The Brands of Lennie Gray Mowris
A night inside the Atlanta design studio Lenspeace with ink, art, and whiskey.
Tucked deep on a dead-end street in Scottdale, Ga., someone coming upon Lennie Gray Mowris’ design and printmaking studio on a rainy night might think it’s the backlot of a horror film. Big fat trees, tall weeds, and thick carpets of kudzu surround the house, so much that it’s nearly impossible to see until you’re parked in front of it looking at the dim orange light breathing out from the kitchen windows. Her studio, called Lenspeace, isn’t even accessible from inside the house. Instead, you must follow a thin path between the house and a wall of flora that leads down to a set of double doors to a large, unfinished basement. Inside it smells like industrial thinners and grease, of big oiled metal. Its smells like ink. The wooden beams supporting the main floor of the house creak and whiffs of old dust drift to the floor.
“That’s just Kevin,” Lennie says, mentioning her husband of 17 years. “He’s probably just making dinner.”
She sits on a stool behind a scuffed table with an off-white top dotted with flecks of hard red and smears of green and yellow and magenta. On the desktop, stacks of pristine business cards sit in neat piles at the corner of a large piece of glass. Around the glass sits bottles of paint, old scuffed cans of industrial paint thinner and rubber cement, straight-edges, mason jars, and a cheap brown flask that’s run dry. Outside, the weak leftovers of Hurricane Patricia fizzle out overhead with rain that hits in fits and starts. But everything’s fine, because a long speaker plays a Heartless Bastards track right in front of her and there is a bottle of rye whiskey nearby.
She grabs one of the small squeeze bottles of paint and massages a dollop of yellow onto a small square of glass. It’s the yellow of a Kindergarten/Crayola sunshine. “It’s quite possibly a waste of time,” she says. “But I’m trying to do something with them that I’ve never done before. So, we’re going to see if I succeed or if I totally fuck it up.” She shrugs and switches to a heavy red. “I’ve never tried to do a gradient edge before. Who knows?”
Her idea is to paint shifting colors down the side of the business cards she hands out at events and shows all over Atlanta where she seeks to move her brand into a larger consciousness. It’s that old game of establishing Brand Recognition: that unfortunate, amoebic sales term a freelancer with any business acumen must know to be profitable. It’s about style. Painting a rainbow down the side of her cards is a touch in that direction. Just a little thing that might just set her apart, might make her stand out a little more than she already does. She picks up stack of cards about one inch thick and a foam brush, then delicately runs the brush into the sunlight yellow.
She’s tall and lean — the product of a “vegan-ish” diet — and moves with a bottled energy that presses up against the glass at a couple-hundred pounds-per-square-inch. She can be decidedly intimidating at first glance, even while suggesting something like, “I tend to be accessible. It’s part of my brand,” with a voice that constantly on the verge of a boardroom oratory. She keeps her head completely shaved, and while jogging there are always a few people who turn their heads and slightly gawk with a subdued cross-breed of horror and confusion when they see her trot by. People aren’t sure if she has cancer, or if she’s the tired cliché of a militant feminist. If only she had a dime for every Sinead O’Connor reference tossed at her. . .
“I first shaved my head because we were poor, and I needed a haircut,” she explains. “I had a pixie cut and it was getting all in my ears, my eyes, and Kevin and I couldn’t afford it. We’re at a time when we’re literally scraping change out of the couch in order to go get a sandwich, so I didn’t know what to do, and so Kevin came in and was like ‘look, you’d look awesome with a shaved head. You’d look so adorable and badass and I think you should just try it’ so I’m 18 and I said ‘okay.’”
That was seventeen years ago. Aside from a few lapses where she had no access to a pair of clippers, such as when she and Kevin biked down the Pacific Coast for two months, she’s been bald. “I came to the point where I realized I didn’t feel like myself without it. When I looked in the mirror I didn’t look like me. I came into my sense of identity with a shaved head, and then whenever I had hair I’d look into the mirror and I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t look like I remembered myself. And when I first shaved my head it taught me something really interesting, which was, that people’s responses to me changed. It made me feel free, and I didn’t care whether people thought I was a dude. I already have a boy’s name. Fuck it.”
While walking down the street, boys see her shaved head and approach with retched nonsense like, “Why would a girl as pretty as you do that to yourself?” and “Are you a lesbian? If so, that’s cool, ’cause I donate my sperm to lesbians. You could still have my baby.” In one instance, a young bro from some backwoods town approached while she ate dinner, took an unsolicited bite of her sandwich, drank from her beer, and said with full seriousness, “So can I come up to your room? I think we’re soulmates.”
“It’s reality that men are douchebags” she says. “It’s reality that men are misogynist. It’s reality that men rape. It’s reality that they are trying to abuse us. It’s not fake. And actually having the wherewithal of self to say ‘go to hell’ um, it takes a lot, and a lot of women have not found that inside themselves. A lot of my followers are women and for someone to say it’s okay to be that person.” This comes out in Lennie’s emphasis as an intersectional feminist; a termed coined by American professor Kimberlé Crenshaw as: “The view that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society. Examples of this include race, gender, class, ability, and ethnicity.”
So . . . she wades in the general waters of oppression, not simply one alone, and in part, her studio seems to be built around cathartic compassion following various patterns of oppression or general trauma. It comes out of her pores, in fact. As she sits dragging a foam brush down an inch-thick stack of business cards there is a processing that goes on, a sort of continual unraveling of weird childhood trauma, such as the moment at 15 when her father explains how she was nearly aborted, or just generally abused and manipulated by other members of her family. When she tells of it, her voice is strong, but there’s a deeply-buried waver to it as she goes — “My life before was just pain — being misunderstood, being misinterpreted. I didn’t have an end-goal; I wasn’t projecting myself to any end. I certainly wasn’t projecting humanity to any end. I lived a mile down a dirt road in a fucking trailer. Growing up my sense of self-worth was reduced to nothing. We grew up poor, so I understand poverty. I understand what it’s like whose made to feel worthless. There are a lot of things that I get, and I meet other women who have had so many of the same experiences. We have had our identity stripped to nothing. We’ve had our words stripped to nothing. If I can use my external processes to help other women. What matters to me is that I can show women that it is possible to be a vulnerable and sensitive and kind person while also not taking any shit. If I can get that across, that it’s okay to have boundaries, that it’s okay to stick up for yourselves, that it’s okay to call misogyny for what it is, also on the flip side necessary to keep your humanity, to not be so hard that you’re judgmental over every single man who comes across your way, that you still have to find to stay vulnerable, and that’s a part of my brand.”
She sets down one brush and picks up another, then dabs it into a pool of green. Very carefully she drags the sponge up one side of the cards into a fading smear of blue. Branding and identity are big deals to Lennie. But someone can’t just toss words like “brand” and “identity” around without placing some meaning behind them. There’s a whole world full of dilettantes building dubious forms of personal brands that are as useless as arcade tokens. Lennie tosses around the word “brand” like bread for ducks, which is a little off-putting at first. But both the letterpress and print work she does for clients, which range from tree services, sustainable energy companies, and local theaters and shows, as well as packed into her “A Year In Giving” project that develops and prints promotional material for nonprofits such as the Atlanta Community Food Bank, Trees Atlanta, and the Southern Center for Human Rights, her background and relationship with the world bleeds through everything she creates, and it’s what gives Lennie the credibility to use that word without sounding like a monster saleswoman hawking dubious timeshares in Florida.
Owning a giant World War II-era Kluge letterpress she nicknamed “Fly”, and a big gray one-ton Vandercook proofing press nicknamed “Victory” sitting in her studio certainly doesn’t hurt her credibility either. Remarkably expensive, she managed both through favors and luck. After working for nearly a decade as a marketer and event planner for a Dr. Douglas Graham, a sort of walking-talking vegan evangelist whom she had become a disciple of, she found herself emotionally withered and threadbare from the wanton fundamentalism of the die-hard vegan community and, according to her, the general narcissistic behavior of Graham himself. She pivoted into the Atlanta design community and “studied the fuck out of design,” as she says, which led to becoming a private apprentice of designer and Praxium Press-owner Berwyn Hung, followed by Jason Henry of Henry & Company, which has done lettering and binding work for clients the world over including TNT, the Hard Rock Café, and the Park Central Hotel in Manhattan.
But she couldn’t find real work. She’s had to share studio space with bad business owners and even hardcore meth addicts. No matter what direction she turned, it was as if the universe was saying, “No . . . you need to be independent. Go do your own thing.”
“I don’t need money from people” she explains. “I need them to help me grow. Anyone who has been willing to accept that as the deal I will give you my undying love and infinite friendship. I will exchange talents. And it’s built everything from nothing. I had no money, no job.” As a testament, she received Fly in barter from a local studio. She fixed the press, printed cards for a Buckhead boutique, and received the press in exchange in order to clear space. It’s as if she put it out into the universe, and the universe said: “All yours!”
The printing press is arguably one of the most important pieces of technology developed within the last 600 years with its ability to mass produce printed materials (see: new information and ideas). The printing press essentially walked the human race right out of the Dark Ages. If you’re old enough to have read books, newspapers, or magazines prior to the 1980’s, most everything you picked up passed through a printing press. Even Lennie’s “Fly” spent some time printing university periodicals and even communiques for the U.S. Navy before it found a home in her studio.
When the computer shouldered its way into the printing space, manual printing fell to the wayside as a means of developing and producing mass printed material. The computer became the newfangled steam-powered hammer to the ol’ trusty John Henry-like press. It might be more graceful and wholesome to print on a press, but when you can change fonts with a mouse click fast than rebuilding a block of letters on a printing press inside a smelly room full of odd tools and a monster deadline looming, the choice is clear. So through the 90’s and into the new century computers kicked ass and took names while the old-school presses gathered dust in the basement of old schools and municipal buildings, or were just melted down to slag.
“I love oiling the machines,” she says. “I love that they’re big and clunky; I love the history of them and what they have meant for human communication,” she says. “The history of the printing press is probably one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever studied because of what it meant for the age of enlightenment, the spread of literacy, it’s the original internet. We went from being completely illiterate to actually being able to communicate emotion and metaphor through a sentimental story on a mass scale, and connecting people through that communication in a way that was truly meaningful. When you realize that it’s an archaic form that is dying, that it’s responsible for the spread of human consciousness, how do you not love it?”
Right around the time of the Great Recession, a resurgence of manual printing bubbled up from a sense of digital fatigue that rolled LP’s and typewriters right to the toes of urban-center Millennials. As much as people are keen to embrace new technology that makes their lives easier, they will just as quickly reach back into the ether and pick up old technology for the craftsmanship it takes to properly use it. Humans have a love of things hand-made, and Lennie’s presses produce exactly that. She must choose and build a block of letters. She must clean the rollers. She must select the correct paper and ink. She must go through the physical process of shoving the rollers down onto the letters to press ideas into the page. There is no typing, no editing commands. There is no backspace. If she fouls up building a simple phrase, it can take up to another ten or fifteen minutes to reset and try again. Working with Fly and Victory is an almost completely hands-on process, and it was exactly the process that attracted Lennie to the industry.
“I like letterpress for the process,” she says. “I can come down here, put on some music, and just do the thing. I can just focus on something that isn’t the rest of my life, the world. I tend to be an external processor anyway,” she says. “It was how analytical it is. It’s an incredible logical process to have to go through. So, I’m making art. I can make art, things people see as art. But it doesn’t take the skillset that you have to invest in when to be an illustrator or painter. It’s something pretty much anyone can learn as long as you can follow a logical thought process.”
However, Lennie isn’t necessarily interested in just cranking out handmade tokens for upscale folks with good credit. While she certainly develops consumer products, such as her break-up cards, which give people an alternative to awkward conversations by handing over a simple cards that read “You Can Keep The Cat” or “I Faked It” to lovers who’ve fallen out of favor, she wants her work to have a larger altruistic spine running through it.
“It’s not necessarily that I’m special or unique or any of those things, it’s why I chose letterpress and why I do the work that I do because I realize that I’m no different from millions of women. In fact many of them have it even worse than I did. And if I can help any of them, if I can create a poster piece that helps a rape crisis victim, if I can create a poster that helps a victim of human trafficking, if I can create a poster print that actually helps some impoverished black man get out of prison because I helped fund the organization that can do it, then I’ll do that, because I actually identify more with that as a person.” Her work as the Board Chair for Affinity Program at the Atlanta chapter of AIGA, where she seeks to build sustainability within the design community as well as increase the leadership and diversity of women designers, points to this strong desire for altruistic creations.
However, things like her break-up cards point to a dichotomy. While expressing interest in simple altruism there is a certain bent to her personality, and a chunk of her work, that enjoys taking a shot at deconstructing human behavior — such as the termination of a romantic relationship — that smacks of mild condescension cloaked in some personal reflection on society. She states her work is largely about “stripping away identity and constructs” with regards to race, sexuality, gender, and other socially conscious items, and even her lack of hair is part of that: “By stripping myself the identity of hair, I allow others to project their identity on to me. The people who treated me like a human were the only people I cared to know. It’s a filter.” While there is real merit to her logic, when you see a snarky card that reads “You Should Go”, there is a hint of caustic self-righteousness that while perhaps a little mean-spirited, is unbelievably marketable as we collectively seek new ways to honestly communicate our feelings. And she completely understands this and her role. At no point does she suggest she “wants” to help people connect. Instead she says with remarkable certainty, “I can help people in a way that gets them to connect to each other. I can get them to connect to themselves. And through the nonprofit work I can get them to connect to what it means to be a part of society and of culture in general.”
Upstairs, Kevin has changed music to the Alabama Shakes. The atmosphere of the studio rolls into a maudlin fog back-beat by the cold rain drumming against the kudzu outside the double-doors. She has a fair stack of business cards in front of her edged with a dense rainbow of colors — a good night’s work ready to hand her brand out to the world. She sets down the foam brush and yawns. There’s nothing left to do and she deflates slightly. There’s no more time tonight. There’s a full workday ahead and other life obligations, trivial but necessary things outside of the studio, things that keep the power on and food in the fridge. But all those administrative moments lead up to snapshots of time when she can sit in her studio and create something remarkable out of a determination to be bigger than her own trauma, and the trauma of others. Those quiet snapshots over rye whiskey are worth more to her than the total whole of any job waiting tables, cutting down trees, hawking books for a vegan fundamentalist, and everything in-between.
It’s easy to poke fun at the mysticism of creating art of any kind. Using lofty words like “process” and “inspiration” as it relates to the development of a piece of art can draw eye rolls and sardonic sighs of “ugh,” even from other artists. Typically this is a result of the listener’s internal insecurities and less about the artist. Process and inspiration are very real things, however, and creative folks of any bent take them very seriously, even if they don’t talk about them. For some it’s working for a specific number of hours per day. Others, it’s reading a particular author, or watching a gaggle of movies by the same director, or boning up on a famous actor or dancer. A writer friend of mine likes to work early in the morning and then go run five miles before getting on with his day. For Lennie, it’s simply being around people, the relationships that form between them and with herself. The world is the place she draws this ability to sit and create, drink the final rye from her glass, and say, “For me all my work comes down to relationships,” she says. “It’s the only thing I know. I want to see where this clusterfuck goes. If I’m going to be on this meteor flying toward doom I want us to pull up lawn chairs together.”
But the final nail in the framework of Lennie’s work, if not her life, has nothing little to do with relationships or presses or the smear of paint down the side of business cards. Strip those things away, strip her down right to the bones, and what’s left is stone hard need for commitment. The trauma of her childhood and early adulthood, and reflecting on the trauma of others, has created this constant need for commitment both from herself and from others. Everything in her life, particularly her adult life, is built around this rare notion that nothing worth doing is worth doing half-assed, be it a marriage, biking the Pacific coast, or somehow finagling two massive vintage presses and a place to put them. For Lennie, commitment is where trust is built. It’s where her life is built. It’s her final brand, and with a modern tendency for humans to toss away love, work, goals, and dreams for the sake of expediency and cultured antipathy, commitment is the only brand that matters.