By Sophia Jactel
Art is known to give way to emotions. But what about art that gives back? Lennie Gray Mowris has created a movement centered on cultivating the fusion of conscious design and aesthetic. Through her organization, Lenspeace, Mowris is building a unified language of art to spur social innovation, promote sustainability and benefit the community. Lenspeace is a Decatur-based printmaking studio whose partial proceeds go on to serve a slew of fellow nonprofits she and her collaborators are passionate about. The range of skills Mowris lassoes together to drive her movement, from artistic techniques to business and branding strategies, is a testament to her multidisciplinary methods. She harnesses a mix of design theory and branding strategy paired with compassion to create meaningful relations between people and their culture, society, economy and environment. It is the true pinnacle of meaningful craftsmanship.
What is key to a company like Lenspeace is taking attention away from commercial products and shifting it to focus more on interpersonal relations. All of her projects are concentrated on understanding the human condition and serving the global community rather than on solely making profits. Mowris credits the power of relationships as being the center inspiration for her works, and prides herself on reflecting on the spectrum of human emotions: “Everything I’ve created has been this method of connecting people and bringing them closer together, or relating them in a more personal way, by exploring what it means to be in a relationship with someone else. I wanted to run a studio that focused on our connections to each other and the world at large.” With this, she seeks to invoke sympathy on her audience and to ultimately compel people to act. By striving to explore different constructs of emotional sentiment, she credits her work as a conceptual manifestation of the conversation she engages in between her and her audience, and, in turn, counts each piece as a deeply personal intention. “I get to see my work bring people together, and that’s a beautiful thing to do.”
The sentimentality that is so central to her work may be most evident in her “3 magic words” line, a collection of greeting cards each labeled with three-word phrases such as ‘I love you’, ‘I miss you’ or ‘You were right.’ “A lot of men buy the ‘You were right’ card,” she says with a laugh. Interestingly enough, the greeting cards are blank on the inside. “It allows you to put yourself in the middle to say whatever it is you want to say to the person you’re trying to communicate to.” It is also a sign of a project that is ever-changing. “I built the construct of ‘3 magic words’ so that I could continue to go out into the world and find ideas to add to it.” Her work is also heavily multidisciplinary. One poster she printed in partnership with Cherry Laurel Design Studio for the Atlanta Community delves into the exploration of the convergence of image and text. A simple composition places a Virginia Woolf quote in bright red letters at the center of the page and surrounds the words with small doodle style images of different foods. These seem to almost cushion the quote and give weight to the paper, emphasizing the significance of the words and the importance of a hearty meal.
To clearly convey these messages, Mowris feels the need to be in touch with her surroundings by taking part in her community. This year she has launched the Year in Giving Project, where each print is themed and designed for a specific Atlanta nonprofit organization, with a minimum of 50 percent of proceeds donated to benefit their cause. Participants include the Giving Kitchen, Trees Atlanta, WonderRoot, the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, Plywood People and the Southern Center for Human Rights. Her works for this collection will be displayed at WonderRoot starting on January 26th. Mowris is also an AIGA Atlanta Affinity Programming Director, in charge of developing educational and collaborative programming focused on The Living Principles for Design, Women’s Leadership and Diversity, and Design For Good initiatives. “I go out into the creative world here in Atlanta and expose myself to the talent and introduce myself to people I don’t know,” she explains.
Yet out of all the artistic mediums, why choose print?
“You can say anything you want with these machines. And that had me asking the question, ‘What do I want to say?’ I realized I had something to talk about and I wanted to use the letterpress to say it.” To Mowris, the tactile sensations of the techniques of printmaking are ideal for establishing emotional connections. When looking for the experience within the intersection of ideas and material, she finds a harmonious crossroads in these two through letterpress. “Words are instantly recognizable,” she says. “If you see words on a wall, you’re going to read them.” She also encourages her audience to satisfy their urge to physically touch the prints, saying, “That’s the beautiful thing about letterpress: You can touch it.” Viewers can run their hands across raised motifs and trace outlines of imprinted words on posters, cards and envelopes. This irresistible intrigue is part of what makes her brand so successful.
But success comes with responsibilities. “It’s an issue of trust,” she says. “There’s a constant conversation in the design community about ethics. I have to make sure that everything I’m putting out there is something worth being read and worth being absorbed by someone else.” For Mowris, it’s been a long road. After living through damaging relationships, experiencing PTSD and suffering from an autoimmune condition, she finally found a freedom she wanted to pursue within printmaking. The inspiration to start a project that would change people’s way of life sprouted because she had to change her own. “I came from a world of poverty and abuse into a world of support and love. And I use that as a way of helping people who aren’t privileged. It’s my way of empathizing and giving back.” This profession, in turn, is not something she sees can be taken lightly: “to be creating media that people are going to take in and potentially act on is a powerful position to be in. We, as artists, recognize that we are in a very unique place in the creative world, and that what we create is getting consumed.” Despite this awareness and heavy weighing liability, Mowris has still been able to experience the rewarding side of what she does. “While building Lenspeace,” she says, “the thing I have learned the most is the generosity of people. In my community, I am surrounded by amazing sentiments.” After all, you can’t spell heart without art.
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