After running the Northland Poster Collective for 30 years, Puerto Rican-born graphic artist Ricardo Levins Morales opened his own studio in the fall of 2009, and has since continued working as an artist to create social change. Morales, who went from drawing chickens on his small farm in Puerto Rico as a young boy to becoming deeply involved in political movements such as the Black Panthers and anti-war efforts in the '60s and '70s, is now a nationally recognized artist and activist. We recently spoke with him about the direction his art has taken since moving to his own studio in south Minneapolis, and about using art to create change.
CITY PAGES: So how has it been working out with your new studio?
RICARDO LEVINS MORALES: It's a sweet little place. It's a beautiful little storefront that's nice and sunny with a gallery in the front. After Northland closed, as far as looking for a place, I couldn't imagine not being on the street. I can't imagine not having people wandering in from time to time. A storefront is welcoming to everybody.
CP: What kinds of work have you been involved with?
RLM: A lot of it is similar to what I was doing at Northland. I work out of the storefront, and also from my online site, creating posters and t-shirts, as well as custom work--things like CDs, calendars, and books. I also teach workshops, including a workshop with cultural workers I'm teaching in February in New Orleans. And I'll sit at conferences, like an upcoming one where I'll be talking about messaging and cultural transformation.
I'm continuing to do some things of my own design. It's been somewhat on hold during this late fall and early winter, because I've taken in a lot of commissioned work I have less time to do my own work.
CP: What are the kinds of commissions that you do?
RLM: The commissions are for unions, social groups, and groups I support. I am fortunate not to have to do commercial work.
CP: Do you feel yourself becoming more rooted in your new neighborhood?
RLM: I've slowly become a part of neighborhood art events. I've had my art at local coffee houses. People have discovered this is a place they can come and get gifts. People who had supported me at Northland continue to do so, especially the ones who live in the area. And the national community hasn't missed a beat. The move didn't create a sense of isolation. I'm quite pleased to feel still nationally networked.
CP: How do you manage all the different kinds of projects you are working on?
RLM: It doesn't feel like I'm being pulled in different directions. They all seem related in that they're about human dignity and making the world better through the use of art. How I schedule myself--if I get requests for certain things, especially if there is payment involved--it tends to take priority on my calendar because that's my sole source of support.
CP: What are some of the things you've been working on?
RLM: I try to create a number pieces of art that speak to a targeted piece of the internal language of different communities. For example, I've worked on a project involving the Gulf Coast and also projects involving Puerto Ricans in the United States and in the diaspora. I'm particularly interested in the language of a community. Often communities that are not mainstream don't have art and cultural messages that tell their story.
A number of my pieces are about environmental challenges from a grassroots, environmental perspective. Also in general my greatest loyalties in terms of art are communities that are most misrepresented or vilified or disrespected. Recently I've done some work around disability, youth violence, and street gangs in ways that are really about finding agency in human dignity as a counterpoint to the polarizing, demonizing, and blaming kinds of things in the mainstream media.
CP: Could you give an example?
One of my pieces, Talk About It
, started out as a sketch for a commission. I liked the idea of having some things promoting connections between people for its own sake. We tend to be divided and distracted as a society. There's electronic distractions and political forces that try to divide people. I wanted to create a feeling of solidarity between people. One thing about the art that I do is that it falls into different categories. Some of my art is for a political movement. Sometimes it's more medicinal--a message to help people not feel so isolated. Sometimes it's about making the invisible visible; things people know inside but they haven't articulated.
Another piece I have, Goodnight Moon,
focuses on families where parents are divided from their children due to incarceration. It's not aiming at winning a political struggle, but it gives visibility and validation to people who identify with it.
CP: Do you have a certain style?
RLM: It constantly changes. Over time I see how my work has evolved. I'm attracted to not creating a style that's recognizable, but rather a style that is appropriate to the message or the community I'm working with. Luckily, I have the technical capacity to do that. I'm in love with certain types of materials and certain tools, but I'm not seeking to make my work fit into a particular style. I've never had much contact with the so-called art world. I'm happy playing around with things. Sometimes I'll work on a piece just because it has a particular style.
I have a folder of 200 ideas I'd like to get to. I've never had writers block. I think because my work is so connected to communities. They provide real inspiration. I'm not like one of these artists alone in a garret somewhere.
CP: How do you keep accountable to the communities that you create art and messages for?
That's a key question. Many of the communities I work with, I'm not a member of--they came to me. It's a kind of question for which the answer is often experiential and intuitive. The starting point is that there is no way I can tell anybody's story besides my own. Even if I were to do a poster of my siblings, who have the same background as me, it would be my own story. Listening as deeply as possible is important. In my experience as an organizer, I've gained some tools listening. I think of it as trying to strike a delicate balance of arrogance and humility. I have to be willing to tell a story that is not my own, knowing I'll get it wrong at least on a subtle level. The humility is needed to really listen.
To check out more of Ricardo's work, check out his website, or stop by his studio at 3745 Minnehaha Ave, Minneapolis.