For Baltimore-based artist Jen White-Johnson, the Latino Heritage Month collection at Target is more than designing a tumbler and T-shirt. It’s an opportunity to spotlight her Afro-Latina culture, which she says has oftentimes been ignored.
“I want my Afro-Latinas to feel seen, validated, represented, and prideful in celebrating their curls and skin color. We need to amplify the parts of our natural beauty that isn’t always celebrated — our caramel and cinnamon skin, and our natural curls,” said White-Johnson, whose mother is Puerto Rican and whose father is Black. She was born and raised in the greater Washington, D.C., area.
“I hope my work can culturally inspire others to center what they want to see more of. I love how art and design can express and uplift themes of intersectionality which ultimately fueled the message for my Target designs,” she said.
The collection, which includes everything from apparel to home décor, ranges in price from $2.99 to $34.99. White-Johnson designed a tumbler ($10) and a now sold-out T-shirt ($13) for the collection.
“It’s important because I feel that every cultural experience, every space needs the room to be able to showcase and let the community, world know that this is who I am, unapologetically, without any filters,” she said. “We are providing the cultural experience in our own way through our art and cultural expression.”
White-Johnson started her relationship with Target in 2019 when she led a group of students while teaching at Bowie State University in the company’s historically Black colleges and universities design challenge. Tawnya Artisst, design director for the LHM collection, was taken by White-Johnson’s talent.
“She saw how passionate I was working with my students,” White-Johnson recalled. “I thought that would be the extent of our relationship. [But] she reached out and said, ‘I really love the way you are continuing to uplift your culture. How would you like to participate in the Latino Heritage Month collection?’”
From there, White-Johnson worked with the company and produced the two pieces for the heritage collection. The entire process took about five months, she said.
“Jen White-Johnson’s amazing background and talent as an Afro-Latina graphic designer, leading advocacy for diversity in design and inclusivity for disabled voices made her an ideal and particularly authentic voice for our Latino Heritage Month collection. We are so thrilled to have had the chance to work with her and feature her unique vision,” Artisst said.
White-Johnson said she couldn’t believe it when she saw the finished product.
“I was in love. I was really excited about the actual T-shirt itself. Target has this beautiful vibrant color pallet that we had to adhere to. I was excited to use all of those in my design,” she said. “It vibrated and pulsated off the shirt. The beautiful light blue that reminds us of Caribbean beaches. The T-shirt and color really represents the landscape.”
She added, “If I was going to take a chance to be completely unapologetic of my heritage, I knew this was the time to do that.”
The message on the T-shirt, “piel canela pelo rizado,” translates in English to “brown/cinnamon skin curly hair.”
“We are providing the cultural experience in our own way through our art and cultural expression,” she said.
Representation — particularly when it comes to intersectionality — is of the utmost importance to White-Johnson.
In addition to being Afro-Latina, White-Johnson said she is also disabled and neurodivergent. She has ADHD and Graves’ disease, which is an immune system disorder that results in the overproduction of thyroid hormones. Her 9-year-old son, Kevin, who goes by the name Knox, is autistic and also helps to shape her dedication to the intersections of race, disability and ableism.
“My son has really helped for me to understand that the disability community needs authentic representation. I want him to feel seen and that his culture is being represented. I want him to see that my mom did all she could that she was represented authentically. In turn, that helps give our community that representation that we deserve,” she said.
“Black people, disabled people, we know how to work with limited resources. That’s all we do every day. Give us a paint brush, and we will create magic. We will do it the best way that we can. And you better believe it is the most, authentic, vibrant and unforgettable,” she added.
White-Johnson currently is an instructor in Maryland Institute College of Art’s Art & Design College Accelerator Program, a role she’s had since September. It’s her second stint teaching there; She previously taught at the college as recently as 2016. She also taught at Bowie State University for more than 11 years, and guest lectured at the University of Minnesota College of Design. She has a Master of Fine Arts in Graphic Design from MICA, and a Bachelor of Arts in Visual Arts/Graphic Design from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
White-Johnson — who was on Today.com’s 2021 list of 20 Latino Artists to Watch — has had her work featured in publications including The Washington Post, The New York Times, AfroPunk and Latina.com. Her work is part of the permanent library archives at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Princeton University and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in D.C.
Jenna Frye, senior lecturer at Johns Hopkins’ Multidisciplinary Design program in the Whiting School of Engineering, previously worked with White-Johnson at MICA when Frye was assistant chair of First Year Experience.
Frye said she’s been most impressed by White-Johnson’s “advocacy” when it comes to the autism, disability and Black communities.
“At every stage of her career I’ve watched her face a challenge and turn it completely on its head,” Frye said. “It’s why she’s such an amazing designer — she doesn’t just solve problems, although she does, she totally reframes problems into opportunities and then makes those opportunities unequivocally gorgeous.”
Frye and White-Johnson have known each other for more than a decade, dating back to when White-Johnson was Frye’s teaching assistant for a freshman course at MICA called Electronic Media and Culture.
“I’ve just been so proud to see her career absolutely flourish and watch her practice grow to be such a beautiful representation of joy,” said Frye, who described White-Johnson’s style as “dope.”
Brockett Horne, who teaches in the Graphic Design and Art History departments at MICA, met White-Johnson a decade ago when she was a graduate student.
“Jen brings immense, generous, resonating joy to her work. I admire that she draws from her own identity to lift up others. I once heard her sing during a visual presentation in a way that honored her own traditions, but allow me into them as well. It immediately made a cold auditorium feel like we were sitting on a couch together. Her thinking, making and speaking is inviting and intersectional,” Horne said.
Horne calls White-Johnson a “lifelong learner” who is “among our most accomplished alumni.”
“Jen’s work reveals empathy in a way that helps us feel connected across culture, world view, gender, age, and ability. It asks us to think deeper, be calmer, be more present. I see her work as a kind of call-and-response because after viewing her images, I want to pass kindness on to someone else,” Horne added.