Five years ago, artist and activist Melanie Oliva had built an award-winning career as the creative director of an advertising firm in Chicago. It was a concrete jungle where she worked 60-to-90-hour weeks, made good money, and succeeded in finding a profitable way to hone her craft as a graphic designer.
But her moral compass kept nagging her.
She was dissatisfied with her work because of the negative environmental impact of the products she was marketing. Her guilt festered into anxiety, and eventually she burned out, right in the middle of a polar vortex.
By 2014, Oliva and her husband decided they needed both a drastic lifestyle change and some sunshine, so they moved to Miami.
Since arriving in the Magic City, Oliva has left the corporate world and immersed herself in her long-held passion: creating purposeful art. Her work includes a giant caterpillar puppet used in the 2017 Artist March she co-organized and the March Against Monsanto, as well as a visually arresting cutout of Marco Rubio doused in blood for the March for Our Lives rally. Most recently, she finished a teaching residency with Project Art where her After Image series raised awareness about threatened animals and insects. She has used her skills as a graphic designer to support grassroots organizers while also fostering community through artist collectives and movements that use art to effect positive change in environmental and social consciousnesses.
Last week, on a blistering Friday afternoon, Oliva’s hand-printed red T-shirt read, “It’s gettin hot in herre. Will SoFlo sink? Who knows?” Her torso and arms were adorned with aqua-blue pool floaties as she gripped an oversize banner alongside a dozen other protesters in front of Miami City Hall. Their demands were clear from the chant they shouted in unison: The city of Miami needs to declare a climate emergency.
It’s a far cry from the life Oliva led less than a decade ago, but her disarming warmth and conviction remain unparalleled.
When she moved to Miami in 2014, she began painting trees and the natural world around her. Oliva, who grew up next to a forest preserve in Nashville where hummingbirds and opossums roamed free, has always been a keen observer of nature. She quickly began to understand the gravity of Miami's sea-level rise and climate change.
"I think in Chicago, I felt somewhat removed from it. We weren't right there seeing the effects. And then moving here, seeing it firsthand, I realized this is worse than I thought," Oliva says. "Moving here afforded me that opportunity to explore and go towards what I was passionate about."
She began following the Urban Paradise Guild on Facebook, and soon thereafter, she started the group Inspiration Pollination, a community of creators that discusses the importance of pollinators at a time when some species risk extinction. The group has 700 members and serves as a forum for creatives and naturalists alike whose mission is to help save pollinators, which are critical in raising crops.
"My art drew me towards environmental issues, and then that led me towards social justice issues, because they are all interconnected," Oliva says.
After dipping her toes in a plethora of grassroots movements, she noticed activists needed a more streamlined approach to work with artists. Her next project, the Artful Activist, was a way to connect the two and help bridge the gap between message and image.
"I think artists can bring ideas to activists who aren’t artists as far as bringing creativity to the process and doing something outside the box," she says. "You need that element that is going to sway somebody, give them goosebumps, and make them cry, something that will help them emotionally connect."
In 2015, Oliva worked with Imagine Our Florida to get resolutions passed across the state to ban black bear hunting. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission was selling permits to let people hunt the endangered bears, so Oliva wrote an article for the activist website Red Flag and collaborated with other artists to supply artwork of black bears to accompany the piece.
"It was an emotional plea for municipalities to pass a resolution. I sent it to my mayor at the time in Biscayne Park, and I think the article helped him connect with the issue and he passed the resolution," Oliva says. "So that inspired me to think, or gave me more confidence, that these artist collaborations help to move things forward. It can only help."
After the 2016 presidential election, she knew she needed to act once again. She made a Facebook group to foster a safe space to spark collaboration between activists and artists.
"The election happened, and we were all blown away by what happened," Oliva says. "I created this secret group on Facebook and brought on all the artists I knew and all the people from advertising. They all have such brilliant minds, and I brought them together just as a way to brainstorm."
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From there, she co-organized the Artist March with fellow artist Alessandra Mondolfi, and her network of community organizers expanded in ways she never could have imagined. She befriended Haitian-American performer Ajhanou Uneek and soon began attending street cleanups in Little Haiti organized by Konscious Kontractors.
"I don’t think Alessandra Mondolfi realizes how much her march trickled out and affected everybody, but that was our goal — to bring people together and form community with that," Oliva says. "It wasn’t a traditional march. We weren’t asking people for one thing; we just wanted the Miami community to come together and gel."
Her home studio in Biscayne Park brims with pieces she's made for the countless protests and activities in which she's participated in her short time in Miami. In one corner, an ethnic rainbow of fists forms a whimsical pink pinwheel. In another stands a rack of repurposed clothing on which Oliva has hand-printed self-affirming phrases. Leaning on her desk are pieces from her watercolor and acrylic series After Image, depicting the ephemeral image that remains after one stares at something bright. Draped on a chair is Ann Lewis' Gentrification in Progress yellow barrier tape, which Oliva, alongside FANM and Konscious Kontractors, recently used to protest the Magic City Innovation District in Little Haiti.
"I probably look like I'm all over the place," Oliva says, "that there is no thread. But I choose [the issues] just by what affects me and what makes me cry or what makes me really upset. I have to find a way to do something."