Growing up in Eldersburg and attending South Carroll High School, creativity and inspiration were in the air for Jennifer Cast Galán: all around but not entirely in focus.
She drew and she painted and she sewed, but it never really occurred to her that she might have a profession in the arts — that she would one day become a graphic designer and an executive art director with an Emmy Award for her work at the Nickelodeon channel.
“I never knew there were careers other than that I could be an art teacher in school or something,” Galán said. “But I always got the encouragement that I had a talent and that was really important for me — I just didn’t know where to go with that.”
Looking back, she said, her growing up in Carroll County was, in many ways, the perfect mix of inspiration and isolation, support and self-driven industry, formal education and informal discovery, that led her to the career she has today — even if she didn’t know it or always appreciate it at the time.
“We used to call it ‘Cow Lick County,’ ” Galán said.
Born on Long Island, New York, Galán lived in New Mexico through the fifth grade, moving to Maryland in sixth grade.
“My grandmother, she was ill and we came back to be to be with her. My parents had gotten divorced,” she said. “We ended up living with my grandfather in the same house my mom and my stepdad now live in, and that’s on Obrecht Road in Carroll County.”
Beyond a furniture-making uncle in Vermont, no one in Galán’s family was creative in the art and design sense of the word — her mother was a travel agent and her stepfather ran his own home improvement business.
“I still grew up in a very creative household,” she said. “With people that were makers, people that used their hands.”
One of Galán’s first impressions of Carroll County was noticing just how many families seemed to own small businesses, a formative memory she now believes.
“They would drive around in trucks with their logos painted on the side,” she said. “I think it’s just a very resourceful community.”
But as Carroll was making an impression on Galán, then Jennifer Cast, she was making an impression on others.
Julie Beatty remembers the first time she met Galán. It was on the ball field at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Eldersburg, where Sykesville Middle School’s sixth-graders were stationed until a renovation on the sixth-grade portion of the middle school building was complete.
“My impression of her was, who is this neat girl? This is not somebody who I have met in Carroll County,” Beatty said with a laugh. “She was different, she was funny, she was interesting ... and we clicked like that.”
The two have remained close friends ever since, though they are both now grown and married. Beatty lives in New Windsor today, and Galán in Montclair, New Jersey, but they’ve kept in touch and visited each other through the years.
Beatty can say that when they were children, it may not have been apparent to Galán that she was destined to be an artist, but it certainly was to everyone else.
“I had always thought she would do something in the arts,” Beatty said. “I think my impression of her when we were in middle school was that she would be a fashion designer, that’s what I always thought she would be back then.”
By the time the two friends were at South Carroll High together, Galán had created her own brand of clothing.
“It was big pants. I didn’t go to raves, but I knew a lot of the skateboarders did,” Galán said. “Me and a boyfriend at the time, we would make these crazy big pants and we would sell them at the skate park.”
“ ‘Dinos’ was what I think her brand was, and she had the little dinosaur patch on the pants,” Beatty recalls. “Who would think that back then? I thought that was pretty cool.”
Another formative aspect of living in rural Carroll County was that it forced Galán to cultivate her own interests and entertainment.
“I think that being in Carroll County led me to being attracted to all these different cultural niche sort of things,” she said. “I skateboarded at a time when not a lot of people did and it wasn’t widely accepted. But that was the sort of culture I was steeped in.”
At the same time Carroll may have sometimes felt like the middle of nowhere, Galán said, it was actually within easy car-ride-with-a-friend distance to cultural epicenters.
“You have access to, say, go to Baltimore for the afternoon to go record shopping,” she said. “Baltimore having a pretty rich art scene as well as music scene. John Waters is out of Baltimore, there’s an endowment for the arts that was very apparent.”
And just a bit further is Washington, D.C., with its museums and underground music clubs, Galán said. A day trip for inspiration could be paired with a return to a rural pace of life for full digestion of the experience.
“You’re going to come home and you’re going to reflect on that and it’s going to shape how you travel through life,” she said. “I had access to all these different points. I could get a little taste, I could dip my toe in the water in these different areas. You are really central in Carroll County.”
Galán graduated from South Carroll High in 1991, or at least she walked the stage — she spent her senior year taking classes at Carroll Community College. She would continue there after graduation, before moving on to Catonsville Community College to finish her general education requirements.
“Some of the best experiences in undergrad were at Carroll, were at Catonsville,” she said. “You had teachers that were empathetic, that were passionate and engaged and the classes were smaller. I really felt like I got a lot out of that.”
Escape to New York
Galán transferred to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County to complete her undergraduate studies, initially taking a lot of science and psychology courses — a love of chemistry in high school had her considering a career as a physician for a while. But what she said set her on the course toward her career today was philosophy — it’s what she earned her bachelor’s degree in.
“I will never regret that degree,” she said. “Being a designer is being a problem solver. You have to be obsessed with problems. Because you are going to design your way out of that box and into a solution.”
After graduation, she was a substitute teacher in Carroll for a short while before taking off for San Francisco for a time. It was there, in the East Bay, that she took an art class at the University of California, Berkeley and fell in love with graphic design.
Then, missing the East Coast, Galán found herself in New York City, pursing a master’s degree in design at the Pratt Institute. It was a choice she made because it was a school that focused on theory, an approach she had come to appreciate from her philosophy training.
“Anyone can learn how to make something. That tactile making was something I was confident I could get, but I really wanted to understand the principles and philosophy,” she said. “That helped shape my career. That just helped me become a leader in design.”
Creating for kids
After graduation, Galán worked as a graphic designer at Glamour magazine, and then taught for awhile at the Pratt Institute before she interviewed with the TV network Nickelodeon — when she was offered a job on the spot.
“I really wanted to design for kids. I kind of knew that and I used to draw little characters,” she said. “It was just a genuine fit. My portfolio really showed up in that space for them; they saw what they were looking for and they offered me a job, and it was really the start of a robust career.”
That was in 2001. Galán has worked with or at Nickelodeon ever since, leaving for a short while to design children’s clothing for Old Navy, and then returning to the fold at Nickelodeon in 2005 as an art director.
“It’s almost like a boyfriend that you know you want to marry them but you feel like you need to date other people so you leave them for a period of time,” she said. “They were just always there.”
By 2007, Galán was heading an animation and motion design team charged with creating the promotional material between shows on Nick Jr., promoting new shows or telling young viewers when to next catch their favorite program.
“That’s what, for kids, is a special craft. Because their attention spans are different than adults,” she said. “They need to be entertained inbetween entertainment.”
Galán and her team were assigned the task of promoting what was then a new show, “Bubble Guppies,” an animated series featuring mer-children in an underwater school house.
“The way to promote a cartoon is challenging because when you sit down and watch a cartoon there is just a certain vibe about it,” she said. “We kind of took the approach of making that promotion feel like it was a movie trailer, like it was kind of mysterious and bringing some curiosity to the table for kids in a way that was provocative and fresh. It was not how most cartoons are promoted.”
The industry took notice. Galán and her team were nominated for and won an Emmy in 2011 for their work promoting “Bubble Guppies.”
“We’ve had other nominations too, which is awesome — being nominated, to be honest, is just as fabulous — but ‘Bubble Guppies’ was an actual win,” she said.
Bringing it all back home
But one of the successes Galán is most proud of is something that was never aired on television. After entering an internal contest with two other colleagues, they and Galán were awarded the chance to work on a pilot for the network, a show that could potentially become a series.
“Unfortunately it never went further, but it was just such an honor to be considered,” she said. “So many people write shows and so many people submit scripts and ideas — it’s a one-in-a-million shot.”
In retrospect, Galán said, the pilot in many ways mirrored her upbringing in Carroll County and the way that shaped her experience of her time in New York City. Called “The Thing About Babies,” the show would have followed a stay-at-home creative father and architect mother who decided to move from New York to rural Maine after learning they were going to have triplets. Galán described it as “Modern Family,” but for preschoolers.
“I think that a lot of what I was bringing to the table, a lot of my inspiration was how I grew up,” she said. “We were trying to use this idea of family and about being in the vast open of nothing and still being able to thrive and be creative and resourceful.”
That’s an idea Galán is returning to in her own life. Now married with three children, she has again left Nickelodeon in order to work as a remote consultant from her home in New Jersey, while visiting her parents in Carroll County. She is taking time to have a little space for herself, to recharge. To reconnect with roots.
“I think New York City is just an assault on your senses in so many ways that sometimes it’s hard to conjure creativity,” Galán said. “I find my most creative spaces are now when I go back home to visit my parents, and I can stand at the end of my driveway and I can look at a multiple-acre farm and ideas will come to me.”
“It’s funny, when you’re young and you’re a teenager, and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, it’s farmland, yuck!’ ” Beatty said of her friend’s adult appreciation of Carroll landscapes. “And then as you get older, it’s like, this is fantastic! This is really fantastic, this is family. This is comfort.”
Beatty handles the support room at Elmer Wolf Elementary School in Union Bridge. Sometimes, those students are having problems at home or in school. It’s at those times Beatty brings up her friend.
“I bring up some stories of what I knew of Jen in New Mexico, and it’s like, ‘You know what guys, she became a graphic designer at Nickelodeon.’ And they all look at me, ‘You mean like SpongeBob?’ Yes, exactly,” Beatty said. “You have to decide for yourself how you want your life to be, and that’s what my friend Jen did. She decided, ‘I want better for myself,’ and she made a path.”
It wasn’t exactly a path she had planned out, Galán admits, but it’s one she is so grateful it led where it did, including the passes back through Carroll.
“I am so grateful for all of the opportunities because sometimes I do have to say, my gosh, I’m just this scrappy skater chick from Carroll County,” she said.
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“Yup,” Beatty said with a laugh. “That’s Jen.”