Illustrating Conversation

How do you draw the exchange of ideas and experiences?

One of the perennial challenges I face as marketing manager for Oregon Humanities is finding images to promote our conversation-based programs. While we find the exchange of ideas and perspectives that takes place in programs like the Conversation Project, Consider This, and Bridging Oregon exciting, photographs of those programs tend to be pretty boring: people talking, usually while seated, in drab classrooms, libraries, and other community spaces.

Our image problem became more acute this year, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to cancel in-person programming and switch to virtual conversations. All our photos of people sitting close together and talking animatedly suddenly looked like potential superspreader events. I considered using an image from one of the new programs we were conducting via Zoom, but no one wants to see another grid of faces if they don’t have to.

To help liven up our marketing, I worked with our art director, Jen Wick of Fort Wick, to commission illustrations that would make conversation look as exciting as it can feel in the moment. We selected Maria Rodriguez, an illustrator and muralist in Portland, to tackle the job.

The brief we gave her was tricky: We wanted visual depictions of an invisible phenomenon, showing conversation both in person and across distance, and representing diversity of age, race, and gender without looking like corporate box-checking.

I think what we got back is terrific. It’s warm and approachable, a little funny and a little weird. These figures and shapes show a side of Oregon Humanities that our minimalist brand and visual style can conceal: the work we do is serious and meaningful, but it’s also fun.

I asked Rodriguez if the assignment was as challenging as I thought it was. They said that, although it was the first job of this sort they’d done, it was actually fairly simple: “I draw pretty frequently, so it’s pretty easy for me to figure out that problem of depicting a conversation using line and shape and flow to make things make sense. The mark-making—all the little scratches and symbols here and there—that was just sitting down and trying to figure out how I’m going to show communication without words.”

Rodriguez said one main concern was showing diversity in the illustrations: “I want whoever is reading to be able to see themselves at some point in this publication,” they said. “Within the art community, when you see conversations around diversity, a lot of it seems to stem from fear of doing something wrong or offending someone.”

Depicting diversity is a common topic of conversation in marketing circles as well. Organizations with limited means fall back on using stick figures to show generic people without gender or race, which can feel like erasure of difference. Some organizations with more resources turn to mix-and-match kits that can create thousands of distinct individuals that nonetheless look like a throng of multicolored clones. I like that Rodriguez’s figures each feels like an individual, not a representation of a demographic category.

Rodriguez told me that the events of this year have made them think about the role art plays in the world, and how it can be used to help rather than harm: “I think we’re going to be seeing a shift in illustration—in every facet of art,” they said. “I’ve been thinking about my responsibility as an artist to be for the people, to enact change. Yes we make images, but we have the power to spark interest and change someone’s entire worldview based on a single image. I think that’s pretty cool!”

To see more of Maria Rodriguez’s art, visit their website. Or if you’d like to see it in person, head to Southeast Water Avenue and Hawthorne Boulevard in Portland, where they recently completed a mural about farmworkers’ rights. If you do visit the mural, Rodriguez suggests making a donation to CAUSA or PCUN, organizations that support farmworkers in Oregon.