Illustrator + Activist Grace Owen on Using Art to Drive Social Change
Even though we're all staying apart, we're sheltering in place, wearing masks, living a completely surreal life — many of us have, finally, come together stronger than ever to dismantle systemic racism. We're united on this front and artists, designers, and creatives are a huge part of this effort. As the world's storytellers, many artists feel that they have a responsibility to move us forward. Grace Owen believes that wholeheartedly and, in this week's edition of Creative Crushin', we'll hear from Grace about social justice, inspiration and her mission as an artist.
Anjelika Temple here, Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Brit + Co. I was one of the thousands of people to repost artist Grace Owen's hand-lettered illustration of this poignant Desmond Tutu quote (pictured here). Like many people, it caught my eye and expressed a powerful message that I felt needed to be shared. I immediately reached out to Grace to learn more about her work, her vision and what activism means to her. Now, months later, I'm thrilled to be able to share her story with you.
Anjelika Temple: First off, tell us a little more about your background. Where did you grow up? Where are you based now?
Grace Owen: I was born and raised in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and I'm currently based out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, two hours east of my hometown. I'm a senior at Louisiana State University studying digital advertising and visual communication. I work as a freelance artist specializing in graphic design, illustration, and lettering. Growing up I always gravitated towards creative/artistic activities and hobbies, but I didn't really see it as a career path until college. Now I couldn't see myself doing anything else - it's a dream come true to be able to call this my job.
AT: Your Desmond Tutu quote illustration (and print) went completely viral a few weeks ago. Tell me more about how it felt seeing your work pop up all over the Internet. What inspired you to create this piece?
GO: When I saw the news about George Floyd, I was feeling shocked, confused, angry, helpless. I was also very moved by the outpouring of support for the Black Lives Matter movement on social media. I wanted to make a statement, but I didn't know exactly what to say. I remember seeing the Desmond Tutu quote somewhere and it really resonated with me. I honestly just started drawing the words on my iPad, not really thinking much about the design or lettering itself, just going with the flow of it. I was originally worried that it didn't look good enough to post.
I think it was so well-received because it completely flipped people's way of thinking. People who otherwise wouldn't have spoken up now realized that this was their opportunity to use their voice and stand up for what's right. It challenged them to think about how their individual silence and neutrality, though seemingly harmless, allows and perpetuates injustice and violence. The poignancy and shareability of it formed a worldwide virtual protest.
GO: I got hundreds of messages from people wanting to use it in protests, so I uploaded the files onto my site for people to print out and post around their areas and use as protest signs. People have sent me photos from around the world of my design being used in protests, taped on telephone poles, plastered on city streets. I started selling it on prints, shirts, and stickers and donating all of the proceeds to organizations supporting and furthering the Black Lives Matter movement.
The response has been unbelievable, I still can't wrap my head around it. It's a message that needs to be spread and I'm glad that I could contribute. We've still got a long way to go in the fight against racism and injustice, and design is by no means the cure, but I think it's certainly making waves and changing the world.
Editor's Note: You can download and print Grace's free flyers here + buy art prints here (proceeds are donated to George Floyd Memorial Fund, NAACP, The Loveland Foundaton, The Bail Project, Sister Hearts Re-Entry Program, and Liberty's Kitchen).
AT: Why do you love to make things? What's your north star?
GO: Making things is just what comes naturally to me. It's a way for me to process information and document my thoughts, feelings, and experiences along the way. I look at it as bringing my imagination into reality. My work is the exploration of my human experience; design is a creative outlet that I can use to learn about myself and the world around me. Of course it's not always deep insights, sometimes it's just symbols and icons that I like the vibe of. Regardless of what I'm making, I'm always having fun with it. When I'm working, I try not to think too much about it and instead just focus on getting into a creative flow state. It's really helped me to discover myself and ultimately to be more present and appreciative.
AT: Do you consider yourself an activist as well? Tell me more about how issues of social justice play into your work and life.
GO: My role personally as an artist is to be an activist as well. I think they go hand in hand. We're all responsible for using our talents to move society forward and do what's right. There's no use in sitting around and waiting for someone else to speak up - if you don't, who will? We're waking up to the harsh reality of our corrupt system and we've got a chance to change things; the revolution starts with us. Especially as a designer, I feel called to use what I've been given to give to the greater good. It's so rewarding to see that my work has inspired action and change.
My first real graphic design job was for a senator who was advocating for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in Louisiana. I realized that design, something abstract, can have powerful effects in the real world. It's literally visual communication - the way we use design can communicate something that words alone just can't. Design resonates with people and gives them an opportunity to learn and grow. Especially in the realm of social justice - it can be difficult to introduce to people who are reluctant to challenge their point of view, so presenting information in a way that's inviting and helpful is really beneficial and more likely to have a lasting effect that leads to a change of heart.
AT: It's clear that you love experimenting with unusual color palettes and graphic styles. How would you describe your visual voice and unique aesthetic?
GO: I'd describe my aesthetic as eclectic, magical, optimistic, and free-spirited. It's certainly very "doodly," I rely heavily on a hand-drawn, edgy, imperfect look. There's some spiritual/philosophical tones, yet it's also very playful and quirky. I've definitely developed a personal style, but I'm always experimenting. I don't want to limit myself to a particular color palette or visual aesthetic - I think my style is always changing and evolving, and that's why I love doing it so much. There's always something new to discover in it. I definitely gravitate towards unconventional color palettes, I like to have an unexpected element that's eye catching and stands out from what's expected… also, I'm indecisive and can't decide which version to post sometimes, so I'll post multiple options for different styles. I think people really like that because they get to choose their favorite version.
AT: What artists and designers do you turn to most often for inspiration?
GO: I really look up to Lisa Congdon, Andy J. Pizza, and Austin Kleon - they're all incredibly well spoken and have a lot of wisdom. They provide great resources for creatives and their advice has helped me deal with the ups and downs of working in the field.
Besides those 3, here are some of my favorite designers in no particular order (long list but there are just so many to love!): Brian Kaspr (@bkaspr); Slimy Oddity (@slimyoddity); Kindah Khalidy (@kindahkhalidy); Stephanie Unger (@stephanieunger); Krista Perry (@kristerpelly); Alison Zai (@alisonzai); Jade Purple Brown (@jadepurplebrown); Aaron Lowell Denton (@aaronlowell); Daren Thomas Magee (@realfunwow); Lily McNeil (@lilynilly.art); and Lauren Martin (@laurenmartin_studio).
AT: When you get creatively blocked or burnt out, how do you reset? Do you have tips you can share?
GO: Creative burnout is very real and I struggle with that feeling a lot. I'm incredibly grateful that my passion is also my job, but it can definitely become overwhelming. When I realize I'm in a rut, I try to step away from my screen and take a design detox for a few days. I find it beneficial to remember that while design is a massive part of my life, it's not my entire life, and I can step away from it for a minute to recharge. Get out of the house, ride my bike, discover new music, watch movies or documentaries, read a book - anything that offers new experiences. Then I'm able to process that information, sit with it, and come back to design with a fresh perspective and new inspiration to draw from.
Another tool that's benefitted me when I'm feeling burnt out is to keep up with my Instagram saved photos. Anytime I see a post that really resonates with me, I like to save it for a rainy day. It's helpful to go back and scroll through it when I'm feeling uninspired.
AT: People need people, especially those of us in the creative field. It can be easy to hole up in the work. Tell us more about what your support system and creative community looks like.
GO: My best friend and fellow artist Nina @nina.jal is my go-to gal for pretty much everything. She's my biggest fan and I'm her biggest fan. We're a creative powerhouse when we work together - I don't know what I'd do without her advice, inspiration, and support.
The creative community on Instagram is absolutely amazing. Some artists that I follow feel like they're my close friends because they're so supportive and kind. It's reassuring to know that someone's got your back and will be there to encourage and uplift you. Every like, comment, and share seriously means the world. It can be really scary to go in it alone, but the creative community is so thoughtful and genuinely want to see each other succeed. I'm never hesitant to ask for advice because someone is always happy to help.
AT: In five years, where do you see yourself? What should we be on the lookout for?
GO: I hope to continue working as a freelance graphic designer for amazing people and brands, hopefully someday I'll be an art director. The dream is to move West and someday have my own studio and store. I'll absolutely host more art shows. I'd really love to paint a mural. I've got a lot of dreams so we'll see where the future takes me - for now I'm just riding the wave :)