By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
When Lauren “Lo” Harris broke her hand while riding a crowded train, it rekindled a passion she had put aside—ironically, a passion that involved her hand.
“I was on New Jersey Transit during Christmastime, the train was packed, and I think my hand hit against someone in the crowd the wrong way. I ended up breaking one of the bones in my hand, and that’s when I started picking up my illustration work,” she said.
Harris has more than 24,000 Instagram followers, and her work has been commissioned for the Ellen DeGeneres Show, Cosmopolitan magazine, Amazon Prime, and other media outlets. The 24-year-old illustrator, motion designer, and storyteller works for NBC Universal and lives in Brooklyn, New York—a long way from her native Bessemer, Alabama.
“One difference I noticed when I moved to New York was how fast paced everything was: people walk fast, talk fast, … everything is heightened on so many levels,” she said during a recent interview with The Birmingham Times. “The pace is a lot different, so when I go home to visit my family it is a culture shock. … I find myself walking faster and not being used to the silence and the calm.”
Harris’s love for digital art goes all the way back to when she was in preschool, drawing on an old, big-back computer that had Microsoft Paint.
“Though it was a simple program with limited options, I was very passionate about it,” she said.
That love for digital art has taken her places she once couldn’t begin to imagine, even though she put it aside for a time while she pursued a career journalism.
“I chose journalism as a path because I had been [a student] in the creative writing department at [the Alabama School of Fine Arts (ASFA)],” Harris said. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and my mom suggested, ‘How about you consider taking your writing skills and using it in the journalistic sense?’”
As a result, Harris attended Northwestern University: “One of the best journalism programs in the country,” she said.
Still, she discovered that she was more comfortable with creative writing.
“I took a multimedia video class while I was [at Northwestern], and my instructor told me, ‘I can see you doing video production because this video you made was really good.’ So, I started to get more into video production,” Harris said.
From there, she started experimenting with motion graphic design and animation. She held intern positions with the New York Times and Bustle, a digital media company that focuses on entertainment and lifestyle for millennial women, but she was unable to focus on her art due to her busy schedule and full class load.
In 2018, Harris graduated from Northwestern and started working at NBC News as a page—and then she broke hand.
“I picked up drawing again in December 2019, when I had broken my hand and was like ‘I want to do something.’ I purchased an iPad and started getting reacquainted with my art,” she said.
Harris created an Instagram account, loharris_art, to share her work, experiment, and regain her artistic footing.
“I got reacquainted with how I like to work, and I decided as an exercise for February [of this year] to do a series called ‘29 Queens’ for Black History Month,” she said. “Every day [of the month], I would illustrate and publish a doodle of an influential Black woman in science, music, fashion. … From there, I realized that I really enjoyed drawing joyful black women.”
Following the “29 Queens” Black History Month series, Harris’s work gained a following—something she didn’t expect.
“I didn’t intend for it to be an art Instagram [account] that thousands of people would follow. I was experimenting with my style and having a good time,” she said. “As a result of this summer’s events—with the Black Lives Matter movement, the coronavirus [pandemic], and all of the things that happened—my art Instagram began to pick up traction because there was this call to support Black artists. My username had been put on these lists of Black artists to follow.”
With her name and art gaining attention, Harris got the opportunity to work with brand-name companies.
“For Juneteenth, I got to partner with Amazon Prime Video to create a social carousel for their social media. … I got to do illustrations for Cosmopolitan magazine, as well,” she said. “I also recently wrapped up two projects with the Ellen DeGeneres Show, one of which was designing the program’s Fall 2020 Be Kind Box. I got to appear on the show to discuss why I enjoyed that box and why I enjoyed designing it. I also designed a Black Lives Matter hoodie, for which part of the proceeds will go to the Black Lives Matter Foundation under the Ellen Show.”
Harris has also worked with Disney, the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Random House Books, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund, and Facebook, creating illustrations for their social media platforms.
Harris was born in Evanston, Illinois, but when she was in kindergarten, she and her mother, Frederica, moved to Bessemer, where her mother is from.
“She grew up in the old Jonesboro neighborhood and went to Jess Lanier [High School],” Harris said. “When we moved back to Alabama, she enrolled me in Jonesboro Elementary, which I attended from kindergarten through sixth grade.”
From grades 7 through 12, Harris was in the creative writing program at ASFA—but she still maintained her passion for digital art.
“I always really liked to draw digitally. I remember getting my first Wacom tablet in middle school, when I started at ASFA. I saved up some money, got the tablet, and would use it to draw for fun,” she said of the tool that is used by digital artists to draw by hand and capture the image in digital form.
“Even though I wasn’t taking art or doing art shows while in middle school and high school, I still found time to draw for myself,” she added. “[At ASFA], it was really nice being surrounded by people from different artistic disciplines—dancers, actors, artists. … It was really nice to come of age in an environment like that, where everyone was so creative.”
When it comes to her creative process, Harris describes herself passionate and sporadic.
“When I have an idea for something, I have to execute it at that moment,” she said. “I’ve been known to sit up in my bed at 3 a.m. and start working on something I saw a composition for in my head. I tend to work through the entire way, so I won’t go to bed until I finish. … I may be up for four or five hours and be like, ‘I’m done,’ and then go to sleep.”
Harris currently creates art on her iPad via the ProCreate app, a tool for drawing digitally. Then, she said, “I utilize Adobe Photoshop, [for editing images], and Adobe After Effects, an animation software.”
“In terms of the process of my work, I tend to compartmentalize it into two or three different steps. If I’m doing a still image, the first thing I do is sketch out the composition, the shape and form. The next component is the color. Then, at the end, I create thumbnails of the sketch.”
As for her favorite illustrators, Harris is a fan of fellow Alabamian Laci Jordan, who currently lives in Los Angeles, California, and is known for her graphic designs and illustrations around color, pop culture, and representation of people of color.
“I like that she creates vibrant pieces of work rooted in hip-hop culture and fashion culture,” Harris said. “She is for the people, and her personality is vibrant. I can tell that she carries that similar sense of Alabama sunshine and joy. She is more like a contemporary of mine, but I enjoy her work, and she enjoys mine. Seeing her work inspired me to pick up my iPad, dust it off, and [create] illustrations again.”
The entire journey has been “empowering,” Harris said.
“This wasn’t something I had planned over the course of three years. … It’s really nice to use my artistic voice. … I get so many messages from a variety of different people whose kids are enjoying my work or feel inspired to pick up drawing again because they saw my journey of going from ‘I’m here just drawing and having fun and experimenting’ to ‘I’m becoming a successful illustrator right before your eyes.’ This entire experience has been great.”
Harris’s work can be found on Instagram at loharris_art.