The Radical Potential of Graphic Design: Jules Cordova Interviewed by Ella Ray

a collage of black and white photographic portraits of different people arranged in an offset grid with bright, red-orange text and graphics on each image. Each image has a starburst with white text that reads "100% Wholesome" and red-orange txt that reads "SHOWCASE OF FRIENDS featuring music, art, design, poetry, film, and more... 2-22-20 7PM–10PM @THIRD ROOM." There are three red-orange squares, one reads "COME HELP US: build community & crossover between disciplines. Counteract capitalist expectations of artists!" The second reads "THINGS TO KNOW limited space! Come early or on time to make sure to see 100% of the show!" The third reads "THINGS TO KNOW This event is 100% free! Bring cash to buy some art!"
Jules Cordova, 2020.

Jules Cordova (they/she) and I met on the back patio of Victoria Bar in 2018 and continued to bump into each other IRL and online for the next two years. We casually joked about hating the rigidity of our respective practices (design for Jules and art history for me) and often made plans that would never come to fruition. Despite our earlier tendencies to bail, in 2020 Jules and I co-created, facilitated, and closed POOL resources: a Portland-based wealth and resource redistribution platform for Portlanders most likely to be neglected by traditional support and granting systems.

For ten months we worked on POOL as near strangers who shared a desire to normalize asking for help and giving up power. As I learn more about my collaborator, I’ve found that through their ever-evolving studio practice producing everything from objects to exhibition programming, Jules warps my understanding of graphic designers.

On December 14, 2020, Jules and I connected via Google chat to continue what I call our “long-distance relationship,” talking about the pitfalls of university arts programs, how aesthetic trends are tools of gentrification, and their desire to center access in all the work they do. —Ella Ray

ER We’ve had such a deeply digital friendship so it only feels right that we are in conversation via instant messaging. You’re probably the most interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary artist I know, you sort of do everything. But also do it really well.

JC That’s a huge compliment, thank you! It’s really important to me that I try a lot of different things. Even though design is what I do for work, I don’t want it to be my whole identity. I feel like learning new mediums and new things constantly gives me new perspectives that I can bring into whatever I do.

Four beige squares arranged horizontally with white borders between them. Each square has a small black arrow pointing right in each corner. The first square reads “NON-MONETARY RESOURCE IDEAS” in alternating red, brown, blue, and green letters. The second square reads “DRY FOOD, PRODUCE BOXES, DIAPERS, MENSTRUATION PRODUCTS, GIFT CARDS, RESUME SUPPORT.” The third square reads “BIKE REPAIS, ART, NO-CONTACT ERRAND SUPPORT, GIVING UP YOUR SPOT IN A POPULAR ONLINE PROGRAM/EVENT.” The forth square reads “UNUSED MASKS, REIKI/SOUND THERAPY, BOOKS SWAP, CONNECTING WITH YOUR NEIGHBORS & ASKING THEM WHAT THEIR NEEDS ARE!” The three squares with lists have text arranged in a vertical column, center aligned, each item is in a different color: red, brown, green, or blue.
Jules Cordova, 2020.

ER Can you tell me what led you to design and what keeps you there?

JC I grew up in Austin, TX, and moved to Portland for school to study printmaking, illustration, and drawing. A letterpress class introduced me to design. Looking back I see now that I fell in love with the history of the printing press and letterpress, and how they made knowledge and information accessible. Still, when I started to take graphic design classes I struggled with the curriculum because it was centered around product development and marketing materials.

I struggled to understand why I was doing design. I knew I loved it, but couldn’t articulate why, and didn’t connect with the capitalist application of it. I think once I realized that design could be whatever I wanted it to be, it became an accessible form of art that I could use to support my other interests.

Two headshots. On the left is Jules Cordova. She has long wavy brown hair, a septum piercing, and is wearing a navy blue sweatshirt with a white design on it. She smiles at the camera. On the right is Ella Ray. Her hair is pristinely slicked back with a middle part, she wears large black glasses, small hoop earrings, and a black v-neck blouse with puffy sleeves and an allover pattern of small white stars. She sits in front of a large bookshelf.
Jules Cordova (left) and Ella Ray (right).

ER I know the struggle of “why am I doing this?” I felt that with art history throughout the entirety of undergrad. They really pushed the idea that “true success” for art historians was adhering to, and creating within, academia. This pushed me to imagine beyond the capitalist borders being placed around my practice.

JC Absolutely! I was constantly doubting myself. It’s hard to know that there are more possibilities than what is presented to you in school. I think academia tries to separate design from other artistic practices when I think they should all exist together.

ER I also believe everyone has the capacity to make meaning of art, of design, and of our existence. Beyond investigating whose meaning/ideas/projects are valued and why, we have to begin to give up our power in art history, design, and otherwise.

It’s evident that people are central to how you make your work. Beyond design and your studio practice, you’ve directed and programmed independent spaces that provide early-career artists with exhibition opportunities. How is your practice as an artist influenced by your work as an arts worker/administrator?

JC Yes, people are honestly the reason I do what I do, people are my favorite part.

I think a lot of art spaces are inaccessible. Whether that is financially (do I have to pay to enter this space?), physically (I cannot get to or inside this space), or socially inaccessible (I don’t feel safe here). Obviously nothing can be perfect or completely accessible, but early on in my time in Portland I felt so turned off from the gallery circuit. I never felt like there was a place for me in the art community. My goal specifically with 100% Wholesome was to create the space and opportunities that I wish existed earlier on in my practice and career! Young, femme, Black, Indigenous, POC, queer and trans artists aren’t often trusted or given space to present their work. I really wanted to provide (tangible) space for that.

Two black sandwich board signs on a wood floor. One reads "What does (Institutional) rupture feel/taste like?" The other reads "Who gets in the way of your creative autonomy?" There is a small stack of multi-colored booklets on the floor next to the board on the left.
Ella Ray, 2020.

ER There’s something so complicated about the art scene here in Portland that has always been difficult for me to verbalize. Despite my personal experiences with antiblackness and abuse in gallery/museum/exhibition spaces, I have had the privilege of navigating this world as a light skin, able-bodied, college degreed person and because of that I was granted a larger level of access and trust in comparison to other members of my community. I think that’s important to note here, especially when talking about access and the specificities of Portland.

On the topic of where we live and make our work: There’s a sometimes funny joke that “everyone in Portland, Oregon, is a graphic designer.” While I know this to be untrue and riddled with problems, can you talk about the ways the Pacific Northwest impacts your work as a designer, particularly when we live and work in a very “design centric” place?

JC I couldn’t agree more. 100% Wholesome happened, in some part, because I was being trusted to run to an art space. How I look as a Latine and the degrees I have played a big part in granting me that opportunity. 100% Wholesome was how I shared my access.

Portland is a big hub for design, there are so many rad designers, studios, and agencies here making beautiful work. I feel very much a part of the design community here, we’re always supporting and pushing each other. On the flip side, I think it’s important to talk about how the design community has contributed to the rapid gentrification of Portland. I believe minimalist, euro-centric design and many of it’s connoisseurs play a huge part in creating an “ideal Portland,” which violently erases not only a divergent design history (architectural, artistically, etc.), but entire groups of people. Like I mentioned before, I believe design is a vehicle for ideas. I don’t believe these trends are inherently wrong or bad, but they are a tool that aids in gentrification.

ER I think we are currently living through the peak of the “instagram infographic” era. Everything from protest safety tips to DIY air purifier tutorials is being synthesized and packaged into shareable, likeable, and algorithm-beating IG carousels. How do you make sense of this trend?

JC I absolutely love it. Instagram is so gross, but I love that so many people have access to it. It gives us access to information about safety or solutions that we need. I’ve said it probably a hundred times by now, but I care most about accessibility. While not everything can be 100% accessible (right now), I think as a designer it’s important to try to think about everybody. These step-by-step guides allow for educational opportunities to be had and for knowledge to be shared. Our country isn’t here to catch or support it’s people and I think these instagram infographics are similar to how an informational pamphlet or publication might have functioned in the past.

ER I feel similarly. I am a fan of digestible, accessible, shareable information as long as A) people aren’t creating them for clout, B) they are created with care, C) we continue our learning and find ways to build upon these sound bites—seeing infographics as a starting point to deepening our commitments.

Born out of the pandemic, we created POOL resources after casually knowing each other for a few years. We organized and ran POOL completely virtually. For me, it sometimes felt like the project was our baby and we were in a long distance relationship. I am curious to hear your perspective on how we made our work together? And how the internet makes things more or less possible with collaboration.

JC That’s  a great way to describe it. I definitely felt like we were parents, especially because in some ways there were aspects of POOL that we couldn’t control. As facilitators there was so much out of our control and, at some points, it was going to be what it was going to be.

I think when the pandemic hit, you and I tried to provide real support to our neighbors who needed it. So many people didn’t have their basic needs met before the pandemic and we saw that our government wasn’t going to aid anyone, except big corporations. The pandemic exacerbated a system that was already broken. We knew WE couldn’t provide financial support to everyone, but we also knew we could leverage our skills and our social capital to find some relief. POOL was never a solution, but it felt part of a solution.

On us never being able to meet up and work together IRL, although it would’ve been nice, it never felt like a barrier because we were both passionate and determined to find solutions.

I think in our relationship as collaborators we did a lot of caring for each other. We never pushed each other to reach a deadline (unless someone else needed us to work quickly to help them reach their goal) and we took breaks when we needed them. At the peak of POOL, I was working 40hrs/week and finishing up school. I know I say this all the time but I’m so immensely grateful that you always reminded me that it’s ok to move slowly.


This interview is supported by Critical Minded, an initiative to invest in cultural critics of color cofounded by The Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Read more about Variable West’s Critical Minded Grant here.

Author: Ella Ray

Ella Ray is a cultural worker based in Portland, OR. They create projects, texts, environments, and programs that center Black alternative economies and the Black imaginary. At the center of this work is an investment in criticism, reimagined art histories, and process. Some of Ray's written work can be found in Oregon Arts Watch, the Black Abbey Artists in Residence zine, Portal Magazine, and a forthcoming publication with the Harriet Tubman Center for Expanded Curatorial Practice in collaboration with Hank Willis Thomas.