As the Class of 2020 mourns the loss of their Senior Spring, spending time in social isolation instead of celebrating with champagne, The Argus remains committed to highlighting the accomplishments of those graduating during this frightening and uncertain time.
If you’ve walked by the Usdan bulletin boards or any flyer-holding surface on Wesleyan’s campus, you’ve probably seen one of senior Lena Mitchell’s beautiful poster designs. Throughout her time at Wesleyan, studying abroad, and during summer internships, Mitchell has not only nurtured her love for graphic design, but also built on her talents and taught others. The Argus zoomed with Mitchell to talk about her freelance career, her design work in academics and extracurriculars, and the projects she’s working on in quarantine and beyond.
The Argus: Since it’s finals season, could you start by touching on the classes you’re taking and your academic life at Wesleyan?
LM: I’m a psych major, design minor through IDEAS. I did 2D and Digital Design. I finished all my psych requirements last semester, so I had a really open schedule for senior spring. Right now, I’m doing Photo II, I’m teaching a student forum called “Freelance 420” that was about graphic design and freelancing, and doing an independent study with Kate [TenEyck] who runs the woodshop. I was doing stop motion animation with her. It’s been a good semester and I’ve honestly only focused on art this semester. I studied abroad in Bogotá my junior fall and so I was taking Spanish before that, but I’ve mainly taken arts and humanities courses and whatever courses for the psych gen eds.
A: That’s so cool! Can you talk a little about your student forum?
LM: Yeah! So I was really excited to teach it because I’ve been doing graphic design since my senior year of high school. I’m mainly self-taught and I’ve taken graphic design courses on campus, which were great, but they weren’t what I wanted to do. I really wanted to have an opportunity to let people explore whatever they wanted to do with design. The forum was very self-directed. I basically just did tutorials for everyone on Adobe Creative Suite. Everyone had different interests—fashion design, zines, others wanted to do posters, and artwork—so it’s been really cool to see what people came up with.
A: How did you get into graphic design?
LM: Honestly, I downloaded the free trial of Adobe Illustrator in high school and I made a Snapchat filter for my town and it got accepted. I’m from Maplewood, N.J. I remember I went on Snapchat and I was like, “Oh shit! This is my design!” I thought, maybe I could do this. So I started paying for [the program] and teaching myself through YouTube. Eventually, people would come to me for flyers and logos and stuff and I built it up from there.
A: In your nomination they mentioned that you’re probably associated with any poster we see on campus.
LM: [Laughs] I’ve done all of the Black History Month calendars from 2017 to 2020. I’ve made a lot of posters for Second Stage. Some of my favorites are a poster made for the productions “Appropriate” and “Let’s Talk About Sex.” I also worked at the Resource Center, so I made all of the flyers that came out of the Resource Center. Well, not all of them. I’m not going to take full credit because there were other people helping too! But for Ankh’s Giving and the Growing Forward event that was really big and the Student of Color Barbeque.
A: That’s awesome! And you’ve done some of this type of work outside of Wesleyan, too, right? Your nomination also included your website.
LM: I’ve been freelancing for five years now and all of my summer internships had some graphic design thing to do with them. Most recently, last summer, I worked at Chanel as a print design intern. I think that kind of solidified that this was the path I’m taking. It wasn’t even really my focus until recently. I was very into psych freshman year and that’s where I thought I was going.
A: Since this is something you’re thinking about doing long-term, do you have anything you’re working on now or want to continue after graduation?
LM: The nice thing about quarantine is that I have all of this time to myself and I like making art. The stop motion animation that I’ve been working on has been a lot of fun, and I’m excited to make a full five-minute film about it. And I’ve been taking clients again. I feel like I’m doing paid work right now because I don’t know when I’ll have an income. A lot of my clients are people who need event things or logos for social media or their podcast. I already read tarot, so I’ve been designing my own tarot deck in my free time. Although I’m not sure when that will be done because there’s 70-something cards.
A: Did you do that at Wesleyan too?
LM: Yeah. I would spend a lot of time in the print shop experimenting. I wanted to hand print [the cards] but that kind of got derailed.
A: Right. But you’re still doing stop motion at home—how did you choose your independent study? Was that something you’d always wanted to do?
LM: No, honestly…I only did still designs up until my junior year. Other than gifs, I was making posters or other non-moving animations. So I started animating in After Effects this year, and I was trying to figure out how to continue to do that and get a credit for it since I knew I had a free schedule. So I was talking to Kate and asking about doing an independent study, and she was like,“I know how to do stop motion.” She showed me some things and I learned a new program to do it. That’s been really fun and I’ve been able to mix the After Effects in with the stop motion animation. It’s kind of like blending the old and the new in some ways.
A: That seems like an awesome way to build on your skills.
LM: Definitely. That feels like something I’ve gotten a lot out of Wesleyan from. I learned how to shoot with photography, about different lighting, and got to be on people’s film sets. I feel like I’m really thankful for Wes for having so many creative people who are always doing things. It’s so easy to get involved or learn a new skill.
A: Do you have an extracurricular or non-academic activity that’s most memorable?
LM: I really loved printmaking. I took Printmaking II when I came back from abroad with Ali Osbourne. That was a fantastic class and even outside of class I would spend time in the printshop making prints. We did a few sales: the Eclectic Society and the Ankh. I’ve been in a bunch of student of color vending events selling prints. That’s been really fulfilling. Sometimes people will come into my senior house and recognize one of the prints that I made from their friend’s house. I love that people enjoy the work.
A: Can you talk about your study abroad experience?
LM: Yeah! So I went to Bogotá, Colombia, and studied at the University that’s there. The host university gave a lot of support so I really felt comfortable and had a lot of fun. While I was there I took art courses and a cyber psychology course. I took typography and communication and a design tutorial. I was really impressed because Wesleyan’s design department—I’m part of the first graduating class of the IDEAS minor—only really started my sophomore year, I believe. We only really had the DDS [Digital Design Studio] and maybe a few other labs on campus. This university was huge. There were 30,000 students and their design department is legitimate. Wesleyan had one laser cutter and they had three. They had crazy technology and equipment that I didn’t have time to tap into but it was so inspiring to be around so many makers of things. Bogota also has so much street art, which was really beautiful to look at. I feel like I spent a lot of time just going to museums and walking around and looking at the different graffiti. And there was a lot of nature, and I’m really into nature and outdoors things. It was overall a wonderful experience.
A: That sounds incredible. Were you an IDEAS minor starting right when the minor was becoming a thing?
LM: Yeah. My freshman year I was working in the DDS and I got hired there my first semester. I knew about the IDEAS minor and had heard about it. I decided to do it because I didn’t want to do the art major—I wouldn’t have been able to study abroad or do some of the things I wanted to do with psych. The minor seemed like a happy medium. I’m actually ending up taking more art classes than I did psych classes.
A: What kind of connections do you see between psych and design, if any?
LM: There’s a lot, honestly. I think a lot about design through the experience of approaching the design and I do that because of psychology. In psychology we’re always focusing on what mental processes are going on within a person and how they’re experiencing their world and their environment. Using that in my designs is very important to me. It’s in terms of like, when someone sees a design, what colors are going to spark different emotions? What kind of textures or typography should I use that might be reminiscent of what I’m trying to get them to feel or think about? When I was doing the internship at Chanel, I did a lot of invitations. We were always thinking, what does it look like when you get the envelope? What is the experience of opening the envelope and seeing what’s inside? What are the textures that you’re feeling? So I think there’s a lot to do with psychology when it comes to design. I actually really like incorporating it in my work. I learned a lot about optical illusions my junior year and why optical illusions work. I haven’t been able to use that in my designs yet, but I’m excited to play tricks on people by leveraging those.
A: Were there any projects that you weren’t able to finish on campus that you’re now working on? Or haven’t been able to continue?
LM: I started a thing this year called “Recess.” It happened in the CFA every Friday and it was a designers’ workshop. I would tutor people in digital design and it was run through the Resource Center, so they paid me to do it and host an open studio. It was really great. I got to teach people different things. I had planned, in conjunction with the student forum, to do a big art show and sale at the end of the year. I had booked Zelnick Pavilion, which is all glass, and I wanted to have everybody to hang their art facing outward. We were going to have performers—spoken word, music, and theater—because another one of my friends was working on a production. I was really excited to have that big showcase but it didn’t come to fruition.
A: Hopefully in the future there’s a time and place for that, even if it’s outside of Wesleyan. Are you still teaching people?
LM: I’ve made myself available to people who needed extra help. Honestly we got through a lot of the tutorial stuff at the beginning of the semester, so the rest of the semester was going to be dedicated to people pursuing their own individual projects. I’ve been sending out emails with inspiration and tutorials and responding to people’s questions. It’s not as much teaching, per se. At least it doesn’t feel the same.
A: Since it’s the end of the semester, I do have a few questions thinking about Wes overall and leaving. It’s a cliché, but, what would you tell your freshman self, if you could say anything?
LM: I learned a lot! I think I would tell myself to really take advantage of the resources at Wesleyan. Specifically the maker studios and maker spaces. I never really took advantage of the workshop or a few other things. Especially with the coronavirus, I expected to have my senior spring and expected to be spending these last six weeks in the print shop not doing anything else, just for fun. It’s been really disappointing that I’ve not been able to do that because I feel like I put a lot of those projects off until this semester so I could do them senior spring.
A: Since we’re having graduation in a year (hopefully), what’s one thing you want to accomplish from now until then? It can be super small.
LM: Honestly, now that I’m in quarantine I’ve been getting into plants. My sister is into earth science and she’s been doing plant stuff here. I’d really love to learn how to repot, feed, care for, and help grow my plants. [Laughs] I’d like to think of a more lofty project but I’m looking at these plants and that’s all I can think of. They make me really happy when they sprout new leaves.
A: If it makes you happy, then that’s important! Is there anything else at Wesleyan or outside of it that you want to talk about?
LM: I don’t know! I’ve said a lot about Wes. I was also involved with a bunch of different activist initiatives at Wesleyan, specifically in queer spaces and black and brown spaces. That was also a really big part of my experience, I think. A lot of my artwork and things that aren’t in my portfolio because they were really quick projects were posters and flyers for different activist things going on. There was Ban the Box and I helped organize a protest against Roth. He was “kneeling in solidarity” our sophomore year. I helped organize the official kneeling that happened homecoming weekend that year. Also my work through the Resource Center. The whole reason I started “Recess” was because I felt there was not a lot of diversity in the design department in either the staff or in the students that were taking those classes. People felt discouraged and those classes tend to be popular so the professors pick who they let in. The reason I started “Recess” was about promoting accessibility and making sure that people can experience things and experiment regardless of their background. I wanted to make that an inclusive space to do so. I’m really happy with the fruits of it. Seeing different people that I’ve taught things create their own artwork has been really great. It’s like, “wow, I helped out!”
A: Had you always been involved in activism or was that something that grew at Wesleyan?
LM: I was the president of the feminism club in high school. [Laughs] I would teach about consent and sex ed. to middle schoolers and the freshmen that came into my high school. I went to different conferences and stuff. My freshman summer [of college] I worked at the National Organization for Women because I thought I was going into activism and that’s what I was going to use the psych for. Even there, they had me making different power points and designing invites and social media posts. I realized I could help out by doing design as well. I didn’t have to be the person doing the “work.”
A: You got to combine all of your interests!
LM: That’s the dream.
A: It makes me sad to hear about all of the wonderful things people were doing in and outside of Wes, but it’s nice to know that it’ll hopefully continue.
LM: Definitely. I’m really excited to see what people make and how design at Wesleyan continues to grow. I was not the first creative at Wesleyan and I won’t be the last.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Zoë Kaplan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @_zoekaplan.