Oakland-based Lexx Valdez is a graphic designer who typically does work for music and non-profit organizations. She believes that through the power of design you can change the world—or, at least, your small part of it. We caught up with Lexx after she took part in Manifest Justice, a week-long art exhibition in Los Angles to create a call to action for social upheaval, to talk education, community, and how design helps make a message stick.
When did you first design and what were your early projects either before or during design school?
My first "official" design was for the The Nature Conservancy of California in the early '90s. They had a t-shirt contest when I was in 4th grade and my drawing of a duck was chosen for the design. I won a Field Guide to Birds of North America book and a t-shirt. Soon after, there was a contest for a shirt design for our school mascot (a bobcat) and I won that, too! I began to see the rewards of practice and dedication, so in 6th grade I joined our art club and began working on my first murals in my small town of Guadalupe, CA, where I was inspired by the works of Chicana artist, Judith Baca.
In high school I was heavily into Hip Hop and graffiti. I went by RIC ("Rich In Culture") and MFSTO ("Manifesto"—Manifest Justice, full circle!) to throw the dudes off. Later, after discovering "Lady Pink," who embraced being a girl in a boy's club, I added in "Lady" to MFSTO. From 16 to 23, I had a tough couple of years but also helped raise my nephews while my brother worked and my sister-in-law went to school. This allowed me to bond with my nephews and really learn the value of co-parenting.
When I finally made it up to San Francisco for design school, my mind was blown at all the technology I had to catch up on. I was often the only Xicana in my class, which made me feel really lonely and a bit intimidated. I gravitated to culture mags like Swindle, Wax Poetics, and Mass Appeal, to remind me that there were others out there like me.
In 2006, I saw an ad for a women's streetwear brand call Mama Clothing. I saw them post a call for interns in 2006 and they took me on. I would later be brought on as a lead graphic designer and art director. Streetwear was really my introduction to commercial design. It was exciting to see my work on products like t-shirts and featured on sites around the world. Mama Clothing would later evolve into a Women's lifestyle magazine called M.I.S.S. and later Missomni Media. I was the art director and editor for that working with over 20 interns from around the world.
If design school and streetwear design was not enough, I also took on a contract job around this time with Health Initiatives For Youth (HIFY), where I collaborated with community youth in designing a Spanish translation of their Young Women's Survival Guide, La Guia de Salud La M.U.J.E.R. (Mujeres Unidas Juntas En Resistencia).
You have a history of working with youth-based initiatives including HIFY; Beats Rhymes and Life; and through that Transitional Age Youth. Was working with these types of organizations an intentional move or was it something you fell into and become more and more immersed with?
From 8th grade on, I became interested and invested in movement work and was a leader in our high school chapters of Adelante Mujer and MEXA. I attended conferences and assisted in organizing on college campuses such as Cal Poly [and] SLO. During this time, I was involved in a program called Upward Bound where I met my long time mentor, Tomas Alvarez. He was studying communication at Cal Poly and he really encouraged me to use my voice through art.
Fast-forward to 2004: It's my first semester at the Academy of Arts in San Francisco and I reconnect with Tomas, who was getting his Masters in Social Work at Smith College. He was going to present his thesis on a "Hip Hop Therapy" model he named Beats Rhymes and Life (BRL) and called on me to do the logo.
BRL was brought to the Bay Area as a therapeutic program that would ground the lives and world views of resilient young men. The results were promising. Participants in the pilot Hip Hop Therapy group reported improved mood and self-esteem, as well as a reduction in many at-risk behaviors. The young men also noted that Hip Hop Therapy changed their attitudes about mental health in general by reducing the stigma associated with receiving services.
In 2011, BRL became a 501c3 nonprofit organization, and in 2014, we celebrated our 10 year anniversary. Partnering with BRL really allowed me to approach my design work as a therapeutic activity for myself and my clients.
Working with youth organizations has been inspired by all the amazing activities I was a part of as a youth. I was lucky enough to learn the value of mental health early on. I credit these youth organizations for helping me build on my power and propelling my thoughts, ideas, and art to new heights. I can only hope to do the same for the youth I encounter.
You also run the Betti Ono Gallery in Oakland. What do you look for when deciding to showcase another artist? What stands out to you?
Running Betti Ono is a team effort, led by Anyka Barber, our founding director and curator. Anyka selects the artists and exhibitions, and sets the creative vision for the space. In my role as gallery manager, we work closely together to manage the space, produce the shows, exhibitions and programs.
Betti Ono is an experimentally minded arts, culture and community space that features work by emerging and established artists at the local, national, and international level in monthly displays of multidisciplinary arts, performance and media exhibitions, and other events. Our work is centered around elevating the work of marginalized people: women, people of color, immigrants and LGBTIQ communities.
What compelled you to participate in the Manifest Justice exhibition back in April? What issues that it represents resonate the deepest within you?
It's been a complete honor to be a participant in the Manifest Justice Exhibit. I was compelled to participate because, truthfully, this is my idea of a dream exhibit. A cultural gathering of art and conversations by artists and community. As artists, using our vision and voice to remind others and ourselves of our power. To really sit with solutions for community change and transformation. To pull communities out of the margins and into the foreground.
In what ways has the power of design been able to help spread the messages these groups have, especially with interacting with and engaging the younger demographic?
I've worked with marginalize communities in the Bay Area for a little over 10 years now, mainly TAY (Transitional Age Youth ages 16-24) of color in Oakland and neighboring cities and the QTIPOC community in Oakland and San Francisco.
I've recently shifted my work to draw attention to trans and queer issues while working on community collaborations such as a digital mural project with Galeria De La Raza, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and El/La ParaTransLatinas in San Francisco [see above]. It's heartbreaking that so much of the world still sees people that identify as Trans and even Queer as anything less than sacred beings.
In indigenous communities around the world, third gender persons were only ever seen as sacred. Colonization destroyed a lot of queer cultural practices, and has sent generations of people into hiding. I believe that it is our duty to support each other in bravely stepping out of the shadows to be our true selves.
One of my works in the Manifest Justice Exhibit is from a project called "Stories of Queer Diaspora." [See below.] SOQD was an event curated by Erika Vivianna Céspedes, held in the Bay Area. The digital collage is of my dear friend Layel who has taught me a lot about QTIPOC, non-binary, and third gendered issues. The photos were taken by Paulina McFarland for a magazine feature on queer visibility. I took two photos and designed this image to represent Layel as a sacred warrior, fighting and navigating against the norm, with strength and tenderness.
What places do you draw your inspiration from? In what ways does your community, other artists you admire, and so on have an impact on your work?
I draw inspiration from my ancestors. From those who came before me. From my family, my partner, from youth and elders in my community and from myths and symbols in everyday life. I have made a commitment to sustainability and educating others on what this means and looks like. Grace Lee Boggs reminds me to Re-Imagine. Alice Walker reminds me to honor the comings and goings of love. From Langston Hughes, I've adopted the motto, "Dig & be dug." I take that one literally by going to thrift stores, estate sales and swap meets and digging through relics of the past and also by digging for knowledge of self and cultivating that in others.
Through the work that you have done, what positive changes have you seen either within or outside of your community? In what ways, artists or not, can others be involved to help bring about change?
I believe in collective growth through a transformative and sustainable creative process.
One example of how I've done that is through my flyer and poster work with the music community. Around 2007, I started to see a lot of people ordering 4x6 club flyers by the thousands that were not very aesthetically pleasing. They would end up on the floor or in the trash. I thought, if I create thoughtful and researched art that people will want to keep, not only will the promoters take pride in handing out the flyers but a lot less would end up in the trash and more would end up in the hands of their target audience. To this day, I get people telling me they still have a flyer or two from years ago on their fridge or inspiration board, and hearing that really reminds me that this has been effective.
I explain our interaction with good design as mind body awareness: Stop, Look, Listen, & Share. Did the art make you stop? Did it make you look at the details? Listen to your heart? What is it saying to you? Are you compelled to share? I believe change happens with a series of questions, not so much answers. So I encourage others to ask me more questions beyond what's been asked here.
Written by Jordan Blakeman
Artwork by Lexx Valdez