you can get really caught up in curating and presenting a specific vision of what you want your art and your life to look like and how you present and when you have a kid you start to lose bandwidth. You only have so much time and energy….and it forces you to reprioritize your friendships, your life, your goals, your time… everything. So, I think that has forced a little more honesty, and sometimes humor, into my work because I just don’t’ have time for anything else.
Goldfish, googly-eyes, and glitter—yep, that’s my life! Yeah, I’m starting to add a few Legos to that now.
I did an illustration one night when he was a year old and he was probably teething and hadn’t given me a night of sleep in months, and I felt like I was living with a feral raccoon and he was tearing our house apart. My husband got home from work and I said, ‘He’s yours.’ and I walked out the door. I went and sat and had dinner by myself and drew a self-portrait on the back of a menu at some Chinese restaurant and it was a self-portrait cartoon version of my haggard self and this caricature that I had become and I remember posting that and had a bunch of people just losing their shit about it. I was so surprised because it felt like such a self-deprecating, awkward, painful, exposing.
It was my truth and it was a surprising truth for even me to look back on and go ‘I was a hot mess!’ and I’m ok with that. I’m ok with reality. Things are not always perfect and I think that what (Alo) has helped me focus on is that honesty and vulnerability as a strength. And that humor is the only way to survive.
It surprises me sometimes how much people are interested in those little peeks (into my private life) that I don’t give too often but … you want to see that vulnerability, the real, genuine human being and people can relate to that.
On working with California Cowboy…
It’s really great to be given free reign and to have Drew (Clark), the founder of California Cowboy, trust what I do. It’s something different each time. whether it’s tightly rendered drawings or awkward handwriting or being pushed beyond my comfort zone… like ‘I’m drawing skateboarders? I’m used to drawing ferns!’.
I use the bad metaphor, probably because of my dad, of tightening lug nuts. That you can’t tighten them all at once, you have to keep going back around and slowly tightening them together because that’s part of the process —between Brielle (Duym) who does all these beautiful patterns and paints these designs and Drew who is coming up with the germinal concepts and… my bad sense of humor (laughs). And then we kind of just keep going back around.
I’ve been road-testing some of the California Cowboy clothes, going camping, and my friends have been an hour and a half into the hike: “Do you really have a beer in your back pocket? It’s open!” and I’m like, “Yeah, haven’t spilled it, have I?” It holds everything I need.
The artist as subject.
If I won the lottery I would just keep doing what I am doing now. 650 Million? Probably give a lot of it away, travel a bit and… keep drawing. Yep, keep drawing.
Check out Melissa’s incredible work on Instagram @melissagarden or swing by our store at 2220 Chestnut St, San Francisco to see her hand-drawn logos.