MerMay Profile: Brigitte Roka
This is the third in a series of interviews with hopefully, all eight artists who participated in the show we co-organized with Los Angeles’s Gallery Nucleus, then collaborated with each other to create the image seen below. (Some of them are taking longer than I expected to facilitate. Can MerJune be a thing?)
As a traditional and digital artist, singer, guitarist, and erstwhile astrophysics student, Brigitte Roka wears many hats. But her entire life—including her upbringing and the punk and metal subcultures she grew up around—ties back to her art.
She’s from Venice, CA—a beach town—and the daughter of parents who immigrated from the Soviet Union, both details which will come up again. After studying astrophysics for a year at UCLA, she graduated with honors from Pasadena’s infamously tough Art Center College of Design, where in the words of one Niche reviewer, “Their workload is ludicrous, you won’t have any life outside of school (not even to relax), nobody gets sleep,” and “you pull at least one all-nighter per week.”
She transitioned out of college to working as a concept artist and freelance illustrator. Her current project is an unannounced title for indie game studio 17-BIT, and recently, she’s illustrated Magic: The Gathering cards for Wizards of the Coast.
In her musical life, she’s a solo recording artist and former lead singer of the sludge-metal band Aboleth (named for a D&D sea monster) whose gritty vocals earned her constant comparisons to Janis Joplin. But off stage, as she’s admitted in past interviews, she’s a completely different person, reserved and dedicated to her art. (You also wouldn’t believe her speaking voice and her singing voice are the same person.)
In the background, she’s spent several years working on a hybrid music and art project called Sonarium. An art book for it is out, available from Stuart Ng Books, and as we’ll discuss, she’s working on telling the stories behind the illustrations in a concept album.
I spoke with her via Skype.
How did you get involved with Gallery Nucleus and Wacom?
I did another show that was open to the public with Gallery Nucleus. That’s how Nikki, the curator, found me, and asked me to do the MerMay show. Then, through that, she connected me with Wacom for the Wacom One collaboration.
Brigitte’s submission for Gallery Nucleus
It seems like the ocean and marine life in general have been a longtime interest of yours, too.
Well, I grew up by the ocean, and one of my hobbies is free-diving. I just love marine life; I think it’s fascinating. I’ve traveled to Tahiti and Bora Bora a lot, and every time I go there, I always come back full of inspiration.
Also, my favorite animal—I feature it a lot all throughout my work—is the manta ray. It’s part of my logo, even. I’m obsessed with them. They look like underwater spaceships! [Laughs] There are so many creatures in the ocean that are so alien. There’s endless sources of inspiration, and lots of cool bioluminescent creatures too. I draw most of my inspiration from the ocean, I think, as far as colors and shape language go: I use lots of flowy shapes and glowy things.
From The Art of Sonarium, via her portfolio
The darker way you’ve drawn mermaids and water spirits also reminds me of portrayals of the rusalka. You’ve mentioned medieval art as one of your main influences, but as the daughter of Russian immigrants, how about Slavic folklore?
The piece for the MerMay show is directly inspired by Russian folklore. I grew up on it, so I’m very well-versed in a lot of fairy tales and folk tales from a bunch of different Slavic cultures, and I grew up speaking Russian fluently, so I get an advantage in having experienced that culture firsthand. It’s the big other half of where I draw my inspiration. In fact, [when it comes to medieval art], I’m fascinated with Russia’s specifically—most of the fairy tales obviously take place in that time period—and most of the time, it’s either the subject matter of my art or it inspires it in some other way.
I’m also influenced by a lot of Russian artists. In Moscow there’s this museum called the Tretyakov Gallery: It’s dedicated to Russian artists, and one that comes to mind is Viktor Vasnetsov. He painted these giant epic paintings of the Bogatyrs* and all these different tales. I love all of that stuff!
*Legendary knights from the epic poems of the 10th-12th centuries. Model patriots with superhuman strength who fought dragons, bandits, and invading armies. Comparable to Beowulf meets the Knights of the Round Table. Vasnetsov’s interpretation, from Wikipedia.
I’m also fascinated with folk patterns, so I incorporate them a lot through this piece and a bunch of my work. In [the one for this show], the patterns are on her arm. I just wanted to—how do I describe it…
I felt so prepared going into this, and now I’m drawing a blank.
It’s fine, I’ll edit that part out. Why did you start with astrophysics in college, then switch to art school?
In high school, I was always really good at calculus and physics, and I always liked science, especially astronomy. My parents would take me to the Griffith Observatory when I was growing up, and I was just fascinated. I got into UCLA after high school and I thought, why not just try it? I applied for the astrophysics major and I got in. I only did it for a year before transferring to The Art Center, but I love outer space. I also put stars in all of my paintings: I find a way to sneak them in somewhere because I like giving my pieces sort of a cosmic quality. I kept all my textbooks; I sometimes reference them if I need inspiration.
But I always wanted a creative career. I was painting and doing music—playing in bands—ever since I was a kid. And I wanted to stay at UCLA, but the only art program they had there was fine art. Growing up, I always had an interest in character design, and that just wasn’t available. They all kind of laughed at me in the fine art department, because everyone else was doing abstract art and stuff. But one of the teachers said, “Hey, there’s this school called the Art Center, and they’ll make you draw like a hundred hands a day.” And I was like, “That sounds great!” So I transferred.
I’ve heard the workload at the ArtCenter College of Design described as brutal. Was it really that hard?
Yeah, it’s no joke! [Laughs] It’s funny: it was harder, in retrospect, than astrophysics. When I was an astro major, it at least felt like school. You just study for tests and take the tests, then there’s a sense of relief. But since art is a direct extension of you, if you don’t do as good of a job as you want to, it’s psychologically harder. But yeah, the workload is insane. That person was right.
How do you manage both being a professional artist and being in a band? Have deadlines ever conflicted with tour dates?
I haven’t had that happen yet, but I imagine it’s something I’ll run into further down the line. But my music career and my art career flow into one another. I always hop from one thing to the next. A week after I graduated from the Art Center, I went on tour with [Aboleth], then when I came back, I started freelancing and I thought I would keep that up because it would fit my lifestyle more if I wanted to go on tour again. But shortly after that, the band broke up, and I haven’t been on tour since then. So, it’s been OK! [Laughs] But I have been working on an album, I just don’t have a band right now.
That ties into the next question: You’ve released an art book for your longtime personal project, Sonarium, and the album is a concept one themed around it, but you’ve said it’s supposed to be a bigger overarching story. What form will that take?
Sonarium has evolved a lot since I started working on it. It’s one of those personal projects where you spend a lot of time feeling it out before you present it in the open. When I first started working on the art book, I thought about it as a brand. I was really inspired by Ashley Wood: I loved how he creates characters, puts out toys and merch, and builds a world around them, so I was heading more in that direction. But since the two main characters are musicians, after I left the band, I was like “Duh! Of course, I have to make an album about it.” It just felt like the most natural way to tell the story.
It follows these two musicians who are trying to get home. That’s the core of it. They’re stuck on the opposite side of their magical/sci-fi world, and it’s a long journey. So, on the album, and any others that come after it—they’re not supposed to be too literal, but the songs are about them going from town to town, their experiences, the people they meet, whatever it may be. I usually write songs from personal experience; this is a more creative way to tell my story through different characters. It also gives it that Zeppelin sort of fantasy vibe. [Laughs]
A lot of your work features limited color palettes. How do you pick them?
That ties back into my fixation with the ocean, so there’s lots of blue and green. I also love forests, so I feature forest greens and stone gray.
Do you have a palette picked out when you start a piece?
Not really, it’s just what I naturally gravitate to every single time. It’s kind of funny. I like playing with really muted colors and then accenting different spots with really saturated, bright, neon ones. I love the palette in Shadow of the Colossus, one of my favorite games. It’s a very muted green and gray, but with glowing blue accents.
From her portfolio
Finally, how are you enjoying the Wacom One? Any notable features that have been useful to you as a digital painter?
I really like it for doing all my lineart! My process is, I’ll start a digital sketch, and then I’ll print it out on watercolor paper, do an ink underlay, then scan that and paint it digitally. So all my lines, I’ve been doing on the Wacom One. I really like the surface of it, and I think because it’s so thin, it feels like a sketch pad, so it feels really nice to sketch on it instead of a bulkier tablet. And I love the built-in stand. I use it with my MobileStudio Pro.
I just use it as a second monitor.
You can plug it into the Mobile Studio?*
I got a HDMI-to-USB C adapter. I use my MSP for work and all my software’s on there instead of my laptop.
Said MobileStudio, from Instagram. *Also the question wasn’t a setup for a plug. I legitimately didn’t know that.
That’s awesome! So, bonus question: Speaking of video games, what’s the best Spyro game and why is it Year of the Dragon?
First of all, there are only three Spyro games that exist. Year of the Dragon has the advantage of having the skateboard levels, but my favorite is Ripto’s Rage, because it’s the first one I ever had. I think that plays a role. It’s got my favorite villain in all of them—I love Ripto—I like all the characters like Elora and Hunter, and the homeworlds. The homeworlds are my favorite out of all of them. The first one is great too, but there’s something about the second one. And can I just say how impressed I am by this research on me? Down to Spyro?
I was going to see if I could think up a question about Longmont Potion Castle as well, but that wouldn’t fit the subject of digital art.
Oh! My! God! I’m wearing a Longmont Potion Castle shirt right now! I can’t believe you know who that is, that’s crazy! I’ve been waiting for the day when someone not in my immediate circle of friends would make a reference to that.
Glad I could make that happen!
Longmont is a punk musician and surrealist prankster. Brigitte occasionally tosses in references to him on social media and in her art—apparently they’ve gone unnoticed.
About the Interviewer
CS Jones is a Philadelphia-based writer and illustrator. The former is best seen at thecsjones.com, and the latter at @thecsjones on Instagram. His half-remembered knowledge of PlayStation 1 games and obscure cult comedy is not something he ever thought he would use at work.