Editor’s Note: This is the eighth in a series of UpTake profiles on men and women whose names may not be widely familiar but whose leadership makes our neighborhoods, cities and states better places. — Nick Coleman, Executive Editor
The UpTake story and video by Hlee Lee
Ricardo Levins Morales has no illusions that he will become wealthy from his art. His work is aimed squarely at inspiring working people, and supporting their struggle to survive — a struggle he knows first-hand.
He may not get rich, but he is getting by, and so are his employees. At his RLM studios in South Minneapolis, the artist and community organizer employs three part time employees at union wages.
“Right now, this business, this little entity, has managed to pay all its bills on time and crank out posters to send all over the world,” Morales says. “It’s like any business, it’s a question of multi-levels of strategy. I’ve always done art for poor people, so that means I create art that poor people can afford, or at least many of them can afford.”
Morales is bringing home very little from his work, he says, giving thanks for his wife, who has a full time job with benefits. His 5-year-old business has drawn clients from across the country, many from the labor movements.
“He’s done many pieces for struggles as they’re ongoing, he’s done a lot of historical pieces,” says Macalester College history professor Peter Rachleff, an active member in the pro-labor movement. “Gripping, colorful visual art is a good way to get people interested and make them want to ask more -– “What else went on here? Why didn’t I ever hear this?’ ”
The art Morales produces gives a human face to workers and a human rights message to the unions that represent them or want to represent them. Morales sees his role in workers’ campaigns and movements as that of a storyteller who listens and reflects back.
Jennifer Munt of AFSCME Council 5 says Morales’ reputation is as a truth-teller. Her union went to Morales seeking a new logo, something better than what she called “an upside-down Nike swoosh.” She was shocked and delighted when Morales brought 40 workers from several different parts of the union to his small space — packed into the studio “like sardines,” she says — for 3 hours. The members reported back that they felt like Morales was actually listening to them, getting their views and their perspectives on the union. They felt like they were a part of the process.
“Forty-three thousand members in my union can all see themselves and the work that they do” in the Morales design that came out of that process, Munt says. “If I had gone to a different designer and asked for that, they would have said, ‘No way can we create one design that shows all the work that you do.’ Ricardo did it. And he did it in a way that was inclusive, so that our members took ownership in the design that helps define who they are and what they fight for.”
The bells tied to the door of RLM Studios ring as two activists working on the Home Care Workers campaign enter. They’re here to meet with Morales about an image he produced for the group, which was recently authorized by the Legislature to unionize lowly-paid health care workers.
“Right now, I think we know we want to get this image out to the public as a face on what we’re doing,” SEIU organizer Camille Roberts said. The group hoped Morales’ work could help them win support for their effort.
“Part of ‘strategic’ is ‘soon,’ ” Morales says to the organizers as he shares his ideas with them. “Which means getting it out, saturate, get it out massively and fairly quickly so that it has a chance to leave a flavor in people’s minds.”
“It’s hard to find legislators, so this tells our story,” Roberts said.
With Roberts is Mahamud Duael, a home care worker.
“This is a good image for us when the legislators sees the picture of the home care workers and what they’re seeking, that’s good for us,” Duael said. “A number of people who gather at the Capitol building have the same target, looking for the union. That’s a good image. The legislature usually doesn’t have much time. But the poster is explaining to the legislators what they need and why they are standing here and what is the reason they came here. It makes sense.”
“We say this is Mahamud,” jokes Roberts, pointing to the image of a man on the poster.
“Art in general is a form of storytelling,” Morales says. But social justice art, he says, does more than just tell a story: It also has a wholistic effect on the body of society, and produces healing.
“Social justice art (provides) the nutrients that the communal immune system needs in order to fight off the toxins,” Morales explains. Those toxins, he says, are the powers that oppress the poor and downtrodden, “the stories that prevent people from feeling powerful, from feeling good about themselves, prevent them from being clear about what needs to happen.
“Social justice art is really a boost to people’s natural capacity to be powerful.”
Sitting at his desk, Morales puts the finishing touches to his latest piece. It’s a piece not commissioned, but one that comes from his heart. The image depicts the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis to support when he was gunned down in April, 1968.
“My hope for what I call cultural organizing — social justice art — is that the boundaries between art organizing, creativity (and) humor simply become blurred,” Morales says. “In my life, they are. I can’t really define the boundary between my role as an educator, as an artist, as an organizer anymore. And I think it’s in those intersections that people’s real creative power can emerge.”
Rachleff, the Macalester historian, says Morales’ work produces a more nuanced, healthier perspective to help people view contentious issues.
“I always like to tell students that we need to think of issues as being both/and, rather than either/or,” says Rachleff. “Ricardo is a real embodiment of both-and: Both politics and art. Both Jewish and Puerto Rican, both intellectual and getting his hands dirty.
“In so many ways, he is really an integrated human being.”