I am pleased as punch to present this interview with Jodi Stark, a woodworking artist and a hewer of memes for some of Canada’s top environmental campaigns. I have been impressed with Jodi’s work for some time - there is a wildness to many of her visuals - something that evokes the beautiful, marvel-filled world that we are indeed trying to protect. You can recognize them in your feed after a quick while. I greatly appreciated this interview since I got to learn more about Jodi’s perspective, and what fuels her amazing and unique work.
Where are you from? Tell us about your home, and about how that place informed who you are and what you care about.
I grew up in the suburbs of Montreal. Despite being surrounded by manicured lawns and strip malls, I was always drawn to nature and spent as much time as possible playing outside in the dirt. My closest connection to wildlife was from Chickadee magazine. I would cut out the pictures of animals and make collages in a scrapbook as if they were my friends. Come to think of it, those were probably the closest things to the first ‘memes’ I ever created.
I moved out to the mountains of the west coast when I was 18 and the best way I can describe that experience is like this: Sometimes you’re in a room with a buzzing noise, maybe from the fridge or the lights. You don’t notice the buzzing until the moment it stops. And then, ahhhh…you feel a sense of relief, calm. That’s exactly how I felt living immersed in nature for the first time, enveloped by the power and majesty of the mountains.
It was then I committed my life’s work to environmental justice.
How I started working on ocean conservation issues is a whole other story and can be read here, on this blog Whangamata junction on Highway 25.
My understanding of the relationship between social and environmental justice and the need to pursue those hand-in-hand came most personally from my time living in El Lagartillo, a subsistence farming community in the mountains of Nicaragua - a story for another time.
How did you get involved in design and storytelling work?
I should have seen the writing on the wall that I would get involved in design work and visual storytelling when I was doing my Master’s degree. I was studying Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University - kinda policy wonk and science stuff. I would always get carried away with designing elaborate report covers and PowerPoint backgrounds. Then, classmates started asking me to design stuff for them too and I was spending a significant amount of time playing on Photoshop instead of studying.
When I started working in the environmental non-profit sector, I just naturally gravitated towards communications, storytelling, social media and public engagement work. I’m a visual person and an embarrassingly terrible reader, and knew I couldn’t be the only one. So, I started to experiment with different ways to reach the people who wouldn’t read full books, articles, reports or even blogs - which in the age of short attention spans, is a large part of our audience.
What kind of meme-slinging do you do? Can you tell us about the different campaigns you work for, and the kind of work you do for them?
My work has been focused on ocean conservation, climate change, tar sands, pipelines and tankers. My favourite memes are ones with a clear conversion goal, ones that are designed to get people to do something other than ‘like’ or ‘share’ — sign an online action, attend an event or rally, donate to a crowdfunding project, read a blog or change a behaviour.
I work independently with lots of environmental groups in Canada, but my main gig is with the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF). While David Suzuki isn’t well-known in the US, he’s actually an environmental celebrity in Canada. Yes, an environmental celebrity! He’s been the host of The Nature of Things, a nature show our national broadcaster for 35 years, and has earned the trust and admiration of most Canadians. Working with the David Suzuki Foundation social media audience is a real treat because they’re engaged and passionate and because of that trust that already exists, which is very unique in the social media world.
My work with DSF goes beyond meme slinging. I do public engagement work where there is a focus on moving people from more superficial ways of being involved (like liking and sharing memes on social media) to deeper levels of engagement (like volunteering, writing letters to the editor, and holding events in their communities).
In Canada, (like in the US), there are a number of oil and mining spills and other environmental catastrophes which happen fairly regularly. Can you talk about the process of a designer and meme maker that goes into rapid response efforts for an environmental crisis?
Responding to an environmental crisis requires finding the right balance between timeliness and accuracy. It’s important to get the word out and people informed as early as possible, but often early stages of reporting can involve inaccuracies and sensationalism. Also, it’s really important to be sensitive to the local context - the people, places, cultures most directly affected.
So, as a meme maker for rapid response, I think it’s smart to keep the graphic as straightforward as possible and leave much of the context in the description which then can be edited as the story progresses and better links to further information or action become available.
The most recent example of rapid response I was involved with was a spill from a gold and copper mine in my home province of British Columbia. With southern B.C.’s last big run of sockeye salmon starting to swim upriver to spawn, there was a lot at stake. And so there was a lot of fear, anger, frustration and confusion about this.
At the David Suzuki Foundation, we knew that there would be many unanswered questions and a rapidly changing information landscape. But, we also knew that there were some overarching enduring messages about environmental deregulation and some immediate demands that we wanted to put to the provincial government. So, our response visually juxtaposed the valuable resources at risk (salmon and water) with the toxic sludge from the spill. And, most importantly, we put together a fast online action people could take to send a message to the government.
This is an ongoing issue in B.C. and it might be years before we know the full extent of the damage.
Please consider signing the action and send your best wishes to those salmon — their survival and health are critical to the health of our oceans, forests, communities and cultures.
You are very active as an artist - especially as a hewer and sculptor of wood. Can you tell us more about the art of wood work and what pulls you to it?
I’m so happy you asked this question. Woodworking has become an important part of my life and has been an immensely fulfilling complement to the activist work that I do. It’s meditative, mathematical, precise and requires focus - something I struggle with while working on a computer. I just absolutely love how the work is tactile and tangible. A signature from a politician can’t undo the work that I do in the woodworking shop.
I work mainly with driftwood and reclaimed wood, and giving new life to old materials is part of the draw for me. I also work as part of a collective of people who build, fix, invent, reinvent, upcycle and tinker. I believe that being part of the emerging sharing economy in Vancouver is an important part of social and environmental change (*The Story of Solutions describes this well). It’s immensely empowering to be taking actions within my community to create a sustainable economy that skirts around existing power structures and therefore undermines them.
What is one tangible activity you engage in to deal with the burn out? Tell us about it!
This is easy. There are 2 things that help me prevent burnout. Firstly, spending time in nature very regularly (at least once or twice a week, even in the winter) keeps me sane, grounded and healthy and acts as my reset button. Secondly, I’ve come to learn that I’m not cut out for a 5 day work week, sitting at a computer (I don’t think anyone really is). So, after some years of working crazy hours (sometimes into the wee hours of morning), I’ve now limited myself to ¾ time environmental work and ¼ time woodworking. This balance and diversity of work (mentally, emotionally and physically) for me is much more sustainable in the long run and will ensure that I’m in this for the long haul. Cuz let’s face it, this isn’t going to happen over night.
How can folks find you via facebook, twitter, instagram, your website, etc?
Check out 3 recent examples of Jodi Stark’s meme designs below:
As we awaited a decision from the Canadian government about whether they would approve the highly controversial Enbridge Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline, I created this graphic to drive traffic to an online action to urge government not to approve the pipeline.
When I first heard about this case against the tar sands, I realized that it was an important story to tell in Canada. DeSmog Canada did such a stellar job translating the complicated legal jargon into a story of relevance for anyone interested in aboriginal rights as well as tar sands development and climate change. It’s stories like these I love driving traffic to. (Link to original meme.)
I believe it’s really important to break the commonly held misconception that we need to choose between environment and economy. Of course, that’s rubbish and it’s why I was pleased to create this graphic.
Thank you Jodi for this great interview! This interview is a part of a series of profiles of meme slingers from different outposts within environmental and social justice movements. You can check out more profiles on GreenMemes and on WearePowerShift!