FROM ART TO ACTIVISM AND AWARENESS: AN INTERVIEW WITH GRAPHIC DESIGNER MARIA PAPAEFSTATHIOU
The use of art as a means to bring about awareness and activism to the many moral and social issues affecting us as a society is not uncommon when considering the performing arts (such as music and film). The artist is able to capture the attention of the audience and instill a passion to take a stand and become an activist for change. However, with art in the visual form (painting, graphic design, sculptured), there must be a strong connection between the artist and the viewer. A connection through visual understanding and recognition that forms and drives our consciousness. Images that draw us closer to the art and ultimately to the message being portrayed in the piece. For example, it could be the eyes of the subject in the artwork or the color scheme used that gives us a special connection to the art and ultimately a need to become more involved in bringing an issue to the forefront. The famous quote “Art Imitates Life” could not be more true right now more than ever, where our global society is in dire need of upliftment and a collective desire to bring about change.
The amazingly talented graphic design artist and activist Maria Papaefstathiou is a shining example of how some of today’s most acclaimed artist are using their artistic excellence to bring about awareness and activism to some of today’s most serious and challenging issues. Her work has been featured across the world – from exhibitions in Johannesburg, South Africa to South Korea to Mexico and Taiwan. Maria’s art can be described as boldly-radiant and detailed, but more importantly her works are thought-provoking, informative and educational. She has joined countless crusades against injustice and inhumanity all over the world and raised awareness to some of the many social issues that plague those whom may not have a voice to be heard.
Maria is a native of Athens, Greece – which could only contribute to her vast knowledge and understanding of great art. Athens is one of the oldest cities in the world and a mecca of architectural history, archaeological study, and ancient art. At age 15, she began designing her own simple advertisements just for fun – which soon turned her attention to graphic design helping to fuel her passion for various forms of art. It was in 2011 when Maria designed her very first social design piece after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. From that moment forward, she has lent her artistic talents to produce artwork designed at raising awareness on many issues such as: poverty, rape, education, autism, lymphoma and breast cancer. Her artwork relies on her own formula for success – by creating strong and powerful images that bring attention to social issues. Images so powerful that they engage the viewer and make them actually read the message, which are often strong one-word messages that intrigue the viewer to research and grow interest about the issue being brought to light.
While browsing the internet looking for inspiring works, Maria stumbled upon a gallery of amazing posters on the Flickr account of Michael Thompson aka “Freestylee”. A native of Jamaica, Thompson was quite talented with graphic design and lived in the U.S. in Philadelphia. As an avid fan of reggae music, he began to grow concern and disappointment at how the culturally-rich and poignant music of his homeland was being exploited for huge profits in other countries such as England, France and America while the people of his country (where the true origins of reggae began) continued to live in poverty. This frustration sparked his vision to establish the International Reggae Poster Contest aimed at redefining the visual language of reggae and shining a creative spotlight on the music’s positive global impact. The poster contest is held annually across the globe raising money to help fund the Alpha Boys’ School in Kingston, Jamaica – a non-profit vocational and educational school for at-risk boys and young men from Kingston’s impoverished inner-city communities. Michael Thompson’s poster became the new school logo.
Through a mutual love of graphic art design, reggae music and raising awareness, a strong and productive creative partnership was formed between Maria Papaefstathiou and Michael Thompson. The realization of Thompson’s vision began to come to fruition, with the two producing a large collection of powerful artwork honouring icons in the reggae industry as Thompson also wanted to create a reggae hall of fame to give thanks to the many artists that helped make reggae music a global music. Unfortunately, Michael Thompson passed away suddenly in 2016, leaving behind a large collection of mourning family, friends, fans and supporters of his work. However, his vision and passion still remain strong with Maria continuing to drive his legacy and carry out the International Reggae Poster Contest. Just recently, the IRPC hosted its 20th Art of Reggae Exhibition at Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, Jamaica and a beautiful tribute to Michael Thompson titled “Freestylee Roots Art Exhibition” in Kingston, Jamaica.
We at Urban Heat Advisory are forever grateful to have had the opportunity to know Michael Thompson aka “Freestylee”. Thompson shared his own wisdom and guidance with UHA during our initial launch which helped us on our own concept and vision. His mentorship and support was strong and assured, as he was always willing to share his knowledge and wisdom with those around him. We cherish the time spent with him at both his “World A Reggae” Exhibitions held at the Jamaican Embassy and OAS Headquarters in Washington, DC. Urban Heat Advisory first met Michael Thompson in 2013 through mutual friend Tania Dwyer. Dwyer, a longtime supporter of the International Reggae Poster Contest and The Alpha Boys School, refers to Maria Papaefsthiou as her best friend.
“Maria has such a kind-hearted humanitarian soul – always striving to enlighten and awaken the world to the issues affecting society through her incredible artwork. She is the driving force behind the IRPC after the sudden passing of our good friend Michael, and has taken it upon herself to represent and fulfil the vision of the International Reggae Poster Contest.” – Tania Dwyer
UHA: Were you born in Athens, Greece? Have you always lived there?
Maria: I was born in Germany to Greek parents and came to Greece to live at 4 years old.
UHA:Does being from such a historic country with so many ancient landmarks inspire your passion to create works of art?
Maria: Being here and encountering the many different art influences from ancient times to the present have definitely inspired me. Even if I don’t consciously realize it, the images are engraved in my mind.
UHA:When did you realize your passion and gift for art? What was your first significant piece?
Maria: I’ve been drawing since early in my childhood, but what made me choose Graphic Design was my inclination around the age of 15 to design my own simple advertisements just for fun. Knowing myself and how easily I get bored with any kind of job, I was looking for a career in the future that could constantly inspire me. And I thought I would keep being enthusiastic about Graphic Design. The more I was getting into it though, the more passionate I became about all kinds of other art. One of my dreams is to one day have a big room full of works of art where I would spend all day.
UHA:What directed you towards graphic design? Was there anyone specific issue that inspired you to concentrate on designing artwork that included a message towards social issues?
Maria: My very first pieces of social design were done in 2011 after the big earthquake in Japan. Since then, I’ve designed posters on poverty, rape, lymphoma awareness, breast cancer awareness, autism and education.
UHA:Your art is extremely powerful and captures the soul . On many of your pieces, the portraits are exceptionally detailed and so much is revealed in the eyes of the great people that you illustrate. Any specific reason for that?
Maria: Thank you for your wonderful words! I’m glad that you noticed the eyes in my portraits. Truth is, I spend more time on them the rest of the design because eyes reveal who we are. Many people tell me that I manage to capture their soul through my art. And it is said that the eyes are the window to our souls.
UHA:Can you explain the process of being able to bring attention to the many social issues that affect us all by expression and communication of graphically designed illustrations?
Maria: To bring attention to the social issues what you actually need is a strong image. Something that will capture the viewers attention and make them read your message. Then you need a strong message – even it’s just one word, anything you believe would intrigue the viewer to either search and read more about the issue you are speaking about or to motivate them to start thinking about it.
UHA:The late pioneering graphic artist and activist Michael Thompson was, and will always be a tremendous source of inspiration and wisdom for us here at Urban Heat Advisory. We thought of him as a mentor and dear friend and were proud to have known him. How did you first meet Michael?
Maria: I met Michael Thompson through my blog – graphicart-news.com. I was looking for inspiring works on the internet and stumbled upon Michael’s Flickr account and his amazing posters. One, two articles at the start. An interview later and a linkup on Facebook were the first steps to an amazing collaboration and friendship.
Michael shared with me the idea to create the International Reggae Poster Contest (IRPC) as a platform to kick-start a catalyst idea and a global campaign to create a museum to narrate the experience of global reggae. A museum that will celebrate the richness of the music’s history and attract reggae-lovers from all over the world. Michael’s vision was to see the erection of a Reggae Hall of Fame Museum and Performance Center on the beautiful Kingston Harbor in the capital of Jamaica.
Thompson, who grew up in Jamaica in the sixties, was disappointed that countries such as America, France and England were making huge profits from the island’s music. And the people of his country (where reggae music started) continued to live in poverty. At the same time, new great talents were rising… and that was the spark of his dream!
The International Reggae Poster Contest was established to help redefine the visual language of reggae and to shine a creative spotlight on the music’s positive global impact. The term “Reggae” to us represents all the popular Jamaican musical genres: Ska, Rocksteady, Roots Reggae, Dub, Dancehall and the unique Jamaican Sound System. As the world-famous reggae bandThird World rightly sings – “How can a BIG music come from a little island?”
It is our recognition of what reggae has achieved globally that led us to launch the International Reggae Poster Contest. Reggae is no longer Jamaican music, but now belonging to the whole world. It’s music that brings people together. The theme of the contest – “Toward a Reggae Hall of Fame: Celebrating Great Jamaican Music” is the mantra that drives our work and the embedded message in the contest and exhibition.
Another grand vision of the contest is to celebrate the amazing Jamaican institution, Alpha Boys’ School, which nurtured this music. Alpha Institute is a non-profit vocational and general educational school for at-risk boys and young men from Kingston’s impoverished inner-city communities. Since 1884, the Religous Sisters of Mercy, a Catholic order of nuns, have been running the school as part of their mission to serve the poor, the sick and the uneducated. The primary objective of Alpha is the empowerment and transformation of young men through education and skills training, particularly those who have little or no opportunity for education.
Since the early 1890’s, the Alpha music program has been the most prolific with graduates becoming respected internationally for their accomplishments in jazz, ska, reggae and pop music. From Blue Note jazz musicians like Dizzy Reece to ska music pioneers the Skatalites and reggae icons such as Johnny Osbourne and Winston Foster aka “Yellowman” (a 1997 Grammy nominee), Alpha’s past ‘boys’ are synonymous worldwide with the development of Jamaican pop music. Alpha is a “dream factory”, according to National Public Radio (NPR), for “legendary musicians” (Jamaica Gleaner) who “helped release the spirit of one of the most musical islands in the world” (The Telegraph / UK).
On my first trip to Jamaica, I had the pleasure of getting to know the teachers, the students and the buildings of the Alpha Boys School, where music is high on the curriculum. One of Michael Thompson’s posters became the new school logo. The poster was silk printed by the well-known printer “Tind” in Greece. This poster was the inspiration for talking to students and teachers about this method of printing. They immediately loved the technique and soon included it in the program when they began printing their first t-shirts with the new school logo to be sold online.
UHA: Outside of art, what are your interests?
Maria: My first interest outside the world of art is the art of raising children. I mean my children. And then the art of giving. I believe this world can change if we all give to each other. And I’m not referring to money – but to love, help, anything each of us can share. Not everybody has money, but we all have a heart. Ad this art of giving is what made me accept Michael’s invitation to start the IRPC. From the very beginning, he said, “there is no money in it.”
UHA: What are your future goals?
Maria: Well, I wouldn’t say that I am a person with future goals. My only goal is to keep learning and to keep trying. I wish to have the strength to continue the International Reggae Poster Contest and to showcase the work of Michael Thompson. I have started a series of portraits on Greek cultural personalities. I want this to grow. Parallel to that, I want to continue working on Jamaican cultural themes.
UHA: With the current ever-changing issues that we are currently plagued with, what role can the arts community play in shaping the future?
Maria: Designers around the world are using posters as a global platform to carry messages on several issues that are globally troubling. Successful posters, whether cultural or social, can communicate their messages to anyone in any country in almost any language. The poster itself and the art community will not change the world. But we have the most beautiful weapon to provoke discussion and challenge individuals to answer the call to action.