So tell me a little about yourself?
A common thread through my work is trying to understand the way people interact with each other, objects and their environment. In a lot of ways an added lens to that thread is understanding the way we engage with ourselves.
I was born in Boston, MA to Haitian parents. My family moved around a bit during my childhood but I spent my formative high school years in Lawrence, MA. I studied industrial design as an undergraduate at Massachusetts College of Art and Design and received my masters in science in Design and Urban Ecologies from Parsons the New School in New York shortly after. The graduate program there focused on social, spatial and environmental justice in an urban context.
Right after grad school I spent time working on furthering personal projects and freelancing but ultimately found myself in the design consultancy space as an envisioner for Continuum. After my time there I further questioned how I could use my art and design practice to focus on social issues. I then joined former colleagues as design lead for their social impact design studio, Designing the WE.
Fast forward to now, I am the Civic Designer for Boston’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM), the city’s civic innovation team. Our team is made up of folks from all walks of life. Our work emerges from mayoral priorities, what we’re hearing from residents and the departments we collaborate with. We focus on building things people want and need, making the city more delightful and asking a new set of questions about the role of city government. On any given day we’re prototyping projects in the streetscape, housing, education, civic engagement and more. I’ve been a member of the MONUM team for a little over two years now. My role was a new one for the team and the city as it centers around design as a visual practice and one of design research and strategy. More importantly is, the focus on deepening our understanding of the experience of Boston’s resident and visitors in order to thoughtfully design with and for them.
This past year I’ve revisited teaching, this time focusing on design research with undergraduate design students. I’ve also continued my personal design and illustration practice and it has allowed me to work with a range of organizations on projects that range from playful to strategic. My work has been on displayed in several galleries in the past year and it’s been a whirlwind seeing the different directions I’ve been able to explore. Improving the experience of everyday life has been a goal, art and design has the capacity to do that in an array of ways. I’ve been trying to grow my practice both within my work at City Hall and as an artist and designer in a broader context.
Sabrina’s talent for visual solution runs far and wide. From public art to civic design to illustration, her work focuses on the “how” of communication and engagement.
Your career has crossed many platforms from illustration to civic design, how did the intersection of all these media come about? How have these experiences contributed to your efforts in social engagement?
Art was a part of my life from a very early age. You’d find me doodling in front of the tv, making everything from food to household goods for my action figures and dolls out of crayola model magic or illustrating holiday cards for classmates, friends and family members. I went to a technical high school and found myself in the Graphic Communications Department. This meant I was learning how to operate a press, use desktop publishing tools like QuarkXpress and Adobe, and creating visual art with ink or pastels among other mediums. During my final years exploring art and design as a practice at in high school I began working as a graphic design and video production teaching assistant at Movement City, an arts based youth development program, I also became a member of the green team at Groundwork Lawrence, an environmental advocacy non-profit and had a co-op position as a prepress operator for a box company. Experiencing each one of those spaces simultaneously during those years made me itch to draw the connection between the things I loved: art and design, youth and community development, social and environmental justice and the “behind the scenes.” My journey to MassArt carried those same desires.
In undergrad I was heavily involved in student leadership and student groups while working a part time job. Though it was sometimes difficult to balance everything, I was passionate to keep those threads alive. I learned so much about process, research and making from my design program. I also wanted to explore issues of identity, culture and representation — I wanted my work in industrial design to respond to things like trauma, interdependence and agency. My degree project strayed from a traditional product and became about an experience. All of my extracurriculars sustained my desire to find an application for the practice of art and design that remained true to my values.
When I made my way to grad school I was pushed to have a more critical lens on my practice and assert my role in helping to create a more just city. My final project centered around building an archive of narrative around urban development. I was interested in repurposing creative methods and tools from the practices to allow people to view the city through a different lens and work toward being empowered have a say in what happens. It was fantastic echoing of where my interests lied. I didn’t want to solely make things I wanted to do it collaboratively, provide tools to make opportunities accessible and build the collective reflex in understanding the world around us to address some of our biggest concerns. Simultaneously my artwork has consistently been focused on people and narratives. The need to center the work on people is a guiding force. There are so many moments in my journey that have pointed to what feels like was always there.
“The need to center the work on people is a guiding force. There are so many moments in my journey that have pointed to what feels like was always there. ”
How has your creative process changed over time?
I’m always doodling whenever I get the chance! In terms of my illustration work I’m always trying new mediums — the reasons range from curiosity to convenience. Listening, storytelling, and asking questions is a core part of my process both as a designer, an artist and a researcher. When I’m working to visually design something with a collaborator or for a client I ask a series of questions to help ground me in the context and goal of the piece.
Whether it be introspective to my personal practice like: “How can I depict this emotion in a drawing” or part of my practice at work as a civic designer like: “How might we make sure residents have access to welcoming, connected and creative spaces in our city”, I often start from a point of inquiry. Some of the things we’re working on aren’t always tangible and clear— especially when you’re working with systems. So as we’re working to make the invisible visible and then address it —wonder and curiosity as well as valuing context is crucial.
I’m always picking up new things to try from folks around me. I do think that think my quest to find a thread between the things I was passionate about has prepared me for this quest of navigating the complexity of everyday life.
What's the best piece of advice you've ever heard?
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard was: “You can’t get what you don’t ask for.” Although I heard this advice in reference to salary negotiation I’ve referenced it to many other aspects of my life. It signifies to me the call to take a risk and put yourself out there. If it is about a question, the worst that can happen is receiving a no. In regards to design, a former professor and mentor, Judith Anderson once told me that to be a great designer I needed to be comfortable with ambiguity. I think that’s also an important thing to keep in mind.
Who are some artists that you feel have impacted your own practice?
I am constantly being inspired by a range of folks. Sometimes I get the pleasure of working with them! I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t an ever growing list of people or artists that push me everyday to continue the work that I do. I keep company with a lot of people who have me in awe more often than not.
I’d say that I’m currently inspired by several artists and social practitioners like Elisa Hamilton whose inquiry based work touches on the invisible aspects of the everyday. I recall Candy Chang’s work as being a jumping off point for me to attend grad school and focus in on cities and collective social psychology. Folks like Hank Willis Thomas allowed me early in college to cast a critical eye at how black bodies exist and are objectified in our society. Van Jones was a figure in high school that pushed me to ask a different set of questions about how we aim to
address some of our most complex issues like climate change and the mass incarceration of black and brown people of color. I have been inspired by the group Climbing Poetree at a young age to use my voice and lift up others around me. But again, I’d say that everyday I’m blown away by so many activists, social scientists, educators, musicians, you name it. I openly welcome inspiration wherever it may lie.
What have been some of your biggest strengths and struggles during your career so far?
Some of the biggest struggles I’ve had in my career so far has been my anxiety and confidence. Mental health is really important and it’s so often overlooked. I have in every aspect of my work and practice struggled to believe in myself and fight, often physical, manifestations of my fear of failure. Those feelings are very real and sometime debilitating but the support of loved ones has been incredibly important. The stubbornness of my desire to have a positive impact on the world and being my whole self is a tension I live with everyday.
With that said, my artwork and personal practice interrogates similar contexts I am trying to grapple with. In order to be my whole self I let my honest feelings show up in my work and try to see vulnerability as an asset. In regards to my strengths, I for sure have an unwavering desire to follow what I’m passionate in and connect the dots between them. I try my best to admit ignorance and, though difficult, operate in the ambiguity and complexity of our realities. I ask questions of the world around me and reframe things. I strive to be good storyteller, a listener and collaborator.
What's in your margins?
I love making lists (for better or for worse). They’re often written to-do lists in my notebook or on post-its with the occasional illustrated packing list floating around. Sketching and doodling is really important for me and I often start with analog forms of brainstorming when I’m working on a design project.
It’s hard sometimes to find time to self care or creativity in the form of art making so I’ve tried a couple strategies to lower the barrier to making time to draw and illustrate. A big thing I’ve been doing for few years now is visually scribing meetings, conferences and presentations I attend. These days everywhere I go I carry a notebook, a book (currently Nayyirah Waheed’s Salt), painting supplies (a pocket size watercolor set, paint brush pens and sketchbook) or embroidery supplies for commutes where I can. My bag can get heavy but I like being prepared for any making opportunities.
A crucial part of my process that doesn’t show up in a physical form is constantly making the effort to be reflective and ask who else should be at the table.
Edited by Joshua Duttweiler
What project are you especially excited about right now?
I’m really excited about the work we’re doing in the mechanics in regards to “Third Spaces.” The area emerged from a series of engagements in our housing work that asked residents the question “what makes home, home?” People referenced feelings like belonging and the desire for access to an array of things that go beyond the physical walls and roof over their head. We’d interpreted that as an opportunity to investigate what the city could do beyond solely transactional or economics value adds. How could we amplify or support the other ways our city becomes a place folks call home? We’re looking at civic helming spaces that support folks dealing with trauma on a social level, trying to support meaningful places for those who have been designed out of or have not been designed for in the origins of our cities.
In regards to my personal illustration work I’m excited to continue to pursue projects around identity and representation of women and people of color. I’ve been chatting with friends about a side projects around safe spaces, microaggressions, contributions of black and brown people in the Northeast and more —- so many things in the works, so little time!