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Connected by Love and Light: A Conversation with Adam J. Kurtz

Artist Adam Kurtz sitting with Alyshah Ebrahim, interviewer and QA Analyst at Mailchimp

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City. And 2020 will mark the 50th Anniversary of the Atlanta Pride Parade.

With those historic moments in mind, Mailchimp embarked upon a collaborative journey for Atlanta Pride 2019 alongside NYC-based artist Adam J. Kurtz. He spent several months, including an immersive 3-day brainstorm at our Atlanta headquarters, creating what he refers to as an “emotional manifesto.”

In working on the project, Adam met with various teams at the company, and our LGBT-focused employee resource group (ERG), Pride at Mailchimp, to spark inspiration.

Just before the parade, QA Analyst Alyshah Ebrahim, who also serves on the Pride at Mailchimp leadership team, sat down with Adam for a candid conversation on the inspiration behind the project, and what it means for Adam to lend his deeply personal trademark artwork to Mailchimp for the parade.

Adam Kurtz wearing a hat with his art and sitting on a stool next to tossed ideas.

Alyshah: We're excited about collaborating with you for Atlanta Pride 2019 – can you tell us how this partnership came about?

Adam: I have no memory of doing this specifically, but I posted an Instagram story that was like “Hey brands hire a real live gay person for your pride stuff,” and I tagged a bunch of companies and was really just trolling. I didn't think anyone was going to see it and tagged Mailchimp, and that's how the beginning of this started.

Why did you think to add Mailchimp to your initial Instagram post?

I just think within the creative community Mailchimp is always kind of around. Mailchimp’s always present and accounted for in different spaces, by sponsoring events or causes or organizations, or doing the mural project around Atlanta, or doing Creative Mornings globally.

I see Mailchimp as a company that’s very embedded in the culture of the creative community, and not stingy with their money. Like straight up being like we make money doing this thing and we're putting it back into the community.

So even at that time it made sense to me that of course Mailchimp’s doing pride stuff, so I guess I'll throw them in the mix.

Mailchimp employees posing for a group photo at the end of the Atlanta Pride Parade in Piedmont Park.

For our initial meeting, you flew down to Mailchimp’s Atlanta headquarters for three days and were fully immersed in our culture. What was that experience like? How did it impact your creative approach?

It was really nice to come down early and speak with everyone and have what felt like a very candid conversation with both the design team about what was possible, and then with the Pride ERG (employee resource group) about what matters.

I can only speak from my own experience, and as a cis gender white gay man that's a very specific experience. So to sit in a room talking about what we did want to see and definitely didn’t want to see, it was really cool as an outsider just to know that Mailchimp has these resource groups for different groups of employees to give them voice and give them that space to speak up for themselves.

I mean, I knew Mailchimp was cool. I was like it's 2019 there’s going to be action groups and social groups within the company, but it was better and more legit than I thought. People were so excited to be there and hang out, and then hang out afterwards. It was really encouraging for someone who hasn't worked in a traditional office environment in a while, and for someone who has previously worked at some cool companies, but they didn’t have that.

As a New York based artist, what excites you most about participating in Atlanta Pride specifically?

New York Pride is its own beast and this year it hosted World Pride. I went to a lot of events and I saw part of the parade. New York Pride this year was massive and almost every single queer person I spoken to about it was like that kind of sucked, everybody was fatigued.

It wasn’t bad, but at a certain point it can't be about community anymore because it's so big, and Atlanta Pride isn't that. Yes, there are big corporations represented in this parade, but it’s a smaller, more passionate group. It's happening in October, which is really separate from a lot of the Pride’s around the country, so it really gets to stand on its own and be its own thing for Atlanta, and that's cool. That’s really special.

Person walking in Atlanta Pride Parade with Mailchimp shows off awesome stickers designed by Adam Kurtz and the Mailchimp Design Team.

You graciously lent your trademark artwork to Mailchimp for Pride this year, which we’re so thankful for. What about this project made you feel comfortable enough to do that?

After the meeting, I had a ton of notes and I pitched a lot of different ideas. I remember this deck was just like crammed full of stuff. I remember this rainbow image, this one color rainbow that started as a tattoo on my arm. There's something so personal about it that I thought it was my little thing, and I didn’t know about giving it to a company, but I also didn’t know how it can represent so many people.

In my head, there was just me and I wanted to make sure to not do that. I didn't want to show up and be like, “No, this is all of us”. And it was through feedback and a lot of insight from different people who said “No, that's why you're here”. We wanted to get a queer artists who’re doing their work in this space already and elevate that, literally blowing it up into giant inflatables. It really felt like Mailchimp saying “Hey, we saw that little art you doodled on a post it note and like we want to put that in the world.”

But, had I not come down to Atlanta and hung out for three days. I probably would have been more hesitant and tried to find something else. It was absolutely just meeting the people and understanding that you're all cool, real humans who also work for a company – like having a job doesn't make you a robot. That connection really helped and made me feel comfortable taking something so personal to me and then blowing and making it into something that we can be proud to carry, display, and giveaway.

You collaborated with our Pride ERG, and many teams throughout the company, including employee experience, design, and marketing. What was the creative process like for you with so many stakeholders involved?

It was really just about listening to everyone. That was the most important thing. That's what design is about, and I specifically have a graphic designer background more than illustration or fine art, and design is really about identifying what’s the concept, deliverables, timeline, and budget – then crafting a brief and working from there.

I learned about what the point was from a Mailchimp marketing standpoint, about the capabilities from design, about the messages we wanted to hit from the Pride ERG. Even deciding who the audience was. Us? The Mailchimp community? Or the Atlanta community? We figured out all those pieces and that really helped.

It wasn't a traditional brief. It was more like an emotional manifesto and then that’s what carried me through to the next steps.

As a longtime Mailchimp customer, how did if feel to go from customer to collaborator, merging brands for this project?

Anytime that you're able to connect on a human level with brands or companies with services that you use, it makes it all so much more meaningful. I knew that Mailchimp was cool. I'd been to Mailchimp sponsored events before. But to have this direct connection and meet the people who literally build the product that I've been using for like seven year was really cool.

Sometimes on the internet, we forget that there's a person at both ends. Now, I think about the design team who are so cool. I think about the Pride ERG being like this diverse and passionate group. In meeting with them, the room was intergenerational, we had some folks saying things that some of the younger folks were like, “oh, we don't say that anymore.” I would listen to a podcast of that meeting.

Mailchimp Pride Parade balloons designed by artist Adam Kurtz and the Mailchimp Design Team.

With the 50th anniversary of Stonewall being this year, and next year’s being the 50th anniversary of Atlanta Pride, were those historical moments in mind when working on this project?

Absolutely, and we even have one of our executions that references the 50 year date.

I think that was really a big part of it, and this speaks, maybe more to like the specifics of the design and the concepts we leaned into, but definitely wanted to reference the 50 years and respect to that, but also not like lean too hard on being preachy or trying to educate.

That was really, really good feedback about wanting to do this thing that feels real and important and as part of the conversation, but we didn’t want to say “We’re Mailchimp and we’re here to teach you queer history”.

I don't think anyone's going to have rainbows represented the way that we do. I don't think anyone’s going to have a creative treatment quite like ours. And I think it's really cool to say as much as we've said with the subtlety that we have, and have that be part of the conversation on Sunday.

Adam Kurtz waving a pride flag while walking in the Atlanta Pride Parade with Mailchimp.

Mailchimp is a proud sponsor of the Atlanta Pride Parade, and supports various LGBTQIA organizations year-round, including:

You can also support those organizations by clicking the links above.

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