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The Art of the Infographic: Designer and Activist Jessica Bellamy

By Robert Ordona

photo of Jessica Bellamy

Jessica Bellamy

This new Adobe Creative Resident is passionate about art, social justice, making data easy to understand and share, and community. She combines these passions in her innovative infographic work.

Jessica Bellamy is a young woman of tremendous cravings—for knowledge, education, innovation, the arts, and social justice, to name a few—and her appetites were fueled, appropriately enough, by the popular soul food restaurant her family has owned and operated for decades in the Smoketown neighborhood of her native Louisville, Kentucky.

A COMMUNITY MAINSTAY

Bellamy’s grandmother opened Shirley Mae’s Café two months before Bellamy was born, and it’s been a Smoketown mainstay ever since. “Its chicken was ranked sixth best in the country by the Travel Channel,“ Bellamy says proudly. But it’s with even greater pride that she describes the service her family has contributed to Smoketown, Louisville’s oldest historically black community.

“The restaurant has always been a prime location for people to meet because it’s in the center of the neighborhood. The restaurant has always contributed to the community. From serving free food on holidays like Martin Luther King’s Birthday to organizing the annual Smoketown Halloween Safe Walk for kids, they’ve been an active component in the health and happiness of the neighborhood.”

With her grandmother at the helm, her family created the “Salute to Black Jockeys” festival, which honored the competitors of color who have been part of the Kentucky Derby from its onset. The Derby has long been internationally renowned, but until Shirley Mae and her family stepped up, many of these pioneers were not.

Standing in front of the family restaurant, Bellamy’s mother, Theresa Simpson, displays a portrait of black jockey Isaac Murphy that she drew with colored chalks on black cloth.  

The festival attracted its own celebrity following—Bellamy has a great memory of Whoopi Goldberg walking into the restaurant kitchen on one morning of the festival when she was five or six.

“She asked for my grandmother, and I told her we were waiting for her to make breakfast,” recalls Bellamy. “Well, looks like you’ve been waiting a long time,” Goldberg said.

Bellamy says that the Academy Award winner then proceeded to “get stuff out of the fridge to make us breakfast. Then my mother walks in and freaks out. ‘I got this,’ she said, and finished our breakfast.”

Bellamy’s mother, Theresa Simpson, is a talented artist in her own right who first exposed Bellamy to the artistic process with her pastel drawings on silk.

“She was always so meticulous,” says Bellamy. “One thing about her work that really inspired me was her careful lines. She would never use a pencil. Every line was the final line. You never see all of the iteration—it gave me the feeling that her work was effortless.”

AN OVERACHIEVER WITH AN ARTIST’S HEART

Fed up with the limiting public educational institutions in town, Simpson used the funds she was saving for Bellamy’s college tuition to enroll her at Presentation Academy, a Catholic private high school for young women in Louisville. “It’s a feminist school that encourages leadership and learning about yourself and finding out what you want to do,” says Bellamy. “My drive, intuitiveness, and belief in myself and what I could accomplish were fostered at Presentation.

While she was in college, Bellamy began creating information graphics. After graduating, she founded Grassroots Information Design Studio (GRIDS).

After her graduation from high school, Bellamy received a full scholarship to the University of Louisville, where she “ended up taking everything.” She says, “She says, “ I majored in Pan-African Studies, Communication Arts & Design, and Drawingl with a minor in Communication. I did so much because I believe that our greatest talents lie at the intersections of seemingly independent skills. ”

Throughout college, she searched for ways to connect her various disciplines. After writing a 20-page paper for her Pre-Colonial Africa class, she realized, “No one is going to read this,” so she created an information graphic that involved an interactive PDF, which communicated her points more successfully than a text-only presentation could have. From then on she began focusing on graphic design, because she believed it to be the most effective way to communicate.

At this point, she says, she knew what she wanted to do: combine her passions for art and information, and use them together to bring about social change. She says, “I wanted to create dialog using art as the medium—and find solutions that could be communicated through visuals.”

THE DATA MATTERS

But she didn’t realize the full power of the infographic until she created one as part of a report for a community meeting to discuss the rejuvenation—in other words, gentrification—of Smoketown.

The district councilman arrived to talk about the developments, which many members of the community did not support. The pastor from the neighborhood church stood up and challenged the councilman using the facts contained in Bellamy’s infographic. “He made his points using this data that he had easily in his hands. I realized that I had created this weapon, this powerful force to change policy. I was so empowered.”

So Bellamy founded the Grassroots Information Design Studio (GRIDS), which, as her website explains, “generates information graphics, animated graphics, maps…in order to better disseminate information to communities.”

A GRIDS infographic addressing gender inequality.

“I saw this huge opportunity that was a perfect sphere of research design and community engagement,” explains Bellamy. “I wanted to be part of the social-change network.” Through GRIDS, she teaches communities how they can embolden themselves to be their own designers and leverage the power dynamic.

Infographics are such a potent tool, Bellamy says, because they transcend so many barriers: “Language barriers, literacy barriers. It gives us the opportunity to take information in quickly because our brains absorb visuals more easily than just text.”

Bellamy’s focus is not only on responsible content, but also on conscious design: “It’s about using data responsibly and consciously within the information graphic,” she explains. “It’s important not to stereotype a population or use archetypes.”

A page from a GRIDS presentation that shows a timeline of LGBTQ history in Kentucky, and a photo of Bellamy at a Pride event with infographics she had worked on.

As an example, Bellamy uses the process of creating a GRIDS infographic about families affected by incarceration: “One of the data points we decided not to use was about the likelihood of children whose parent was incarcerated to commit a crime and be incarcerated themselves. The feedback we got was that we don’t want to criminalize children…. When we lump people together and average them out, we lose a lot of important stories. And when people no longer see themselves in the data, it's no longer equitable. We have to make conscious choices to use or not use data.”

HACKING AWAY AT SOCIAL INJUSTICE

A devotee of Adobe InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop, Bellamy hopes to develop her use of these tools during her Creative Residency. “I really want to get more into motion graphics—After Effects and animation are first and foremost on my radar. I want to experiment with Muse. I want to get even more into Illustrator—I feel like there’s a whole other side that I don’t know yet,” she says.

But the Residency is more than an opportunity for her to learn; it’s an opportunity to create, innovate, engage, and connect—and escalate the art of the infographic to a new level.

Bellamy plans to do this by developing motion graphics, designing a resource website for artists and social justice organizations, and coordinating a series of national hackathons that will unite infographic artists and advisors from the nonprofit community.

Though she’ll continue to focus her energies on issues in her beloved Louisville, she wants to expand her sights and her influence. “I want to continue with national data sets, possibly even international data sets. My goal is to make a cultural shift,” says Bellamy.

So just as it was in her childhood, in Shirley Mae’s kitchen, Bellamy’s plate is heaped high with her passions—and ambitions—and, as always, she’s ready to dive in.

The Adobe Creative Residency empowers talented individuals to spend a year focusing on a passion project, while sharing their experiences and processes with the creative community.