Unlike the image of the tormented artist whose vision is realized in solitude, Ricardo Levins Morales has made 35 years of work in a corner of his dining room but with a community context that reaches around the world. Now Morales, who co-founded the recently closed Northland Poster Collective, has opened his own gallery and studio in Minneapolis’s Longfellow neighborhood. The gallery’s walls are graced by everything from images from his Coffee Calendar that honored the workers who grow the beans that make our morning brew to posters that fueled decades of battles for peace and justice.
Morales dropped out of high school—twice—and is a self-trained artist whose work continues Puerto Rico’s silkscreen tradition. “It’s an interplay between words and image,” says Morales. “Words have visual elements that attention is paid to.”
Sometimes it’s as simple as the word power with strikers sitting down in front of a truck or the word synthesis underneath a Buddha-like seated figure (with the head of Karl Marx!). Quotes from historical figures are integrated with their portraits. A reflective Che Guevara, in turquoise, observing, “A single human being is worth millions of times more than all the properties of the richest man on earth.” The unsung organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, Bayard Rustin, a gay Africa-American man who said, “Take power away from those who misuse it—at which point they become human.” One of Morales’ earliest works, a free angela davis poster, when the Black Power academic was unjustly jailed. NAACP co-founder and journalist Ida B. Welles. Activist-singers from Malvina Reynolds of “Little Boxes” fame. South Africa’s Mariam Makeba and Woody Guthrie, labor’s Dust Bowl troubadour.
Much of Morales’s work depicts “unknown” people—the rest of us, dancing, cooking, working, planting food, marching and protesting. The colors are earthy and the figures are as diverse as all the world’s peoples. His inspirations since the early 1970s have been current events that, with his scratchboard technique and warm palate of colored inks, become timeless.
“Making social change doesn’t happen by making pretty pictures, but because of people organizing,” the slim, quiet 50-something bearded artist says. “The Northland Poster Collective believed in community. We believed in connecting art to whatever people were doing in the community. Sometimes the art created only works for that particular moment. Other times it can live beyond that moment. That’s how I expect it to continue to work.”
Early on, Morales was drawn to workers trying to unionize their workplaces and he’s brought back some of those early posters. With a simpler style than that he’s known for, many use humor. Labor organizing threads through his life’s work. Future plans include teaching workshops at his studio for those who want to incorporate art with activism.
With a deep sense of place, Morales never forgets we’re living on a fragile planet. The ground under the figures’ feet is almost tangible; brilliant colored flowers almost have a scent; the night breeze or a blazing sun emanate from various images. In one of his most iconic posters, responding to Hurricane Katrina, the stench of stagnant waters and weary endurance is captured in the figure of a man carrying a woman through the flood.
“When Katrina happened, the poster was done within two days of the hurricane,” he quietly remembers. “I couldn’t sleep until I got that [image] out of my system. I knew that if it meant something to me, it would mean something to them.”
Like Diego Rivera, the great Mexican muralist, Morales honors all the sweat and energy of invisible people making the clothes we wear, putting food on our tables and keeping daily life going. Unlike much “protest art,” most of Morales’s work expresses the joy of solidarity as people fight for social change.