‘Inspiring’ artist Dara eyes Hugo Award

By: Michael Chesnick. May 8, 2024.

Armed with a sketchbook and an old laptop, Galen Dara began to do illustration work for emerging fantasy and science fiction authors after getting her undergraduate degree.

“There’s something powerful about artists and writers who explore the fantastic,” she said.

In truth, it was Dara who also was emerging as a talented illustrator back then — and now the University of Arizona School of Art graduate student is a force in the field and continues to work on book covers for major publishers and editorial artwork for magazines.

Dara learned in late March that she’s a finalist for the Hugo Award as best professional artist — for the seventh time — and she’s hoping to take home first prize when science fiction’s most prestigious awards are announced Aug. 11 in Glasgow, Scotland. In October, Dara will travel to Niagara Falls, New York, to be a Guest of Honor at the World Fantasy Awards Convention, where she won best artist in 2016.

“These are wonderful honors, but awards and conventions and ceremonies can be tricky things,” she said, “(because) after all the excitement is over, there’s still the need to create, to get back to work and make more art.”

Galen Dara has created many covers for Uncanny Magazine.
Galen Dara has created many covers for Uncanny Magazine.
Dara's cover art for Book 3 in Ed McDonald's
Dara’s cover art for Book 3 in Ed McDonald’s “Redwinter Chronicles”
Dara's wraparound cover art (including cover flaps) for a reprint of Philip K. Dick's
Dara’s wraparound cover art (including cover flaps) for a reprint of Philip K. Dick’s “The Man Who Japed.”
Dara's cover art for Kat Howard's
Dara’s cover art for Kat Howard’s “White Horse Red Fruit.”
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That never-satisfied attitude has impressed Assistant Professor Jenn Liv, an adviser for Dara’s Master of Fine Arts thesis, who has watched the MFA candidate teach as a graduate assistant.

“Galen is a hard-working individual who is always eager to learn new things,” Liv said. “As an educator, she’s very kind and generous toward the students. As president of the UA Riso (printing) club, Galen is also able to create an engaging environment that makes the students feel welcome and included, and also excited about what they are learning.”

For Liv, Dara’s work “has an evocative quality to it with deep emotion and feeling,” she said. “Galen is always willing to put in the work to explore many different possibilities, with a focus on figurative illustration, metaphor, and bending reality.”

Liv, who was hired in fall 2023, said Dara “played an important role in making me feel welcome at the School of Art. She’s a talented artist who has the drive and ambition to succeed in anything she attempts. Her energy and ability to take on many tasks is something I find to be very inspiring.”

Dara talked about her own inspirations in an interview with the School of Art.

Q. Where do you get your ideas?

Dara: From everything. In my personal work, I’m inspired by artists like Chiharu Shiota, Ann Hamilton, Kiki Smith, Louise Bourgeois and Magdalena Abakanowicz. The scientific illustrations of Ernste Heckle. Medieval Christian manuscripts and ancient codices of uncertain origin that may be about alien worlds (The Voynich Manuscript). I’m inspired by comedians like Hannah Gadsby, Tig Notaro, Ali Wong, by movies from “the Daniels” and Alejandro Jodorowsky, and by critical analysis of B-Grade horror flicks.

When I’m creating an illustration for a book cover, I’m inspired by the amount of research and world building the author went through to write the book. That always leads me down my own rabbit holes of research in order to create the artwork accompanying the book.

Galen Dara’s selfie in front of Andy Warhol’s Cow Wallpaper at the Modern Museum of Art in New York.

Q. How did you get interested in science fiction/fantasy art, and how easy was it to break into the field?

Dara: Growing up my family moved around quite a bit, but both of my parents were born and raised here in Tucson, and ultimately, it’s where a good number of us landed as adults. I always loved science fiction and fantasy, and working as an illustrator in the field has been a significant honor and delight.

I got my undergraduate degree forever ago from Brigham Young University. I started in the Illustration program but by the time I graduated I was making large scale immersive installations out of string and paper. After I graduated, there were times where I only had my sketchbook and an old laptop, so I figured out how to use a free version of Photoshop to make art. That led to doing illustration work for emerging writers.

I mark 2014 as the start of my “professional” career since that is when I was first nominated for the Best Professional Artist Hugo Award.

Galen Dara in her studio

Q. Who’s given you advice as an artist, and how rewarding has it been to teach?

Dara: I have had several pivotal mentors as I’ve honed my illustration skills. The chance to work closely with Gregory Manchess, Scott M. Fischer, Sam Weber and Sterling Hundley have had a tremendous impact on my work. Scott Bakal and Yuko Shimuzu are both friends and my inspirations. They have continually offered me encouragement and support in my career. 

Here at the University of Arizona, it’s been amazing to engage as an artist, an art student, and an art teacher in a whole new way. I love the university’s emphasis on interdisciplinary practice and research and the studio space to work on self-authored projects.

Teaching illustration to aspiring young artists has been the highlight of my time in the MFA program. I’ve taught Intro to Illustration (ART 266) and a special topics course I proposed, “Scratching the Surface” (ART 404), which had an ongoing summer exhibition space in the Lionel Rombach Gallery. This semester, I taught Art 100G Pixel, an intro to the digital art-making tools used by communications artists. I find it one of the greatest privileges to pass along what I know, and I’m glad for the chance to do it here.

Q. What projects are you working on now?

Dara: I still take on client work but have had to be careful about how I balance that with my graduate studies and teaching responsibilities. Currently I’m working on cover art projects for Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins, and an editorial illustration for Scientific American

This semester I’m doing UA course work with professors Paul Ivey, Jenn Liv and Lisa Watanabe, and also working closely with my thesis committee to hone ideas for my thesis exhibition. Once this semester ends, I will head to Orvieto Italy with the UA Study Abroad program where I’m looking forward to working with Professors Joseph Farbrook and Nathanial Katz and immersing myself in the unprecedented amount of art history and culture there.

With only a year left in my MFA program, I’ll be dedicating my time to my thesis exhibition and making the most out of the opportunities here at the University of Arizona. After graduation, teaching in a university setting is high on my wish list, as well as continuing my professional work and research into my personal work.

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