The resistance will be illustrated

Instagram artist Mari Andrew talks empathy, politics, and caring about pop culture and current events at the same time.

Illustrations by Mari Andrew, via Instagram
Illustrations by Mari Andrew, via Instagram

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: You attempt to talk about something pleasurable — Rihanna, Broad City, the latest tweet from We Rate Dogs — only to find yourself on the receiving end of a holier-than-thou rant. How could you possibly be thinking about something so frivolous when [insert the latest assault on our fair democracy/sign of the apocalypse here] is going on?

Illustrator Mari Andrew, who posts an image a day on her very popular Instagram feed (she has almost 350,000 followers), knows this script all too well. She also knows that human beings are capable of feeling more than one feeling at once; that a person can both be appalled by horrors abroad and invested in tragedies at home; and that caring about one thing does not automatically cancel out the ability to care about another thing, or even more than one other thing. Her post to this point, which went up on her Instagram the morning of February 2 —just days after President Trump’s executive order banning refugees and immigrants from Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States — went viral. To date, it has been liked over 44,000 times.

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Much of Andrew’s artwork has a more personal bent; some of the illustrations play out like romantic comedies in miniature, with Andrew riffing on all the guys you can meet on a first date, how to tell if said guy is enjoying the aforementioned date, and how menus can appear to someone who is nervously making a food selection on that date. But sprinkled throughout are more politically charged images — and the handful she’s posted since the election have garnered a ton of engagement, with illustrations about the Women’s March and the ever-looming threat of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border racking up tens of thousands of likes.

While traveling in Spain, Andrew — a former D.C. resident — spoke with ThinkProgress over email about her work and the role of art in the resistance.

Can you tell me a bit about your background as an illustrator?

I’m 30, and started drawing right before my 29th birthday. I was going through a tough time and was looking for a new creative outlet. I tried guitar, cooking, dancing, and drawing — drawing is the one that really stuck. I made myself do it every day for a year and started my Instagram account to keep myself accountable. It’s been over a year now, but I don’t think I can quit!

As the election was unfolding, did you make a conscious decision to engage more with politics in your art?

I draw my life experiences and my feelings as they happen to me. None of it is planned out. Politics affect me personally, so I have no choice but to draw them. Illustration is how I process the things that happen to me, and the election was had a significant influence on my emotional state and psyche — I couldn’t not draw it out! I wasn’t trying to make a statement as much as I was giving encouragement to myself.

Some people have commented that I have suddenly become very political, but I’ve always drawn about politics because I’ve always thought about politics. Here’s one of my earliest examples:

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I’d love to hear about the thinking behind and execution of the “Things You Can Do At The Same Time” illustration. (I find I have to make that case to people a lot!)

Ha, this is an issue I’ve been thinking about forever! I’ve always been really interested in pop culture AND current events. Ever since I was a teenager, I remember getting this message that caring about reality TV was somehow in conflict with caring about significant current events, and social media has exacerbated this.

Related: Why do you think so many people have a hard time grasping that concept — that you can care about two things at once?

It’s such a mystery to me. My theory is that people only really get judgmental when they feel envious or threatened, so maybe people feel like attention to pop culture really is a threat to our society taking care of the big issues. Or maybe they actually feel envious that they’re not as well-versed in pop culture so it brings up a sense of jealousy somehow? I don’t know — I’m so curious about the psychology. Even when it feels like the world is in chaos, you’re still going to get excited or sad about frivolous things. You’ll still celebrate birthdays and get upset when you stub your toe, and spend a long time looking at Beyoncé’s masterpiece pregnancy announcement. None of this means you’re not aware of what’s going on in the world at large.

“People want to feel edified in their beliefs and want different ways to express them. People want to feel like they’re not alone in their worries, and everyone wants to feel hopeful.”

Have you seen a spike in your followers or in engagement with your Instagram since the election? Do you sense, in general, that people are seeking out art more urgently now than they were before?

I haven’t seen a spike in followers, but I do get quite a lot of engagement with the more political posts. I don’t think people are necessarily seeking art out — perhaps it’s more that they’re seeking social media out! People want to feel edified in their beliefs and want different ways to express them. People want to feel like they’re not alone in their worries, and everyone wants to feel hopeful. I think they look to writers and artists (many of whom are on social media) for different ways to articulate their fears or hopes.

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I’m curious how people respond to the tone of your artwork. We’re in, I think, a cultural moment that is pretty snarky, sarcastic, deadpan — all of which can be great, but it doesn’t leave a ton of room for a more earnest, romantic point of view. I’m interested in how you characterize your illustrations, and if it makes you feel vulnerable at all to have this personal art out in the world.

Starting my art career at age 30, I have the luxury of a lot of perspective and a lot less concern regarding what people think of me. My name and my face are attached to my work so there’s a bit of added pressure to be extra thoughtful about what I post, but the vulnerability doesn’t concern me at all. Also at age 30, I have some wisdom to know what’s for sharing and what isn’t! I’ve been through a lot that won’t ever see the light of day on social media. I know what to keep to myself, at this point.

“Empathy is probably our best tool to create progress, and… art is probably our best tool to evoke empathy.”

As for how I’m perceived or how I perceive myself, I’m such a new artist that I’m really just beginning to think about this. Some people have called me snarky and negative, and some have said I’m too earnest and Pollyanna. I didn’t set out with any tone in mind, but I draw events exactly the way that I experience them personally and I write the way I talk. I love being single but I’m also very romantic; I’ve been through hard times but I’m very optimistic. Being snarky is an easy way to look tough, but I’m not tough at all. I’m a sensitive little flower petal. From what I can tell, a lot of other people are too!

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What do you think is the role of art in this fraught, political moment? How have you changed or adjusted your work in response to the election?

I’m not sure what the role of art is in this moment, and I hesitate to give it power that it doesn’t have. I will say, though, that empathy is probably our best tool to create progress. And I will say that art is probably our best tool to evoke empathy. I don’t feel a responsibility to make political art, but I definitely feel a responsibility to make empathetic art.

How do you balance two valid needs that you must have as an artist and that your audience has as well: for art to be an escape from reality, and for art to engage meaningfully with reality?

There’s a great quote from Lin-Manuel Miranda about this: “I can’t control the world, but I can control what I put into the world, so I try to have my [Twitter] timeline be a pretty bright spot for folks who may be fighting great fights elsewhere.”

I can only control my response to what is going on in the world and what is happening to me. It is essential that we remain hopeful in this political climate, and sometimes giving hope to people looks like a “list of things that make me feel cozy.” Back to your earlier question about doing two things at once, that’s my philosophy on keeping this balanced: people are naturally complex, so my personal drawings are going to be all over the place. Balance comes naturally when you’re a modern woman with a lot on your mind!