MN VOICES | Artist, activist Ricardo Levins Morales

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After 30 years, the Northland Poster Collective is closing its doors, ending a rich history of using art to create political change for social movements. Ricardo Levins Morales, one of the founders of the collective, shares his reflections on the organization’s history and his plans for the future. Morales, a Puerto Rican-born graphic artist, went from drawing chickens on his small family farm in Puerto Rico to using his art to create leaflets for such political movements as the Black Panthers and anti-war efforts in Chicago. After dropping out of high school, he moved to Boston and became involved in various labor movements, eventually finding himself in Minneapolis, where he and a few fellow artists decided to create a poster collective to link artists to social justice organizing.

In September, he’ll be opening his own studio in Minneapolis, where he will continue to be involved in activist, educational, and artistic projects .

TCDP: How does it feel for you moving on from the collective?
Well, certainly mixed feelings. More than anything I feel very proud of what we’ve done… For me the saddest part is the messages we get from people around the country who have come to rely on us.

When did you first start practicing art?
Well I liked to draw from when I was a little kid… I grew up in a mountain community where sometimes I had kids to play with and sometimes not but drawing is something that you can entertain yourself with when you’re alone. And so I really took to it.

When my father was in San Juan or to one of the other cities he would come back with a ream of paper. That would last me a while. Just typing paper and pencil, which I think is probably why even now my work will tend to be done as a black and white piece of art and then the color is added to that. There’s a lot of strong outlines and textures which I imagine probably comes from the fact that my early work was all black and white.

When did you move to the United States?
We moved to the States when I was eleven or twelve. This was right in the late sixties shortly before Martin Luther King was assassinated, shortly after Malcolm X was, so it was a very turbulent time politically. We moved from rural Puerto Rico to the south side of Chicago, which was right into the thick of things. The riots were going on, and you could always smell the smoke and hear the gunfire, so I was thrown into a very activist atmosphere. I’d grown up in a family that was involved with the Puerto Rican independence movement, so, at least second-hand, I had absorbed certain politics, certain sensibilities which left me ripe to get involved with the things that were happening around me.

What were the first political movements you got involved with?
…One of the things that kind of set the tone for my activism for a while was the assassination of Fred Hampton who was the leader of the local Black Panther party. The morning he was assassinated I went to school with a black armband which caused a little controversy in class but that really set the tone for my politics for a while, because I became involved in a group called the Black Panther Defense Committee…

Were the political movements you were involved with influencing how you were creating and drawing?
Yes, but I should say that art was not at the center of my activism. I entered political movements the way many people do. Cranking out leaflets, determining the routs of marches, selling newspapers for the different movement groups, stapling picket signs, those kinds of things. And I basically did a lot of art on my own. You know. I liked to do art. And I’ve always drawn what was important to me. When I was five years old, that was chickens. When I was eight years old, it was pirates. And in more recent times, it’s been overthrowing oppressive global systems…

How did you learn screen printing?
My eyes were opened to it by an issue of Ramparts Magazine which highlighted the Cuban poster artist René Mederos who had traveled to Vietnam and had made prints of that… Later I had moved to Boston and saved up enough money to get a little booklet about how to do screen printing. I sent away for some of the materials that I would need. So I started teaching myself.

How did Northland Poster Collective come about?
…It was after moving [to Minnesota] that I had it in mind to come together with different artists and set up what became the poster collective… When local people involved in political theater and political arts created a conference called Northland Political Workers conference I attended the graphic artists workshop at that conference. There was a discussion at that workshop that led directly to Northland being founded. We talked about what we all wanted to do we said “Hell, let’s get together and form a poster collective.”

How has the collective changed since its beginnings?
It started out as just a group of artists. We managed to secure a basement space to work in and share our work and critique it. A couple of us knew something about screen printing so we taught the rest. Each artist brought their particular style and adapted it to screen printing so we could reproduce it.
After the first generation of posters were created, we were ready to make some more, but we noticed that the first ones were still on the shelf. So we said, “What do we do with those? Well, let’s figure out a way to distribute them.” And the best idea we could come up with was to go to the public library. We all trooped down there to the section where they have yellow pages and the phonebooks from different cities. And we pulled phonebooks out for different cities and looked for what sounded like radical or feminist bookstores. Independent bookstores actually existed in those days. And from those we compiled a little mailing list. We made a brochure with the first set of posters we had made and mailed it out to those bookstores.

What kinds of commission work have you done?
Part of the tradition of artists in a lot of Latin America — certainly it’s true in Puerto Rico — is at there’s often not seen to be a strong distinction between high falutin’ art and more mundane functional art, so that for me — and I think this became the sensibility of Northland — designing a button or bumper sticker or working on a very detailed multi-colored poster for sale or for a fundraiser or for a gallery — they’re really just different points along the same spectrum. What makes it effective is that it is designed to meet the specific need that is there for it… effective art is art that serves a purpose.

Has your work been shown in galleries?
… One of the only major life decisions that I ever reneged on was when I was about … twelve or thirteen — this was after we moved to the States — I decided I wasn’t going to be an artist because what I thought what an artist did was work on a big, a huge painting for six months that would then go up in some suburban mansion and never see the light of day. And it was when I discovered print making that that changed my whole view. Because in wood cuts or linoleum blocks or silkscreen, you can make copies, you can keep one for yourself, and sell them at inexpensive rate. Even now, though screen printing has been a major part of my history as an artist, I don’t do limited editions, numbered editions, that’s what I would want to do if I wanted to keep the price high. In fact it’s the opposite. When a poster runs out and there’s still demand for it- well we would always print more. So a poster that might sell at a gallery for a few hundred dollars we would sell for fifteen, maybe twenty.

Tell me about your new studio
It’s going to be at Minnehaha and 37th Street. It also has a storefront attached to it. It’s in a building that is owned by a union local as it turns out… The way that I’ve always worked has been in relationship with grassroots movements and that is certainly going to continue… I’ve worked with people who are doing exciting things, who are really moved by what they are doing, who have all of this inspiration and all of this energy gathering up from the communities that they’re a part of. It’s really the opposite of the stereotypical ideal of an artist in our culture which is somebody with a beret with a little beard … who lives in a little garret over a coffee house in Greenwich Village and is very isolated – that the ideal is that you’re not influenced by family, by community, by feedback- you’re not supposed to care what anyone thinks and the more angst you put into your work — which is to say depression — the more the art world loves it… So I’m very happy not to be isolated and depressed so I think that was what has kept my work going- I’ve never had a shortage of ideas of what to do.

Have there been moments where you really saw acutely the ability of art to effect political change?
OK, in terms of political impact, there’s a t-shirt that we designed here that I created, but as a part of a collective process that shows a little row of fluffy little bunnies… little rabbits with their little paws linked marching and the slogan says, “Bosses beware: when we’re screwed, we multiply”…

We put it in one of our catalogues, and almost as soon as the catalogue got mailed, we got a call from a postal workers union in Connecticut saying, “How quickly can you rush us 300 of those shirts?”

They had a situation where the management in the last contract had promised, “If we shut down this bulk mail center, we promise that we’ll find jobs for everybody in the local within a 30 mile radius,” and then they came along and said, “We’re shutting down the place but – so sorry — our bad, there are no jobs in the area. You guys are just going to have to get laid off or relocate.” And the union was pretty unhappy about this and they had us print the design on the back of the shirt and put their logo on the front, because at their work stations, it’s the back that was visible.

Management got very upset, they sent out a letter, the postmaster sent out a letter to all the workers saying, “This t-shirt violates our zero tolerance for violence policy.” Fluffy little bunnies! You know?

So, undaunted, the union called us immediately. They said: “Quick, get us 300 more of those shirts without any words. Just bunnies! And if you can get us a bunny rubber stamp…” and they just wanted to go all wild on this bunny thing. And the postmaster general was going to come down and visit from Washington. The national union leaders decided they would go down and picket the bunny issue, and made it an embarrassment for these officials. We call it the bunny bomb…

The management then conceded. They said, “Okay, you can wear whatever you want,” because one of the things they’d said was that this was a violation, you can’t wear this garment, and in fact, you know, what an amazing coincidence, we’ve managed to find positions for all of you within a 30 mile radius.”

We call this, “The annoy them till they cave strategy,” but it really is a way of using humor to transform the atmosphere in the workplace. And a transformed atmosphere gives people a sense of power. And a sense of power is only a short step from real power. It’s really an important element of it…

One of the things that got me thinking about how do you use art to tell stories in the work place setting was when I worked as a janitor in the hospital, which was my first direct involvement with a union. And they would have these posters in the workplace that for example might show a nurse’s aide backing up and bumping into an IV unit that was hooked into a patient’s arm, and knocking it over. And the caption would say something like, “Carelessness causes tragedy.”

And I’m looking at that thinking, “Hmm, what if we just tweaked that a little? Leave the picture the same way but change the caption to say, ‘Understaffing causes tragedy.'” And two things happened. First of all, a worker will never think about the same poster the same way again, once you create that other message there. And second of all, the message stops being, “Bad things happen around here because you, the workers, are stupid,” and the message becomes, “These things happen because management is greedy.”

All you are doing is changing a few words. And again, once you change the way people think about something, that’s really the foundation for making political change. That’s really what it’s about. It’s one step but it’s the first step and it’s a crucial step.

Sheila Regan (sheila@tcdailyplanet.net) is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer.