Mindy Tsonas is the founder of the Be Seen Project, a community that shines a light on BIPOC makers creating works on themes of social justice..
Five years ago Mindy Tsonas began thinking through some important questions about community, identity, and art-making. She found herself longing for a space where she could be fully seen, and a place to be her whole authentic self. “At that time I was coming to the realization of how creativity and identity intersect. And I was working through some of my own marginalized identities in terms of my feminism, and my sexual and racial identity,” she says. “It was the beginning of peeling back the layers and using art to help process all of that.”
Although she didn’t create anything concrete at that moment, she planted the seed for an intriguing idea. “I knew that it would be awesome to create a space for people to share the different ways that they are marginalized or are afraid to talk about who they are.” She tucked this thought away in a notebook.
This year, world and life circumstances led Tsonas to pull out the notebook and revisit the idea. Tsonas is a Korean American and experienced anti-Asian racism due to America’s reaction to COVID-19. She also began exploring her identity in a deeper way. An adoptee, she recently embarked on a search for her birth family in Korea. And, due to the pandemic, she was laid off from her job as executive director of the Squam Art Workshops and found herself with time to explore.
“It created an opening, like a perfect storm. I felt that it was time to put this project to work.”
Suddenly, she had the time and space, and new hunger, to explore this nascent idea she’d had all those years ago.
“I’ve always been someone who likes to put myself to work,” she says. “It was time to build a new community, a community that stops centering whiteness, a community that looked and felt like me and had voices that were reflective of my experience.” She decided to call it the Be Seen Project.
One of the first contributions was the Red Mask Project, a call to makers to sew and wear red masks as an act of anti-racism. Her efforts caught the eye of Diane Ivey of Lady Dye Yarns who was working with a team of makers on the EmPower People Project, a similar effort but with a sewn, crocheted, or knit purple shawl. She began collaborating with them.
Working on those two projects helped Tsonas solidify her idea to create a platform that would contain resources for artists who are activists.
“Our site is shining a light on artists whose work is particularly focused on social justice and human rights issues. I really want to push that needle forward,” Tsonas explains.
One of the first parts of the site Tsonas built was a comprehensive resource list for community, funding, and activism especially curated for BIPOC artists, makers, and creatives.
The Red Mask Project was one that Tsonas herself created as a symbolic anti-racist symbol.
An important component of the Be Seen project is issuing micro-grants to individual artists currently working on activism projects. The grants are funded through donations from sponsors. “Any funds we get we’re parlaying as much of that as we can to the grant recipients so they can continue to live and work and create meaningful projects,” she explains.
Darci Kern poses in one of her Knitting While Black images. Kerns received a micro-grant for her work from the Be Seen Project.
One grant recipient was Darci Kern whose project, Knitting While Black, was inspired by a Google Arts and Culture search for “knitting” that turned up 1400 images only 2 of which depicted a Black person. She decided to fix this representation problem by recreating old paintings and photographs of women knitting, crocheting, spinning, and crafting with herself as the subject and posting them on Instagram.
Right now, the Be Seen project is staffed by Tsonas alone right now, and is a sole proprietorship. She’s investigating getting 501-C3 status to become a non-profit organization.
The zine and podcast
In an effort to make the project truly multi-media, Tsonas is launching an accompanying quarterly zine as well as a podcast. “I wanted to create more offerings, and different mediums allow us to feature other artists and activists.”
Why an old-school zine? “It’s an opportunity to not always have to be on our devices which I think is really important, too.” The first issue, entitled Dissent and inspired by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, will hit mailboxes this month.
Features and sponsors
Tsonas is always on the lookout for artists to feature on the Be Seen Project. If you feel your work, or the work of an artist you know, might be a good fit, Tsonas encourages you to reach out. “We’re really grassroots and we want to feature projects that aren’t generally seen by the masses,” she says. The Be Seen project is also looking for 2021 sponsors. Tsonas says sponsorship is really a reciprocal relationship and she sees sponsors as co-collaborators.
The Be Seen project is building a community via its Instagram account where Tsonas is featuring outstanding artwork by BIPOC creators on themes of social justice. One way to support the project, Tsonas says, is to follow the account and share it with your own followers. “I think movements like these are really built just person to person,” she says. “We’re hoping people will want to talk about the project, and share it.” Tsonas will be also be doing a virtual Craft Chat with the Fuller Craft Museum about the project on October 21 at 2pm EST if you’d like to learn more.
“We’re combining education and history, craft and activism and artistry,” Tsonas says about the effort. “Putting all those pieces together? It really is the kind of thing where I’m building the ship as it’s going out to sea.”
Abby co-founded Craft Industry Alliance and now serves as its president. She’s a sewing pattern designer, teacher, and journalist. She’s dedicated to creating an outstanding trade association for the crafts industry. Abby lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts.