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Together is Better: Interview with Lili Arnold

Lili Arnold is an artist living and working in Santa Cruz, California. She’s designed a few t-shirts with Bonfire, most recently this “Together is Better” shirt. She used this Bonfire campaign to raise money for RAICES Texas, an organization working with immigrants at the border in the midst of the family separation crisis. We talked with Lili about her work and process and asked her about what moved her to start designing shirts to fundraise for these causes.

lili-arnold-together-is-better-1You created a shirt to fight against the family separation crisis on the southern border, as well as a t-shirt for California in the wake of the 2017 fire season. What drew you to start those campaigns?

The Bonfire campaigns I have created so far have involved issues that truly were breaking my heart. My first two campaigns were fundraisers for California wildfire victims, something that hit very close to home for me. My parents live in downtown Sonoma, and the fires came within a half mile of our home. We were so lucky that our home survived, but it was hard to feel relief because so many of our friends and community members ended up losing everything. The amount of loss in the community I grew up in was so devastating, I couldn’t go through my days without taking action. I found Bonfire through a google search and ended up launching my first campaign which raised more money than I could have ever donated on my own. Thanks to the generosity of people all over the country, I was able to make a small dent in the overwhelming recovery effort that still has far to go.

My most recent campaign was ignited by the inhumane separation of immigrant children from their parents at the southern border. I had never witnessed such openly callous, thoughtless, and truly evil treatment of humans in this country in my lifetime. Seeing such poor treatment of human beings in the most wealthy & so-called progressive country in the world put a knot in my stomach; I needed to figure out a way to help. After doing some research I found a nonprofit based in Texas called RAICES, which provides free and low-cost legal services to immigrants and refugees. Their hard work and effort gives justice to people who might not have a chance, or a voice otherwise. Finding a nonprofit to focus a Bonfire campaign on allowed me to create a design that represented our joint mission, and help get others involved. I’ve heard from many people that they’ve felt hopeless, heartbroken and lost in times of such overwhelming pain, injustice, and turmoil. This campaign has become one small way that I and everyone who supports this campaign can make a difference and show our advocacy for those in need.

Lili_Arnold_togetherHow did Block-printing become your medium?

Block printing became my main medium almost by accident. Going back to eight years ago when I had just graduated from college, I was intimidated by the working world. I couldn’t envision a realistic path as an artist. These feelings of uncertainty led me to pursue a career in graphic design, which seemed like a practical way to be creative but also make a decent living. After years of working as a full-time graphic designer, I began to really feel a creative void growing because the work I was doing lacked a hands-on, tangible, satisfying feeling of creative expression. How was I going to satisfy my desperate need to fulfill this missing link? Well, I was lucky enough to rediscover my linocut tools among my crate of art supplies and decided to give it a try again. I began with a small series of ocean creatures inspired by the local sea life here in Santa Cruz. Once I started printing again, I was hooked. After the ocean series, I became fascinated with making carvings of cacti and exotic plants; the textures, the colors, and the incredible natural beauty captivated me beyond words.

I think part of what drew me back to block printing was its practicality. I don’t have a real art studio or much space to create art, so relief printing has been the perfect solution because I can make prints without a press and with just a few materials; ink, paper, rollers, and a block. When I first started I used to use a wooden spoon to burnish my prints, but eventually upgraded to a plastic baren, and now I hope to upgrade to a press someday! What started as something practical really turned into something that I truly loved. I think part of my deep love for relief printing comes from the meditative process of carving the block, and of course, printing it in peaceful repetition. I also appreciate the fact that anyone can try it at home; it’s a great art form to share with the masses because it’s accessible to all ages, styles, budgets, and spaces.

lili-arnold-togetherWhat inspires your art, and what ideas are you exploring when you create?

I am constantly inspired by nature. Whether its the cacti growing in my backyard, or intricately patterned sea creatures at the aquarium, or the colors of a forest after a light rain….I am always humbled and awestruck by the natural world around me. I also love looking through books of scientific illustration, folk art, and poster art. Something about the tangible pages of a real book connects me to what I’m looking at much more than a screen. I think being inspired is a multi-sensory experience; I am struck when multiple senses are ignited and moved in a new way.

Most of my ideas are representations of my aesthetic appreciation for natural wonders. Though most of my work is less conceptual and message-driven than a lot of artists, I do occasionally have the opportunity to send a stronger message whether it be a show poster, contracted project, or a Bonfire tee shirt.

lili-arnold-together-3Do you have any creative rituals? How do you get inspired?

To get inspired I will usually try to immerse myself in the outdoors if I have the time. Whether its a hike, a trip to the local Arboretum, or just a walk along the beach, getting away from my laptop, the tall pile of paper I need to tear, or the blank page impatiently waiting for my pencil really helps me clear my mind. Usually, the creative block will dissipate and new ideas start flowing back in. I also try to treat my art making like a full-time job; I wake up early, get dressed & ready for the day, and try to get working by 9am. I take occasional breaks throughout the day, but I take it very seriously and try not to give into the distractions of a work-from-home environment. If I get stumped, I try not to be too hard on myself. Forcing ideas and passion is really tough and usually doesn’t create a result to be proud of. I try to just accept the fact that I need a little time to regain my drive and just give myself the space and time I need to coast through the lull.

What’s it like to have such a global following/community?

Having a following & community through social media, art events, and face-to-face interactions has allowed me to do what I love full time. I never had a plan to build a business, or create a large following on Instagram, or make printmaking my main gig; it just unfolded little by little over time. Now that I’ve reached this point in my career, I feel a deep need & responsibility to do something positive for the world now that I have a voice that can reach a good amount of people. Being an artist can sometimes feel selfish, isolated, and indulgent; I think the way to counteract these less than ideal byproducts of an artist life is to find ways to be creative, yet help others in the process. Bonfire has been a huge part of making that happen for me in the past year; I was able to create three campaigns and raise funds for people in need because of the Bonfire platform. I hope to continue creating campaigns for causes I believe in in hopes of making even a small positive impact for this world.

together-is-better-lili-arnold-1How has designing these shirts changed the way you look at yourself as an artist?

Designing shirts for Bonfire campaigns has been the most significant way that I’ve been able to process feelings of hopelessness and turn them into feelings of hope. There are so many people out there who have supported these campaigns and selflessly donated additional funds to help the initiatives that are helping solve the problems at hand. I am so grateful to Bonfire for providing a platform that makes fundraising simple & successful, while also creating mementos that will remind people of the causes they support. I hope to continue designing shirts for Bonfire campaigns as issues continue to impact us, and I know that even something as small as selling a few shirts will make a positive difference for someone in need.


You can find Lili Arnold’s shirt to benefit RAICES here. Proceeds will go to help them fight for the rights and well-being of immigrant families.

Follow along with Lili Arnold and see more of her work on her website, Facebook, or Instagram.

Photos courtesy of Studio XIII Photography, Sun & Life Photography, and Lili Arnold.