In this episode of Into the Mix, host Ashley C. Ford talks with artist Favianna Rodriguez — maker of bold, energetic murals, prints, and sculptures — about how her work both names, and helps transcend, the pain of systemic racism. She’ll share how her work explores the themes of racial and economic injustice through a “yes” framework that embodies how we want to live in the world.
Read Episode 2 Full Transcript Below
NARR ASHLEY: I’m Ashley C. Ford and this is Into The Mix, a Ben and Jerry’s podcast about joy and justice, produced with Vox Creative. Let’s get into it.
FAVIANNA [in studio]: I would cut out huge paper characters and cover the kitchen with it.
And my father, he actually built, um, a whole hanging system in my house so that I could hang all my art. My mom would just be like, oh my God, she’s taken over the house.
My parents really wanted to keep me busy.
ASHLEY: Favianna Rodriguez’s parents used her natural creativity to keep her inside and away from the violence outside their door, both from gangs and police.
Her family lived in a house in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, California, which saw an enormous amount of organizing in the 70s and 80s—from the Chicano Movement, from labor organizers, from the Black Panthers, and others. This was also the beginning of the War on Drugs.
FAVIANNA: I had to live a very, uh, sheltered childhood. I found culture as a place where I could escape and imagine something different.
ASHLEY: Favianna turned her art-making into a career. Today, her work spans city buildings. She paints enormous murals full of bright colors that often feature portraits of regular people. And she makes posters with slogans like, “Migration Is Beautiful.” There is so much power coming from this one person and her creations, which have often been a response to the injustices she’s seen around her. Her work is not just something pretty to look at.
FAVIANNA: It has to be around naming the pain of what has been caused as a result of systemic racism. I believe that, you know, through my art, I’m actually able to name and say and express myself as a storyteller because fundamentally that’s what I am.
ASHLEY: I want to start with the foundation. What was it like growing up, Favianna, in east Oakland, in the 80s and 90s?
[Music cues in with police sirens and crowd protests, while President Richard Nixon speaks in the background, “America’s public enemy no. 1 in the United States is drug abuse. I have asked the Congress to provide the legislative authority and the funds to fuel this kind of offensive.”]
FAVIANNA: I didn’t feel safe. And my parents didn’t always feel safe.
I have memories of, um, gangs. I have memories of getting on the bus and just really wanting to get from school to home because I didn’t really like what I saw. The cops would racially profile the Black and brown youth. Right. And those were my friends and I knew that they were not doing anything, right. And so I saw these injustices.
And I was like, you know, why is it that these three brown kids hanging out, like, automatically get gang affiliated, which then allows them to be arrested? That experience really politicized me because I learned early on as a kid, just sheer inequality.
I also experienced activism and I saw posters in the street. I saw activists organizing against police brutality. Uh, I saw murals and I saw the birth of hip-hop.
[Upbeat hip-hop music cues in and fades out.]
NARR ASHLEY: Favianna still lives in the same neighborhood, in the same house where she grew up. When we spoke, she was sitting in a light-filled room of that home. I could see a huge tangle of plants behind her, reaching upwards toward the light. I could see her artwork framed on the wall, hanging over two couches, one pink and one bright blue. It’s a house that holds many truths at once — and many colors, too.
FAVIANNA: It’s the house really where, um, I experienced massive change in Oakland.
[The sound of a garbage truck rumbles in.] Sorry. It’s very loud. See, this is the classic Oakland right here. [Ashley laughs.]
The trash dude is also, um, my neighbor. And so when he passes through this block, he blasts the cumbias and the rancheras, just to let everyone know he’s here. [Ashley laughs] So he’s here taking my recycling, which by the way, I’m also on the recycling truck. [laughs]
FAVIANNA: There is an image of me recycling. Telling, you know…
ASHLEY: Are you serious?
FAVIANNA: Yeah, I’m an environmentalist too. [laughs]
ASHLEY: How wild is that to see?
FAVIANNA: It’s wild.
NARR ASHLEY: Okay, this is a great example, right here, of how Favianna is a perfect product of her environment. She deeply believes in the power of art to nudge change in the right direction. She’s devoted her life’s work to it, and even lent her image to it. This is what she saw around her.
Growing up, she saw artists and activists join forces. They used murals and posters as tools for action. She takes inspiration from artists she’s met and ones she’s studied.
FAVIANNA: I learned about Frida Kahlo through my different mentors. I did not learn about her in school, and when my teachers would notice that I was very creative and I would ask about what it meant to be an artist, they would talk to me about Picasso and Rembrandt and Monet and all these white dudes.
Frida’s art was very feminist. Um, it was very counter-culture and it was also very Mexican, and to see her color palette and also see the subjects that she painted about were very empowering.
NARR ASHLEY: Emory Douglas’s work was also inspiring to her. In the late 60s, Emory Douglas, a graphic artist, became the minister of culture for the Black Panthers, which is maybe the coolest job I’ve ever heard of in my entire life. The Panthers were actually founded in Oakland not too long before Favianna was growing up and coming into her own as an artist. You can see the influence in her work.
Favianna is a printmaker, just like Emory. Her art is more full of color, but both include portraits of regular people alongside bold statements or slogans. Favianna’s art is the kind of work that jumps off the page. If you Google Favianna Rodriguez’s art, I’m pretty sure you will feel like it’s coming at you, and possibly like it belongs in your home. I know personally, I think a few of these belong in my home, and I’m gonna work on that, but I digress.
OK, back to the point: Like the Panthers and Frida Kahlo, Favianna used her work as a tool for change. Another really interesting thing is how her work shifted over time.
[Score by Israel gets louder for about 5 seconds, then lowers again as Favianna begins talking.]
FAVIANNA: That first decade in the 2000s, a lot of my art was very in your face; it was ‘no’ art. It was, stop the evictions, stop the deportations, you know, smash capitalism. And that’s simply the tradition that I came from. That’s how it was.
And so I stayed in that place. And then, um, something shifted for me and it happened around immigrant rights.
NARR ASHLEY: After the break, we’ll get into how Favianna’s work shifted to focus on healing and pleasure.
FAVIANNA: As I was growing up, I was, I heard, “no” a lot. Like — keep your legs closed. Don’t go out. Don’t talk to a boy. Um, don’t be out past this time, and it’s really a survival mechanism. It was just very pain-oriented narratives. And I call them ‘no narratives.’
ASHLEY: So then how do we normalize the opposite? How do we normalize exchanges about pleasure activism, and centering joy in our experiences, our art, — ultimately, our lives?
FAVIANNA: So I realized that the way that we would get encouraged to participate was a little bit through, um, this uplifting of an idea that we need to be part of a struggle, right. You got to join the struggle. You have to, um, uh, serve the people. I mean, these are all slogans that were, that were a part of the lexicon at that time.
And, what we know now is that nobody wants to struggle forever. And I actually think it’s a very, um, feminist perspective, and especially a Black feminist perspective, to actually prioritize care for our bodies and our minds and our soul. It’s not just about what we say no to, but we have to know what we say yes to.
ASHLEY: Can you tell me what the ‘Yes Frame’ is?
FAVIANNA: The ‘Yes Frame’ is a way of embodying, naming, and working towards how we would like to live as human beings in the world. And when we do that through the lens of the yes, we get more curious and specific around, what does a yes really look like.
When I grew up wanting to be an artist, I always thought I would be a painter. I thought that I would, you know, make these beautiful paintings that would, you know, live in these museums. And they would be these really hard-to-get paintings. And then Emory taught me that my art did not have to live in these elite places, that my art could live in a newspaper. It could live as a copy of something that just got plastered everywhere. It could live as a poster. I make things that can be multiplied and exist in many different places at once — and even, you know, the pint that I did with Pecan Resist, it’s my art on something that is going to be reproduced thousands of times.
ASHLEY: Can you talk to me a little bit about this project, um, you did with Ben and Jerry’s, where you came up with the pecan pint — even though some people would say [puh-kaan], but I think it’s [pi-kahn] pint, that’s what I’m going with.
FAVIANNA: I say [pi-kahn] resist.
FAVIANNA: Yes, yes. It was the beginning of the Trump administration, and of course, we all hated Trump. And so I was saying what, what are we trying to do here, what are the feelings that we want to evoke? What is our ‘yes,’ how do we want to show power?
The pint features this young girl of color and she has purple hair and, um, you know, she’s surrounded with all of these nature, these beautiful plants, and there’s a beautiful sky with birds in it.
ASHLEY NARR: Favianna uses nature imagery in a lot of her work. There’s one piece in particular I’m thinking of. A poster she made in 2018 when that previous admin was restricting immigration and just violating families and children. Favianna made a piece of work to respond to that.
FAVIANNA: Yeah. So it’s um, a poster that has these beautiful yellow sun rays coming out in all directions and at the center of the poster is this huge, massive Monarch butterfly. And in the wings are two human faces looking at each other, um, and then there’s words in black that say “Migration is beautiful.”
Monarch butterflies actually cross borders. They cross borders from the U.S. through Mexico through Canada and back. We need to reclaim that there is a beauty in migration because it’s meant to symbolize that people migrate out of love. They usually migrate to find each other, to reunite with their families, and to really become the best version of themselves. And you know, they go through a transformation that they can’t go back.
[Music cues in.]
FAVIANNA: You know, it’s not just about the art.
I get to be witnessed, and being witnessed is transformative. It means that my story will — it’s released. It’s out there, and it’s going to help shape something. You know, and that’s, that’s the power of the story.
ASHLEY: I love that. Favianna, I can’t thank you enough for your time, for your work. I think anytime you start talking, people should be listening because there’s so much good in there.
FAVIANNA: I love it. Thank you.
[Music cues in.]
NARR ASHLEY: Ben & Jerry’s has been hard at work since collaborating with Favianna on Pecan Resist, that flavor that took the Trump Administration to task for attacks on decades of progress. Progress that had been made for racial and gender equity, climate change, LGBTQ rights, and refugee and immigrant rights. All these issues have been at the core of the company’s Social Mission for 40 years.
The Flavor highlighted the work of four partners in particular: Color of Change, Honor the Earth, NETA, and Women’s March. All groups that have continued working on advancing policies that see the world through a ‘yes’ lens. Ben & Jerry’s latest work is centered on issues of public safety. They seek to build safer communities by investing in critical community services, not broken systems of policing.
Learn more and take action in support of the People’s Response Act, a piece of legalization that seeks to redefine public safety through an inclusive, holistic, and health-centered approach. Check out action.benjerry.com/change.
Into the Mix is a Ben & Jerry’s podcast produced by Vox Creative and ABF Creative.
The Vox Creative team includes Executive Producer Annu Subramanian, Creative Producer Jessica Glazer, Production Coordinator Veronica Guity, and Production Manager Taylor Henry. And Associate Director of Client Success, Ryan Phelan, with additional assistance from Gaby Grossman.
The team from ABF Creative includes Head of Production Wanda Reynolds, Executive Producer Anthony Frasier, and Producer Mike Bisceglia. This episode was written by Ken Miles. Sound design, mixing, and mastering by Chris Mann, assisted by Jean-Claude Canal. Original music by Israel Tutson. Fact-checking by Girl Friday Productions.
The Ben & Jerry’s team includes Jay Tandon, Jay Curley, Emily D’Alessandro and Chris Miller.