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The Camino de Santiago through an artist’s eyes

Kari Gale's illustrated book captures the magic of the Camino

The pilgrim’s route of Camino de Santiago figures large in my novel The Girl from Oto. I’m always on the lookout for art that conveys the magic and beauty of the mountains, rolling farmlands, and rugged coastlines along the route.

Photo by Kari Gale

When I got my hands on artist Kari Gale’s book The Art of Walking, an Illustrated Journey on the Camino de Santiago, I knew I was in for something extraordinary. I met with Kari for a conversation over tea and coffee on a rainy afternoon in Portland, and came away with this fascinating glimpse into an artist’s path through life. Enjoy!

AM: You’ve been to the Camino twice, first with your sister, when you filled notebooks with the artwork and journal entries that later became this book. Two years later, you returned to the Camino and developed a network of locals who helped you promote the book and set up two exhibits of your artwork. How did you pull that off?

KG: I walked 500 miles on the Camino Frances with my sister Lissa in 2013, then published the book in 2015, on the 2nd anniversary of our completion of the Camino. Then I returned to a different route of the Camino in September of 2015, and walked the Camino Portugués from Lisbon to Santiago (which is 392 miles). This time I continued on to Muxia, and then Finisterre which is an additional 70 miles. When I reached Santiago de Compostela the second time, I had a copy of my book in hand and met a man who had been a journalist in the city for many years. Through him I obtained an interview with the local paper and introductions to several influential people, one of whom was the director of the hotel ‘Hostal dos Reis Católicos.’ This hotel is also called the Parador de Santiago, and is a 5-star Parador hotel run by the Spanish government. (As it was built in 1486 as a pilgrim hospital, it is also considered the oldest hotel in the world). The director helped me mount an exhibit there during the month of July, as well as an exhibit in the famous lighthouse in Finisterre during the month of May. I currently have my book and prints of my art being sold in the shop ‘Bo Camino’ in the center of Santiago de Compostela and in the cafe ‘Etel and Pan’ in Finisterre.

AM: You said something today about the importance of the Camino as a place to grapple with dark or hard things, a rare chance to confront and hold grief or sorrow in a society that is so focused on “closure,” moving on,” and “are you over that hard thing yet?” Can you rephrase for me what you said, or expand on that thought a bit? It really resonated with me.

KG: In walking through my divorce, I found that it was very difficult for most people to ‘sit’ in the space of grief with me without trying to hurry me through it because it is very hard, and it is very uncomfortable. There’s no ‘fixing things,’ which is what most of us, me included, want to do when someone we love is going through something messy and tragic. What I needed was to experience each part of it wholly. I needed to acknowledge and mark the ending of something that had changed me utterly. For me, the Camino was the time that I gave myself to grieve, and heal, and imagine what was next. It was a series of moments and interactions, that created a type of ceremony, if you will, that marked the end of my 12-year marriage.

Illustration by Kari Gale

I think many, if not most people walking the Camino are grappling with a hard thing, or at least seeking an answer to a hard question. Walking eight hours a day gives you a lot of time, whether you want it or not, to ‘sit’ with the emotions you can avoid in day-to-day life. Of course there are plenty of distractions on the Camino, but there is definitely more of an open space to move through grief or sorrow at your own pace. Pilgrims, in general, get this—and there is a wonderful undercurrent of patient compassion that can feel absent in our busy society.

AM: You say in the introduction to your book that you’re a mostly self-taught artist, but a fabulous teacher/class helped you form the foundation for the art you made on the Camino. Who was that teacher, what was the class? 

KG: The class was a drawing perspectives class taught at PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art) by an instructor named Kurt Holloman.

AM: You said you always wanted to be an artist, but did it take going on the Camino to make the conscious decision to embrace the creative life? Was that a slow realization or did it come to you as a revelation?

KG: I think it was more of a slow realization that transpired over the 3 years after my divorce. I was discouraged at a fairly young age from pursuing art as a career, and as a result, have always perceived myself as a hobbyist. As my life as I knew it began crumble, it left a wide open blank space that allowed me to imagine a totally different kind of life. The desire to pursue art more seriously had never left in the 30 years that had passed, and I knew that if I didn’t pay attention to this desire, then I would always regret it. So I decided to take the perspectives class to help improve my technical skills. I actually had always considered myself a painter who didn’t particularly enjoy drawing. When I started drawing every day on the Camino, I realize that not only did I enjoy it, but it changed the way I viewed art. Art became an expression that forced me to engage in the moment rather than having to communicate a message. I think many artists struggle with knowing if what they have to say is important or worthwhile or even unique. Documenting my own personal journey removed this question for me, and helped me find joy in the process. The final steps of that realization occurred when I decided to publish the drawings 2 years after I had walked the Camino. I was so engaged in the entire undertaking of bringing my book to life, that I began to dream about what it would be like to pursue art full-time. As I finished the project, I knew that I had to change my path. I still don’t know exactly what this path looks like…I’m making up the rules as I go along!

AM: Are there any artists you consider mentors or inspirations for your own work? Who are they?

KG: In the world of journal art, I am a huge fan of Danny Gregory and Prishant Miranda. Danny Gregory has inspired so many through his work and I became familiar with him when my Aunt recommended his book Everyday Matters. When I took a course through Danny’s online ‘Sketchbook Skool,’ I learned of the artist Prishant Miranda and was overwhelmed by his amazing watercolors and style.

Kari’s art supplies fit into an Altoids tin! Photo by Kari Gale

Currently my two favorite painters are Arthur Melville, who was a Scottish watercolorist, and the Spanish oil painter, Gustavo de Maeztu. Melville is the most masterful watercolorist that I’ve ever seen. I had never even heard of him before I saw an amazing exhibit of his work this past year in Edinburgh. His brush work and use of negative space are unmatched. Maetzu is like a Spanish Gauguin, and is also quite obscure. There is a museum that houses the majority of his work in Estella, which is directly on the Camino. (I have to thank my sister for suggesting we go inside.) I adore his work because it is infused with the vibrancy of the culture of Spain. I am also a huge fan of Alphonse Mucha. I saw a wonderful exhibit of his work in Glasgow and was so captivated by his use of line-work and shading. His seamless movement in between graphic design, advertising, illustration and fine art is inspiring.

AM: Your book shows the depth of your faith as a Christian. A lot of people on the Camino aren’t necessarily religious, or maybe don’t put the word ‘God’ into their accounting of faith. Did you have interesting conversations about faith and ways of expressing it on the Camino? Any examples?

Illustration by Kari Gale

KG: I wrote the following in my book: “I believe the Camino is a small preview of what heaven might be like. Or at least my limited imagination wants that to be true. We get to just be. We have no distractions, just the simplest responsibility: to delight in the beauty of the moment. We create community with strangers that enter our lives for merely an hour and those that we travel with for weeks. We share ourselves freely, and in doing so we remove the masks and artifice we usually hide behind. We desire to shed our possessions rather than collect them to prove our success or worth. We are all equal on the Camino. We have a common goal. A shared destination.”

As a result of this freedom to be authentic, the Camino was one of the first places I have encountered where people of radically different beliefs were totally open to talking about their faith without agendas. It was so refreshing. Because of this, I had many, many conversations about God or the idea of God during my walk. Even if a pilgrim was an atheist, there was a tremendous respect that we had for one another. We knew that everyone was seeking something on the Camino… whether they called it ‘God’ or not, and this created a safe and sacred space to connect.

AM: Currently you’re working on another book about the isle of Iona in Scotland, where you spent time on the pilgrimage trails, drawing and writing as you went. Do you have plans to do another pilgrimage trail? Where would you like to go next? 

KG: I lived on the isle of Iona during the month of February doing an artist residency in the hostel there. During this time, I created a body of work that intrigued me enough to want to return to the island before I headed back to the states. I decided to return to Iona in late October, and lived there until I left for home at the beginning of December. The book I am working on now will consist of the art I created there, as well as small vignettes that explain what inspired each piece. Iona is a place for pilgrimage due to its rich history and famous Abbey, but pilgrims arrive on the island through a long journey consisting of the train, bus and several ferries, rather than on foot. There is a pilgrimage route around the island, but as the entire circumference can be walked in a day, it is less a walking pilgrimage and more an emotional one.

I have recently learned of the pilgrimage trail in Norway called St. Olav’s way. I would love to walk this trail next, but am also incredibly intrigued by the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route in Japan.

AM: Do you envision continuing this series of pilgrimages/books indefinitely? 

KG: The books I am working on flow out of my travel experiences organically. The Iona book is more about living on the island then about pilgrimage, but the tie is definitely there. I suppose if I keep exploring places and walking routes that are centered around pilgrimage, the books will continue. I feel like I would be incredibly happy to continue this type of work.

AM: You also make food illustrations. How did that come about?

Illustration by Kari Gale

KG: I posted a food drawing on Instagram from an article that I did for a website based out of Barcelona. Joel Serra of Papalosophy, also based in Barcelona, found me through that post and asked if I would want to collaborate on a project. Of course, I said yes, and so he created a recipe that I illustrated. I also do food illustrations for restaurants in Portland.

AM:  for readers who aspire to the creative life, or who wish they could create beautiful art, do you have any advice for taking the first steps? 

KG: I think that buying a journal is a great first step. Being able to draw in any moment at at any location is the key to start creating a regular practice. Draw your kitchen. Draw your bus stop. Draw your breakfast. Try not to think of art as something reserved for museums and studio spaces. When you start documenting your surroundings, you will find that the creative life isn’t reserved for a chosen few. You will also find, as in most things in life, that the more you do it, the better you get. I also highly recommend any of Danny Gregory’s books and Sketchbook Skool for those that need a bit more direction, teaching and encouragement.

Learn more about artist Kari Gale at her website:

All photos and illustrations in this article are copyrighted by Kari Gale.

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