Interview: Katie Miranda on ISM, art, politics and Palestine

The following interview with Katie Miranda, ISM organizer, artist and jewelry designer, is reprinted from My Olive Roots, where it was originally featured. Interview by Maha Huneidi:

Katie Miranda (KM) is a multifaceted artist/activist living in Portland, Oregon where she has a jewelry and apparel business: www.katiemiranda.com, and does cartoons for Mondoweiss and the Middle East EyeFor an American of Jewish and Christian descent, Katie is more Palestinian than many I’ve met. She speaks passionately about Palestine and the Palestinian people; her art portrays that passion.

MOR : Tell us about yourself.

KM : I grew up in the California Bay area where I went to art school at the Academy of Art University, later working as a freelance illustrator. I was raised with the Zionist version of history. When 9/11 happened, I got involved in the anti-war movement and started going to demonstrations, where I met people who educated me about Palestinian history.

After Rachel Corrie was killed I became interested in the organization that she worked for, the International Solidarity Movement. I read more about what they were doing and was totally blown away! They were sending people to stand in front of bulldozers, putting volunteers in Palestinian ambulances so that they could negotiate with the soldiers for injured Palestinians to pass through checkpoints. The sick and injured could be held at the checkpoints indefinitely and sometimes they would die.

In 2005 I attended an International Solidarity Movement, training session in Berkeley, California. I had no intention of ever going to Palestine; I just wanted to learn more about their work. I was so excited by what they were doing that I decided to visit Palestine. I originally only intended to stay for three months but ended up staying for three years, working with ISM mainly in Hebron first, then as a trainer in Ramallah.

MOR : How did your art evolve during that time?

KM : I was still painting and drawing, and doing lots of projects. I created a Postcards from Palestine series, illustrating incidents of trauma or violence that I experienced. One of these paintings was of a little boy, about seven or eight years old, who lived near the settlement in Hebron. A settler woman shoved rocks in his mouth and slammed his mouth shut breaking his teeth, so I painted a picture of him with his crushed teeth which he had shown me. I was poignantly trying to illustrate daily life.

MOR : Did you ever exhibit those paintings?

KM : Yes, a few times. When I painted them around 2006-2007 I returned to the US to give talks and fundraise, but it was difficult back then to get any kind of art shows and when it’s art about Palestine, people didn’t want to know. The climate was different then, in terms of talking about Palestine; it’s evolved tremendously nowadays.

MOR : You’ve adopted the Palestinian cause and have been active in initiating programs including Art Under Apartheid and the Tel Rumeida Circus for Detained Palestinians, among others. Are those programs one-time initiatives?

KM : Yes. Many people with creative skills visit and set up their own programs. I started The Art Under Apartheid when I was in the West Bank teaching art to children who have nothing, nowhere to play, etc. They hung out in the street next to the soldiers who sometimes forbade them to play in the streets, so I wanted to expand their horizons through art. Eventually another volunteer from Pennsylvania came along to teach yoga and English, she was a public-school teacher and they adored that.

The circus was just my circus buddy and me. We started performing at checkpoints to entertain Palestinians while they were detained. It was ridiculous, but it strangely calmed down the soldiers, making them less angry. So, by directing their attention towards us, and away from the Palestinians, ordinary people weren’t being so harassed, and usually got released sooner.

MOR : How did you get involved in political cartoons?

KM : After I had been in Palestine for about a year I became too traumatized to continue with the direct on-the-ground action, like confronting the soldiers and settlers, and being a human shield, so I looked for something calmer. One of my friends from ISM had started working as an editor for the Palestine Times, which is the first English language daily newspaper in Palestine and I asked him if I could get a job as a cartoonist, that’s how I got my first cartoonist job.

MOR : What made you choose Arabic Calligraphy as a design style, and why is it about Palestine in particular?

KM : I studied with the Palestinian Calligrapher Ehab Thabet for seven months. 

After I returned to the US from Palestine I got my master’s degree. I was studying graphic novels, but had to take electives, so I chose to take a jewelry metal-smithing class, learning how to solder silver and set stones. For my final project I had to create something special, and since I had learned calligraphy and wasn’t really practicing it, I thought why not bring that into jewelry. I made a necklace, and wrote Palestine in Calligraphy, then transferred it to the silver.I had to cut out the letters with a saw, it was so crude, but it was my first piece and I was so proud of it. Later I used a process called etching, which was time consuming with variable results. It would take me a day to produce one piece. Over the years I have refined my technique, my methods have changed now. Everything is cast, and the quality is superior. 

MOR : What’s the biggest influence on your career today?

KM : Palestine, it changed my life. As an American Jew, when you realize everything that you learned about Israel and Zionism is all a big lie, it just turns your world upside down and seeing what the settlers in Hebron were doing because “God gave them this land”, I didn’t want anything to do with it anymore and I converted to Islam.

MOR : I wasn’t going to bring up religion, but now that you have, is that what made you convert?

KM : It wasn’t just a reaction to what I saw, it was also the Palestinians in Hebron; their life is so hard. Getting up and going to school every morning is a struggle for the kids and the teachers, yet they all had smiles on their faces, and I’m like “Why are they walking around with these peaceful looks on their faces?” They were good-natured, friendly, welcoming, and I felt a safe with them. The settlers however had these scowls on their faces and they were always angry! And I thought, “What is it, how can you be happy living in this situation?” When I asked them, they would say “Al-hamdu lil-lah (thank God) I’m still alive, Al-hamdu lil-lah my kids are still alive, Al-hamdu lil-lah I still have food to put on the table.” I realized that they were deriving strength and structure and order, in the chaos that they were living in, from their faith (Islam).

MOR : Where do you get your inspiration?

KM : I get a lot of inspiration off Twitter! Sometimes people say funny or ridiculous things. I just do cartoons based on what they say. For example, when Roseanne Barr had that melt down, I had this picture in my head of her vomiting and ended up doing a caricature of her for Mondoweiss where she was vomiting different emojis like angry, laughing and crazy emojis.

Certain events inspire me. My best work so far this year was a couple of illustrations (not cartoons) of Ahed Tamimi – her bravery deeply moves me.

MOR : What are upcoming trends in the jewelry design industry?

KM : I’ve never been one to follow trends; I’ve always done my own thing to a fault. Maybe if I had focused on trendy I’d reach more people, but I want to concentrate on stuff I believe in, that inspires me and that inspires other Muslim or Arab women, and activists.

MOR : How diverse is your customer base?

KM : The majority is either Muslim or Arab, but I have Jewish customers and I also have white Christian customers who are activists.

MOR : What advice would you give someone who is interested in the jewelry design business?

KM : Don’t do it unless you’d rather die if you don’t, that’s my advice to anyone who wants to get into jewelry design, or art, or anything.

MOR : So, it has to be your passion?

KM : Yes, and that’s what carries me through the difficulties, the lean times and people not buying my jewelry. If you can be an artist and do it on the weekend as a hobby that’s great, but if you want to try and make a career out of it you must be totally committed. Basically, I’d rather die than have an office job.

MOR : How do you see your brand in five years?

KM : I want to enter more boutiques, I want to be selling more fine art, and I want to finish my graphic novel that I’ve been working on (on and off) for ten years; it’s about Palestine. I started pitching to publishers in 2011. I think people were shy about publishing it, so I gave up. I don’t want to deal with it anymore, so I’ll go the self-publishing route.

MOR : Have you exhibited in the Middle East?

KM : I was invited to the Sharjah Capital of Islamic Culture Exhibition. I had no idea what to expect; It was a great experience. I also just sold my jewelry to an interior design store called Desert Designs in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, as well as a boutique in Amman called Areeq Art.

MOR : What projects are you working on now?

KM : I’m working on an initiative called Palbox, it’s been around for almost 3 years. I still volunteer with the Northern California branch of ISM to help raise funds to send to ISM in Palestine. We sell organic fair-trade Palestinian olive oil, zaatar, and soap. When we first started, I set up an Etsy store for them, but Etsy shut us down. I think it’s because the store was ISM and Zionists hate ISM, so someone complained. So, I got the idea for Palbox because I still wanted to sell these products online and not be at the mercy of companies like Etsy. It’s a quarterly subscription box of products from Palestine plus my jewelry. The box contains a 750ml bottle of Palestinian olive oil, 2 bars of olive oil soap, either Zaatar or maftool, a Palestinian craft item like ceramics or embroidery and an item of my jewelry. Palbox is set up to be a kind of an inspiration for gift-giving, so you can’t choose your items, but you can buy those items separately on the ISM website

I love doing Palbox because we have customers in so many places like Ireland or some remote rural areas including in the US. I have a Palestinian customer in Ireland, he’s been with us for 3 years he loves it because it reminds him of home. It makes me happy to be able to provide these products to people who can’t get them otherwise. v