Q&A: Art, Activism and We The Women with Cat Seto and Lisa Congdon

by Erin Austen Abbott

We Are Women on Design*Sponge

Art has always been at the forefront of telling the stories of the times. As far back in history as we know, art has been there. Whether it be carvings on cave walls or in Egyptian tombs, visual storytelling is a needed form of expression that gives us a look into the past and what was going on then. With Saving Faces and We The Women campaign, the visual story takes you on a deeper look at the sign of the times.

Due to the current state of the political climate in our country and beyond, artists Cat Seto and Lisa Congdon didn’t think it was the time to sit back and watch. They wanted to do something to be heard and be seen. Bringing their art communities together, Cat and Lisa wanted to create an environment where women could express themselves in a way that feels safe and encouraging, yet also gives back. I’m so excited that they have a platform here at Design*Sponge to launch their campaign. I hope you feel energized after reading about this amazing organization and are encouraged to get involved. —Erin

Image above: “It’s Time To Roar” by Lisa Congdon

We The Women for Design*Sponge

Image above: Art created for the Year of The Woman collection, by Cat Seto for Ferme à Papier.

Please tell us about Saving Faces and We The Women campaign.

We The Women for Design*Sponge
Image above: “Stay Awake” Art by Lisa Congdon.

Cat: Saving Faces is a collective of makers and creatives who formed because we wanted to raise awareness and advocate for women, in particular about domestic violence and abuse through workshops and pop-up dinners. Our first meeting was at my studio in San Francisco the day after the most recent Presidential election. The fact that we all showed up to “make” something despite the shock and fears we felt made it clear that 2017 needed to be about trying to bring awareness through our visual and creative interests.

I remember attending the Women’s March here in San Francisco with my son, being pressed shoulder to shoulder with so many other supporters as we made our way down Market Street. I felt invigorated and full of internal questions of how I, as a woman, mother, minority and artist/maker could come together with others to make sustained and meaningful impact. We the Women came about as a visual campaign to raise awareness in the best ways that we as women and makers/artists can… through ART.

Lisa: After the election, Cat, who is a friend and colleague in the design world, contacted me. She was so dismayed by the results, and knew that I was too and she wanted to do something. I joined the advisory board for Saving Faces, and she asked me if I wanted to collaborate with her on something else — something big, something with a national impact. She had this idea for a visual campaign with art at the center. Art is such a powerful medium. She wanted to do something big, something that would make people think. I immediately said yes. And from there we began talking about what the We The Women Campaign could look like.

Image above: “This was at my studio, the night after elections. I was so proud that all of the women, busy moms and creatives that all showed up — despite the shocking election results — to support and rally our collective,” Cat shares.

Can you tell us more about what sparked starting Saving Faces?

We The Women for Design*Sponge
Image above: Artist Cat Seto, taken at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in front of Claudy Jonstra’s “Aarde” installation.

Cat: My past relationship challenged the very merits of my voice as a woman and an Asian American. Growing up, I was taught to “Save Face” for the sake of family and community pride. But these were not always healthy outcomes. I credit creative expression and my love for art in saving me again and again as a child, an adult, as a woman and a mother when I have been challenged with finding or protecting my own safety and individual voice. While Saving Face often means sacrificing your individual voice, the plurality of “Saving Faces” takes on completely different meaning. Together, it is a collective of women and voices coming together to support.

It also involves reaching out to others in the community. We are very lucky to have an amazing advisory board as we felt it was important to have the informed advice from individuals literally fighting the fires out there. Amongst them (Lisa Congdon included!) is Sonia Melara who is a local legend here in SF… 40 years of service. In addition to being SF Police Commissioner, she co-founded the first women’s shelter in California, La Casa de las Madres, as well as La Cocina, an incubator for low-income food entrepreneurs. Tait Sye was the former spokesperson and media director for Planned Parenthood as well as Ass’t Deputy Secretary for the Health and Human Services Department under the Obama administration.

What are your goals for We The Women?

Image above: Artist Lisa Congdon in her Portland, OR studio. Photo by Kimberley  Hasselbrink

Cat: WE THE WOMEN is a visual campaign which aims to advocate for health and reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination, job equity, racial equality, domestic shelter and immigration rights, among other causes that impact human lives. Our goal is to create a series of visual art installations that will exhibit in different cities to target those intersectional issues. The key here is that the installations are created by the community and are interactive. Our first callout starts here in asking for signatures of support. Not [only will] your signature become a part these installations and show of your support, but you’ll be included in a mailing list in which you can stay tuned in and participate.

Lisa: We are consulting with artist Lisa Solomon, who is an accomplished installation artist, to make a plan for a series of site-specific installations to which people in that community (and people from surrounding areas) can contribute to creating. Each of the installations will reflect one or two of the issues we are highlighting (domestic violence or trans rights, for example). The installations will be on view in each of the locations around the country for a period of time; the process of creating the installation and the response will be documented and shared. Soon we’ll start selecting locations and themes, and then begin the process of organizing all of the scheduling and logistics for creating the installations and promoting them. Our goal is to involve people, women and folks from other marginalized groups, in particular, as artists and contributors. We really believe the visual impact of the installations will move people in a powerful way to continue to take action. We want to change minds and inspire people visually.


How can people get involved with your organization?

There are several ways to get involved.

1. First, we are doing a call for signatures to support and participate in our campaign. Visit We The Women Campaign and register your name and contact info. We’ll be in touch soon for visual callouts for our installation and art campaigns.

2. We want to get in touch with you and your community! We can’t do this alone and would love for you to share our callout. We would love to get the word out to as many makers, creatives, women, and individuals interested in supporting our causes as possible. In addition to signing up, if you’d like to help us directly with the campaign email us at info@savingfacessf.com

3. You can purchase (there’s a “contribute” link to this on our site) one of our “Year of the Woman” art prints to help support the campaign financially.

We The Women for Design*Sponge
Image above: “Women of the World, This Is Just The Beginning” Art by Lisa Congdon.

How do you tie your art into activism?

Image above: “From the Year of the Woman Collection and for sale on the We the Women website to help support our campaign,” Cat says.

Cat: I can’t imagine separating these entities from my daily life, especially in the times that we are living in today. Art has saved and defined me over and over again. It is the loudest, most beautiful and strongest way in which I am able to communicate my ideals and dreams. When I become anxious at the state of the world, I sketch. And I’ve been volunteering my illustration services to local peace protests and neighborhood organizations in the city, such as RDNC, doing posters and murals. I also started a new collection to my stationery company, Ferme à Papier, called “Year of the Woman” in which portions of proceeds will go towards Saving Faces/We the Women and other women’s advocacy groups. I haven’t been this sleep deprived since having my son, but at the same time I feel more aligned with my goals as an artist and woman than ever before. Bridging the two has made me more effective as an artist and also an activist.

Lisa: I have always used my platform as an artist to speak out about issues that are important or personal to me, [most] notably LGBTQ rights. But after the election I began spending more time making art that spoke out about all of the basic human rights and equality that I saw under threat. I wanted to inspire other artists and my followers, specifically on Instagram, to speak out bravely. I have also spent a lot of time raising money for non-profit causes supporting the resistance via the sale of my activist art work, and will continue to do this as long as I have to. I am also starting an organization in Portland, Oregon (where I live) for artists and designers who are People of Color and LGBTQ with my friend Eugenie Fontana. Through that organization, we are beginning to engage in advocacy work and form a mentoring program for teens and young professionals. Getting involved with Cat was another way for me to contribute to the conversation in a way that had a national impact. I am really excited to be part of it.
We The Women for Design*Sponge

Image above: Art by Cat Seto, used on the poster for the various pop up dinners, benefiting Saving Faces and We The Women.

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  • This is so, so wonderful – thank you for sharing! Just added my signature. Would love to be more involved if anything makes its way to NYC.

  • This is great, it reminds me of last year I became aware of “we the people” campaign. Ended up supporting the Kickstarter project and purchased art by US artists including Shepard Fairey. I live in Australia and these types of projects are necessary the world over. People’s voices/art in defence of universal respect and human dignity need to be encouraged. We can’t let the despair overtake us.

  • What a wonderful initiative to have been born from the ashes of the US election. In times of uncertainty, sharing positive messages of hope is what empowers us to change in positive ways. Thank you ladies x

  • The image of Cat Seto looks like it was taken in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, not her studio, in front of Claudy Jonstra’s “Aarde” installation. The work should be credited.

      • Thank you, it’s a great article about the power of art and activism. Just given that the article is about advocating for women and women artists, and that the image was used as the lead image for the article, it felt misleading and inaccurate to caption the image as her studio, which implies that the work behind her is either hers or that she owns it.