Lennie Mowris is a passionate advocate for social justice design, working for her own design studio as well as a community of charities and non-profits in Atlanta. A self-proclaimed 'button-pusher', she makes T-shirts that empower people to start conversations. We spoke to her about making politically charged work in divided times and how T-shirts can be a force for social good.
You started your career in the health and wellness sector, how did that transition to making design work?
When you work in health and wellness you become really aware of systemic human problems, [such as] health and poverty systems. I realized that design had the power to communicate on behalf of some of these complicated ideas and this is what I find exciting, how design can motivate us towards a positive end.
And how do your T-shirts help you achieve this end?
At one time posters were a primary social justice media. But in the modern day, people don't care as much about poster art, as they do a really awesome shirt which can become part of their identity. They can own the idea in a different way. I recently walked into an event where everyone was wearing my 'vote with your heart' T-shirt [to encourage voter registration in Atlanta]. It was affirming because they loved it, not just because of what it stood for, they loved the art. They were like, "yeah this is a cool shirt", and I thought - this is a shirt about voting! I think if you've made voting cool, you've really succeeded in something!
Your T-shirts cover a lot of topics that people find hard to talk about, from racism to sexism and homophobia. How do you find making provocative work in the current political climate?
A certain part of my day is dealing with the social media backlash when I put up ideas. I need to explain some of my ideas and maybe diffuse any tension. Now I have training in mediation and conflict resolution, it helps. I'm doing designs that push people's buttons and start conversations - that's sort of the point in social justice work… But if you get to know me I'm actually a really nice person! And I have really wonderful community support here in Atlanta.
How important is that community now you have it around you?
Oh, it's essential. It keeps me safe when I'm walking down the streets… When you have that community it allows you to be a little louder, and push a little bit harder, because I know I'm safe in the world.
So has your work been an evolving process?
Yes, I tried to be a lot nicer when I first started. I was a lot more afraid to speak my mind. The 2016 election took the filter off though, there was too much to talk about. I felt a professional obligation to show up a little bit louder. I have the support from the design community to make people uncomfortable. And when you realize you're in a place that you have that support, it's really comforting. Actually the louder I got, the more successful I got, and that's really personally affirming.
It's obviously very important to your work, but how do you think people can prepare for being confronted by strangers on issues they raise with their T-shirts?
I think that [political T-shirts] are always important if you're expressing yourself because I think personal expression is important. But learning to have a compassionate conversation about your point of view without degrading the other person, is the skill that we all need to get better at learning.
So do you find T-shirts are an important part of beginning important discussions?
For me, they were always conversation starters. It's easier to do this through design rather than do this in person. In person, you're dealing with an actual ego and someone feeling like they're wrong or right. Design objectifies the conversation. It allows people to look at a piece of art and go, that's a cool piece of art what does it mean? It allows the person wearing it to say 'this is what it means to me'.
Have you got any design heroes?
The one designer who has always been a hero of mine is Barbara Kruger because I think her work is iconic and amazing, and you always know it's hers. She was one of the artists who blurred the line between design, social justice, and widespread communications. Another one is Emory Douglas, the designer for the black panther party. His work is some of the most iconic social justice work that has ever existed.
What advice would you give someone who's creating political work now?
Be fearless. If someone says you're audacious, take it as a compliment. You have to learn what may be taken as a negative, is positive. If you're making people uncomfortable you're doing it right! My second piece of advice is to take care of yourself - make sure you have a self-care practice that helps you process that stuff effectively and not take it personally.