To read about the rest of the Culture Shifters, including actor Da’Vine Joy Randolph and activist Emily Barker, return to the full list here.
Tessa Forrest is the kind of person you meet and immediately feel connected to.
The 28-year-old graphic designer behind the popular Instagram art project Subliming.jpg has an ease and a warmth about her, which came across within the first five minutes we spent together. Of course we weren’t physically together, we were on Zoom, because we’re still in the midst of a pandemic, and the Brooklyn dweller spent the more frigid winter months in the back house of her boyfriend’s parents’ place in Ventura, California.
Forrest grew up in Fort Myers, Florida, and has been an artist since she was a little kid. Her grandmother was an artist, so creative expression was something she was always around. When Forrest was just 5 years old, she drew a self-portrait that left her mother “stunned.” (Sadly, the sketch has now been lost to the sands of time.) During middle school, she started playing around on her family’s computer, so her parents bought her Photoshop. That’s when her love of graphic design really blossomed — playing around with the Adobe software to beef up her pre-Facebook social media accounts.
“I would make MySpace layouts and graphics for me and my friends,” Forrest said, laughing. “And LiveJournal icons.” (Hers is a truly millennial origin story.) But beyond earning some cred with her MySpace friends, Forrest found the practice of playing with shapes, colors and typography to be calming. “It puts you in a trance,” she said.
And it’s exactly that therapeutic quality that led her to create Subliming.jpg, an Instagram-based project where Forrest takes quotes and spiritual teachings and remakes them into bold, beautiful, typographical art. (“Do not fear mistakes, there are none,” reads one recent post with a textured beige block print lying atop a green background.) What began as a personal project in early 2016 to cope with a maelstrom of trauma — a breakup, a burgeoning eating disorder, and multiple family health crises that led Forrest to experience a “depth of emotion” she never had before — has since ballooned into something much bigger.
“Community is one of the most vital things, but I was extremely codependent,” said Forrest, speaking about the long-term relationship that left her on uneasy ground when it ended. “Reading teachings about independence was really helpful.”
As she read more, she began to make visual representations of the lessons that she was learning along the way, each new message with its own aesthetic personality. She shared a Bryant McGill quote over a sunset gradient, a teaching from Rumi in simple sans-serif letters on a seafoam background, a Pema Chödrön quote looping back and forth across an Instagram square like a snake. (Now, the teachings come from all over: books, Instagram posts, random signage.) And it turned out that Forrest’s public vulnerability really resonated with a lot of people. The Subliming.jpg account has more than 500,000 followers, including Dua Lipa, Kacey Musgraves and Ariana Grande.
Forrest is still in awe of the community she has built; she is almost surprised at the way her own pain might speak to others. “I’m baring my soul,” she said, “so to have other people message me and say, ‘Thank you so much, this is exactly what I needed to read,’ it’s the best feeling I could ever feel.”
In 2017, when Subliming.jpg was just starting to attract a modest following, Forrest got a full-time job with trendy activewear brand Outdoor Voices. At the startup, she got to really cut her teeth professionally and still feels grateful to the brand’s founder, Tyler Haney, and her former colleagues for taking a chance on her. When she first started working at Outdoor Voices, it was “all-encompassing.”
“It was your world, in a way,” Forrest said.
And then in late 2019, there was an implosion. Forrest’s whole team got laid off on Halloween. Leaving Outdoor Voices gave Forrest time to reflect on her relationship to work and allowed her to shift her focus in earnest to Subliming.jpg and other projects.
“[Outdoor Voices] wasn’t a perfect place to work, and I would say that towards the end there I lost a lot of the magic for it,” Forrest said. She also learned an important lesson: “A company is just a company. You don’t have to be deathly loyal to a brand.”
This is a quandary many millennials have found themselves in. We entered the workforce during a time of great precarity, and then continued to grow our careers amid an increasing emphasis on the gig economy and the fetishization of “hustle.” Forrest has been able to successfully pivot from her day job, but still worries about what it means to be too dependent on a platform like Instagram.
On the one hand, social media platforms have unquestionably made it easier for artists to bypass traditional gatekeepers and connect with consumers. On the other hand, what happens if Instagram becomes passe? Do spiritual teachings no longer hold the same weight once they’ve been tied in a neat little bow on social media? And what does spending all day on Instagram mean for the creator’s mental health?
“That’s been my biggest journey this year,” Forrest said. “I think it’s absolutely incredible that this kind of style of content has taken hold. But it feels commodified and a little oversaturated, in terms of it being based on Instagram. I just don’t want it to become a trend and then go downhill.”
It’s a messy thing to have your identity and your art tied up in a platform that you ultimately have little control over. Forrest knows that there are no easy answers to these questions, so she’s trying to branch out while still continuing to use Instagram to create content that feels meaningful.
She’s not exactly sure what her next creative chapter will look like, but she knows it will be “less about tying [pain] up in a pretty bow and making it a beautiful spiritual post.”
“It’s more about what I can make with the pain,” she said. “There’s not a quote that will fix your grief or fix your trauma. I’m trying to figure out how to share that.”