Vancouver art activists wear their causes on their sleeves

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      What do you do when you can’t find a T-shirt with a message? The answer for two local entrepreneurs was to start their own companies.

      Eric Wilson, a Vancouver-based marketing and communications consultant, was leaving the corporate culture in which he’d spent most of his career, and needed a change in his wardrobe. “I’d [also] seen the movie Sharkwater and I wanted a shark extinction–themed T-shirt,” Wilson tells the Straight in a phone interview. After contacting nonprofit organizations and searching retail stores and on-line T-shirt outlets in vain, Wilson founded Artevist ( ).

      “It’s the idea that you could have one Web site where you could find activist-inspired themes of all types—everything from AIDS to hunger to species extinction,” Wilson says. The site, which has been selling T-shirts for about three months, relies primarily on its members’ contributions. After creating a user account, members can submit their own designs, as well as vote and comment on other submissions. The highest-rated designs are printed using a plastic-free, water-based dye process on organic bamboo-cotton or 100-percent cotton T-shirts made in the U.S.

      Artevist’s inaugural line has six designs, including Destroy & Deny, a navy blue shirt featuring a drawing of a teddy bear wearing a gas mask. Wilson plans to print new designs every six months; the next batch of eight designs launches in March. By keeping print runs between 250 and 500 shirts, “The chances of running into someone else with the same T-shirt are really slim,” Wilson says.

      Understanding the time commitment involved in good graphic design, Artevist pays a US$700 fee to artists, which gives the company the right to use their work for two years. (Artists retain 100-percent ownership of their designs.) Designers also receive a seven-percent royalty on every shirt sold through the site; T-shirts start at US$27.

      Shannon Harvey, founder of the Vancouver-based Monkey100, had a similar desire to fuse activism with art. After studying visual and public arts in New York state, Harvey realized she wasn’t interested in simply making pretty pictures.

      “It [the public-art program] was about how to engage with people, really looking at the work itself and making sure it has a foundation in something that’s meaningful, whether it’s an issue or something personal that you want to express,” Harvey says in an interview at her home in Strathcona. Seeing T-shirts as “a mobile canvas”, she began designing and screen-printing shirts with an activist bent after moving to Vancouver three years ago.

      Her first series of designs, all of which feature environmental themes, includes an image of a triceratops combined with a car and the line, “Don’t be fossil fuelish.”

      “Really it’s saying, ”˜Okay, this is ridiculous that we’re driving these huge gas guzzlers and we’re not thinking about the consequences of being so foolish,’ ” Harvey explains. Her Flying South shirt shows a lone airplane flying in a V of pterodactyls, while Sol is an Egyptian-hieroglyphics-inspired design, featuring a graphic of the sun’s rays ending in outstretched hands and shining down on stylized solar panels. Each one of her T-shirts features an explanation of the shirt’s design on the sleeve.

      Harvey creates five or six new designs a year, with her most recent being a series of salmon prints. She spent almost a year doing research for the series, including going on a tour of a Clayoquot Sound fish farm, which she describes as “pretty scary”. One of the two resulting shirts, Reciprocity, depicts a salmon composed of other animals, including birds, bears, and wolves.

      Harvey’s shirts are available through her Web site and at the Vancouver Art Gallery gift shop (750 Hornby Street). Adult shirts are $30, including tax; kids’ ($22) and infant ($20) sizes are also available. Her designs will also be for sale at the EPIC sustainable living expo (May 8 to 10) and Portobello West starting in June.


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      May 9, 2009 at 12:42pm

      I really think this is fantastic. There are a lot of great internet ideas created out of Vancouver. Not sure what it is about this area but very creative people. Selling t-shirts online is a pretty big market and I'm sure their doing well this this concept. It doesn't hurt that green is in. I think you guys should update this story and let us know their monthly income at this point...
      -- I'm not the most intelligent, but I always have an opinion. My current project: <a href="">Netbook Bags</a>