An Interview with Illustrator & Poet Yael Levy
Yael Levy is simultaneously a leather-clad tomboy and a graceful, sweater-knitting tea enthusiast. A poet and illustrator from Northern California, her works are inspired by the changing seasons, her daily commute, and very frequently her taste in music. She has illustrated for many publications in print and online and helped found Berkeley writers group The Audience Collective. Named after the woman who struck a tent-spike into Sisera’s temple in the Book of Judges, Levy would one day like to illustrate a children’s book rather than live up to the revolutionary lifestyle of her namesake.
How long have you been drawing and writing?
I’ve been drawing as long as I could hold a pencil. My mom has a lot of my childhood drawings of misshapen cows and truly unflattering family portraits. Poetry was more difficult. I was a big reader (still am), and so I read plenty of poetry as a child, but I didn’t really write any until I entered my teen angst years. Really really horrible poetry.
Describe your illustration process.
I try to draw or write things pretty often, but to be honest, sometimes I’ll go months without drawing anything apart from doodling while I watch television. Most of the time, I’ll start just by becoming nearly obsessed with something, really. I’ll get hooked on a song or an idea, and I’ll turn it over and over in my head until I’ll want to make something out of it. The actual drawing process is really lo-fi. I don’t have a scanner or a tablet or anything. I draw and then take photos of my drawings with my shitty camera’s fake macro lens.
You draw a lot of faces or people in motion. Why do you think that interests you more than other subjects?
Drawing people tends to interest me more because I love the kind of hidden, inner-history aspect to an image of a person. What they’re thinking in that moment, what they’re doing. Secrets! Just thinking about it makes me want to draw a whole bunch of people who are each keeping a different secret.
A lot of your work also has a winter feel. Do colder months inspire you?
I think the transitions between seasons have a stronger effect on me. The beginning of summer with that giddy anticipation of lazing about outdoors, then when winter really starts to settle and I know I’m going to spend a lot of time hunkering down, drinking endless mugs of tea, and listening to records in the dark.
I know Elliott Smith has been a very, very large part of your life. How has he affected you?
Elliott Smith came to me at a point in my young teenage life when I was just forming my feelings about being creative, being confessional. At that time, my appreciation for his music wasn’t very aesthetic, it was just intensely personal. Losing him was a huge blow because it felt, at the time, as if he couldn’t do it, no one could. He has incredible sentimental value for me because I think he played a large role in my realization that art and music and writing didn’t have to be slick, or that it didn’t have to be your best, all the time. It could be a little fuzzy, fragile, angry and self-righteous and selfish, it could be gentle and tender, simultaneously.
What is your favorite thing about poetry? Are there aspects of writing and drawing that you appreciate for different reasons?
What I love most about poetry is the same thing I love about songs or paintings or books — that they can briefly let you see something through someone else’s eyes.
San Francisco’s Bay Area — along with its public transportation — is a recurring motif in a lot of your work.
I grew up in the South Bay, and now I live in the East Bay, so the Bay Area has always really felt like home. I spend a lot of time on public transportation which is a great way to just glimpse neighborhoods as you pass through them. On one of my commutes I cut straight through Oakland, from swanky Rockridge through downtown into Chinatown, and even if I go to each of those neighborhoods individually, it’s not the same as watching it through a fogged up bus window in the rain at 6:30 in the morning. You get to see how almost each block has its own personality and bright spots and struggles. It’s a real slice of life, which is a cheesy way to put it, but it rings true to me.
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