At the height of some pretty disturbing potential attacks on women’s reproductive rights, artist/designer Jessie Zenor began selling t-shirts in her Etsy shop emblazoned with the slogan: Back Off My Baby Maker. Southernist caught up with Jessie last September to get the back story behind the shirt, to discuss art’s role in activism and to find out what people should know about her transplanted home state, Mississippi.
How did the “baby maker” tees come about?
Well, actually my friend Julie Kuklinski came to me with this idea, and I designed the shirt and made it a reality. The Personhood Bill was just being blocked by an amazing voter turnout for the state of Mississippi. Julie was (not seriously) being picked on by a friend about the issue, and she exclaimed, “Hey, back off my babymaker!,” in her strong Wisconsin accent. Her male friend immediately began to crack up, and said he would buy a shirt with that on it. So she brought her witty comeback and his idea for a t-shirt and came to me for the design part!
By the way, Julie is an amazing person. She runs a program in Biloxi, MS called Women in Construction, where she trains women to be able to work in the construction field!
You live in a conservative state. Are you feeling the brunt of this issue more heavily than others?
Not me personally, I have never needed to face these issues specifically. I have had discussions with people about the issues, and get some crazy male oriented responses, but all in all, I am actually proud of this state, especially in the recent personhood amendment vote! The state proved that it isn’t as crazy as some of our [state] politicians.
In addition, with the election around the corner, I think the whole country is feeling the brunt of this kind of feeling. Ever since Sarah Palin and GW Bush mobilized the Christian Right, our country has been feeling this brunt, especially the swing states. I wish these men (and some women who seem to be raised to think this way) weren’t so scared of women. I just don’t get it.
Is there already a demand and that’s why you’re launching with so many color combos?
Oh, no. I wish. We were just having fun with the colors. We just mixed it up a bit! We didn’t print that many.
What has the reaction to your shirt been (do you wear it around town in Mississippi)?
I was actually a bit scared to wear it at first. But, I started wearing it, and most people didn’t notice, or at least most people didn’t react. I have actually never had a negative response. I have had a few chuckles out of people, and a few people liked them. I have actually been surprised by the reaction.
What role does graphic design play in activism?
I think graphic design, as well as all design for that matter, is super important to activism. Design allows people to identify with the issue. It brings a feeling or an aura to the words that are written. We saw that in 08 when so many amazing graphic designers began to back Obama. One specifically, Shepard Fairey, the guy famous for the OBEY work, when he made that beautiful screen printed HOPE poster of Obama. People were able to grab to something in that poster, a feeling deeper than the word hope. I am definitely not suggesting that Obama won just because of Graphic Design. In this campaign specifically, I am sure that it helped solidify and organize the young voters, and made them feel included in the discussion.
Graphic design is an amazing tool! It can convince the audience of authenticity, which in activism is such an important part!
The last shirts I saw from you had recipes on them. How did you jump to such a political response?
Well, like I said, a friend came to me with the idea. But in general, while growing up a bit I have found my political voice.
I think I was in my early 20’s when I made those shirts and I was happy just keeping folks happy. Don’t get me wrong, I still like to make happy stuff, but I didn’t want to argue with folks, and I didn’t feel comfortable that I was well enough informed to argue or even stand up for things. I think I spent many years just listening and absorbing until I finally felt strongly enough about issues to really take politics as a part of my life, as well as work.
Do you feel that folks outside of MS still have a lot of outdated opinions of what goes on there?
Of what goes on in Mississippi? I’m not sure. I moved from Alabama to Mississippi in 2006, and the only real view I have from outsiders is from Alabama. Their saying is, “Thank God for Mississippi, at least we are not them.” I have a sneaking suspicion that the rest of the country probably feels the same way.
I think that we are seen as the worst state in the union, being the poorest, and fattest, and least educated, and assumed to be the most racist. Aside from the racism issue, all of those “est” remarks are true. We come in last in so much. It is a bit pitiful and sad, and seems like a cry for help to the rest of the country to me.
We are overlooked and dismissed all of the time. Even by news and weather channels, where we have been referred to as the landmass between New Orleans and Mobile AL.
In all seriousness, I think that we are overlooked by the rest of the country. Our issues are overlooked by the rest of the country, and dismissed. We have the same issues as the rest of the poor communities of the country, but instead of being issues of pockets of the population, these are the issues of the entire state.
On another note, Mississippians do not all vote republican. McCain only won in MS by 1%. source Actually, I think this is a misconception in Mississippi, and I am not sure why we aren’t considered a swing state, maybe because we never swing, or maybe it is because we make up such a small percentage of the country’s population. Oh, but this gets into a whole other rant of mine, which is voter turnout, and we just don’t have enough time here for that!
What do you want people to know about Mississippi?
I am so in love with my new home (of 6 years). Ocean Springs, Mississippi is such a beautiful town on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. On my morning runs, I leave my house, run through a wetland, along the beach (which has no development on the sand aside from piers) through a harbor, through a little residential area, through the woods and back to my house, all within 3 miles. It is a magical place indeed.
The people are loving and kind. Did you know that aside from Utah, we are the most giving state in the union? It is just who we are.
We are home to the blues, and to many artist and writers! Oh, and the food! AMAZING! From the Coast, to the Delta, to the North!!!!! We may not have figured out politics, or how to keep our people healthy, and active and supply enough jobs for our people, but we can sure inspire people. From the most extreme conditions, come the most colorful, rich and interesting cultures!
It isn’t all bad down here!