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Activist poster artist Ricardo Levins Morales: ‘It’s always about supporting resilience’

Levins Morales’ reputation as an artist, thinker, and healer got him invited to deliver the keynote address at the MNxMN activist-training conference at Harding High School on Feb. 24.

photo of man standing in front of building
Ricardo Levins Morales outside his studio at 3260 Minnehaha Avenue in South Minneapolis: “Everything with the coffee cup, which truly expresses who I am. There’s always the coffee cup.”
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

Walk into Ricardo Levins Morales studio and shop in South Minneapolis and you’ll see posters you’ve seen before — in friends’ work cubicles, above bars, and on the walls of living rooms, kitchens, offices, and many other lifeless spots in need of a decorative reminder that all is not lost. To be sure, given the state of the political, spiritual, environmental, and technological world, it might be easy to stamp Levins Morales’ activist poster work with a “now more than ever” headline. But the fact is, Levins Morales, creator of some of the most popular inspirational posters on the planet, has been creating at the same pace for over 40 years.

“My work has stayed on a pretty steady course for decades,” said Levins Morales, sitting in the back room of his art store and studio in South Minneapolis. “I grew up understanding both from my parents and having grown up in a place with no televisions or beeping lights or fast-forward buttons … I grew up playing on the mountains, so I knew things happen in cycles, they happen according to their own pace. So I’ve just kept doing this work through times of extreme right-wing pendulum swings and more liberal pendulum swings, and the kind of truth telling that I try to do has stayed steady throughout that.”

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Stephen Colbert recently characterized the unreality of American government as “kabuki theater” and commented that current events “makes it feel like we’re all living under a spell or something.” But inside Levins Morales’ studio, a busy calm is the order of the day, with two fellow artists steadily going about the business of creating art. Outside, the news of the day finds another dose of sexism, racism, Islamophobia, greed, religious wars, and business-as-usual mainstream media fanning all sorts of flames of hate.

“These swings have never created an existential crisis for me,” said Levins Morales, who grew up in the coffee-growing region of the western mountains of Puerto Rico, and moved with his family to the United States in 1967 as a preteen. “It doesn’t shock me that proto-fascist tendencies would arise during the downhill slide of a once-powerful empire. I didn’t know how it would come, or when, but it doesn’t shock me. Now, fascism sucks no matter what. It’s a bummer. But it doesn’t shock my sense of who I am or how the world operates. So part of what I do is try to help people who are shocked by those kinds of things. I kind of help stabilize them and help them come to terms with what’s gone on around them.”

photo of man holding poster
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Levins Morales in his studio with one of the first posters he made, commemorating civil rights activist Angela Davis.

Levins Morales’ studio and store (3260 Minnehaha Ave.) is an inviting shop and workplace, filled with colors, quotes, and causes. His most popular posters — of slain teen Trayvon Martin accompanied by a quote from civil rights activist Ella Baker; protest music icon Woody Guthrie; civil rights activist Angela Davis; and many others, featuring some of his favorite quotes of human resilience — have been popular for years.

“Each poster has a life of its own, and some of them feel significant to me because they are medicine for particular people in a particular state of life,” he said. “The one I did for Trayvon Martin, I had no idea it would become protest signs in Ferguson, or adopted by his family, or be published in books and calendars and things — that was not my intention. My intention was really the intention behind all my work, which is to produce medicine.

“All of these pieces I consider to be nutrients and antibodies, and they’re meant to treat the sort of cultural illnesses of society, and for some communities it means overcoming fear; for other communities, it means shining a light of recognition; for other communities, it means encouraging conflict if they’re in a condition where they don’t have the cultural wherewithal to stand up for themselves in the face of oppression. You need encouragement.

“So it’s the same as having a bag of herbs. Sometimes you need to lower a fever; sometimes you need to raise it. Sometimes you need to wake people up; sometimes you need to put them to sleep. But none of my art is about demonizing anybody. It’s always about supporting resilience.”

MinnPost photos by Jim Walsh
Morales’ Trayvon Martin/Ella Baker poster has been a staple of the Black Lives Matter movement. Of the poster at right, Levins Morales says, “This one has been very popular in the Trump years.”

Levins Morales’ artwork is unique in that much of it starts with a quote that inspires him, be it Guthrie’s “I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath …”; James Baldwin’s “We live in an age in which silence is not only criminal but suicidal …”; Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream …,” or Malvina Reynolds’ “This world is mean and cruel but I still love it like a fool …”

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“Sometimes the quote is the nutrient itself, and what I have to do is create a delivery vehicle for it,” said Levins Morales. “Like bringing the nutrient through the bloodstream to the cell where it’s needed. It’s a way to direct it where it’s going. Sometimes the art is the medicine. In the case of the Woody Guthrie poster, the function of the art is to be a simple, fairly nice design that doesn’t get in the way, because the words are what really carry it. I thought that people wouldn’t purchase a poster that was that wordy, but it expressed what I wanted to do with my life. It was my runaway best-seller for over 20 years, so that tells you — live and learn.”

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
One of the first posters Levins Morales created, in 1976, from a Woody Guthrie quote.

A married father of two, Levins Morales landed in Chicago when he came to the United States. His mother reacted to the family move by drinking heavily, his father spent much of his time taking care of his mother, and Ricardo left home when he was 15 years old. He dropped out of school at 16, but kept drawing and started traveling, and after a stint in New Hampshire and Boston, he landed in Minneapolis.

“I’ve always loved to travel, but I never really at any point made any kind of decision or tried to figure out how to connect activism and art, because I always kind of organically drew whatever was important to me — whether that was chickens at age 5, pirates at age 8, or resilience in the face of oppression ever since,” he said.

Levins Morales has traveled to Puerto Rico twice in the last year, providing help where he can and remaining “deeply involved in the fate of Puerto Rico and vice versa.” He continues to work on his posters, and work for justice, and co-lead workshops on trauma and resilience for organizers. To put it mildly, the medicine man is busy these days.

“I came to the United States in 1967, when, to put it in lay terms, the shit was hitting the fan,” he said. “So in leaving home, I was getting involved in the activism that was happening all around, and that was the buffer for me, because those [family] experiences can be pretty traumatic. But the social movements that I found myself all of a sudden swimming in were about restoring power to people whose power has been taken away, and that is your elevator [speech] definition of trauma healing. So in fact the organizing that I became part of was sending a message to my nervous system that healing is possible, and that restoration of a sense of power is possible.”

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Levins Morales’ reputation as an artist, thinker, and healer got him invited to deliver the keynote address about the limits of the electoral system at the MNxMN activist-training conference at Harding High School on Feb. 24.

One of his favorite topics is how the human body is prone to inflammation from environmental toxins, and how we need to deal with toxic people, news, and pollution the same way we deal with infections in the bloodstream.

“In cultural terms, in social terms, the systemic inflammation of our society is hopelessness,” he said. “So everything I do has to be not just addressing particular issues and particular experiences, but also the underlying sense of hopelessness, and that’s very widespread at the moment. But it’s hitting people unevenly, so that people who experienced a certain amount of comfort and privilege under the liberal and neoliberal periods that we’ve been through are all of a sudden feeling the shock of what it’s like to feel threatened and under attack. Whereas poor communities, communities of color, communities that have been targeted with mass incarceration have been experiencing these types of assaults since the days of slavery and expulsion. So all of a sudden, people under attack see each other and realize, ‘Hey we’ve got to work together if we’re going to survive.’

“Trying to help people navigate those complexities is part of what I do, whether it’s speaking, writing, or art, because it’s not easy. For example, some of the sloganeering coming right now from what’s called the resistance is, ‘We need to restore our democracy.’ That’s a signal of comfort to white people who have the expectation that their kids would go to college and live better than them. It’s not very reassuring to the people who were marginalized by that supposed golden era.

“All of these alliances are very complex. Does that mean that if you get another liberal politician back in Washington who knows that brutal oppression only belongs in the colonial world and you don’t bring it home … a lot of those people will go back to feeling comfortable with that. Part of my job is to help deepen people’s consciousness so that that doesn’t happen. It’s like the tide comes in, the tide goes out. When the tide is in, part of our job of those who are active is to make sure that when it goes out again, it has left some valuable things on the beach. When the tide is out, our job is to be the tidal pools that hold on to memory, hold on to traditions of activism and hold on to the idea that another world is possible, until the tide can come back in again. So that when that tide comes in, those elements are present and able to expand into the rising waters.”