At the beginning of June, the Polo community voted on their favorite submission to The Polo Project: Design for Good competition, with the winning design to be printed on a Polo shirt. The final product, available on July 8, will have 100% of its purchase price donated to COVID-19 relief efforts. Out of hundreds of entries, Springfield, Illinois–based Michelle Smith won the competition with her poignant submission titled Just Let Me Breathe. Her design, an illustration of her son Micah wearing a mask, with the word hope in the background, is a powerful image that will be embraced by so many. Here, we speak to the artist and her son.
What was your first reaction to winning the competition?
Complete shock. And it still feels very surreal.
You submitted your illustration on May 18—prior to the murder of George Floyd that accelerated the movement to end systemic racism. How has your creative headspace changed as a result?
I’m not sure it has really changed; rather I think maybe it’s just become more important to get what’s in that space out on paper. Obviously, I am a black artist, I create black art that depicts black life. On May 25, Mr. Floyd took his last breath in front of the whole world, literally and physically as an oppressed black man and saying what all black people feel figuratively and nearly daily: “I can’t breathe.” As an artist, it’s my responsibility to express that. I just don’t know how to empty the ugliness of that, sitting in my headspace, onto the paper in the beautiful way he deserves. Yeah, I’m struggling with that.
What do you hope people will take away from wearing your design on a Polo?
I hope that all people, from all backgrounds will wear this Polo with heads held high after choosing to have hope, whatever they are facing.
Why do you think it’s important to never lose sight of hope in our daily lives?
Without hope what do we really have? Not only can we not lose sight of hope, but we have to consciously decide to choose hope. The world is on fire right now, and looking outside there really isn’t a practical reason to feel hopeful. Hope is the expectation of something good, and we tend to get what we expect. I believe that choosing to have hope empowers us to move forward onto something better.
Besides being your son, what is it about Micah that makes him your creative muse?
I’m very proud to be his mother. He’s an old soul and a deep thinker, and he has always seen the world at a maturity level beyond his years, and it has always intrigued me. I think it can be seen in his eyes; he sees everything! I started drawing him at every year of his life, originally. Almost like a baby book, it was just for me. Turns out, people really love my portraits of him; they comment that they can feel the warmth and care in the portrait. Those are two words that describe him perfectly, and I’m honored to be able to show it in the art.
Can you expand a little bit on the significance of the mask within your illustration?
The mask was really Micah’s idea more so than mine. We took these reference shots in April because I wanted to draw something that reflected the fear I had as a black mother of a young black man during the pandemic. In my mind I saw him wearing one of his bandannas as his face mask, and I did draw that piece [Just Let Me Breathe II], but he said, “We gotta do the actual COVID mask,” so I took a couple of snapshots of it. When I saw The Polo Project campaign for COVID relief, I knew instantly I had to use one of those pics. When I finished the work, I really didn’t feel it expressed hope, but the more I looked at it I realized the mask was really round like the letter O, and how fitting that we’ve been repeatedly told it is our “hope” to protect ourselves from the spread of the virus. So I wrote the word hope using it as the center.
One of the key values embedded within the Ralph Lauren brand is family, something I know is just as important to you. What does family mean to you? How does it inspire your work?
Family means love, support, pride; it’s my comfort zone. That place where I can have a bad day, fall apart, and they put me back together, stand me up, and push me back out there. It’s who I celebrate with, laugh with; it’s life. Family is biological, and it is nurtured friendships, and I’m so blessed to have both. You not only see Micah but quite a few family members in my works.
Can you tell me what inspires you as an artist? Where do you seek inspiration?
It’s really so cliché that I almost hate to say it, but everything in life inspires me to create. I’m snapping pictures and taking notes often. I always say there’s so much in our everyday life that screams out, “Put me on paper!” And so that’s what I do. One of my favorite quotes is from Paul Klee: “Art does not reproduce what we see; rather, it makes us see.”
When and why did you launch your business? You mentioned that you’ve always been one to draw outside of the lines—can you expand on this?
I honestly hadn’t considered myself a business; it’s something I’ve always wanted and really just started to believe was possible about three years ago.
I’m a self-taught artist mostly because at the age of 5, my teacher labeled me as “slow” only because I struggled to color inside the lines. So the fear of never being good enough really kept me from pursuing formal instruction. However, I was required to take art in high school, and my teacher immediately saw my potential as well as my setback; she taught me the basics independently, in a way that was easy and comfortable for me to learn. I still don’t know a lot of technical processes, terms, etc. I just create the way that is comfortable for me. I still study, to learn and improve, and ironically, I now teach a beginners’ drawing class at the community college.
What was your reaction to your mother winning the competition?
It was a weird mix of me expecting it but still not believing that it was real. For some reason, I just felt that she was going to win, but there was still that anxious feeling of “There’s no way; we can’t really win this.” So when she told me she did, I was honestly kind of relieved to just finally hear it and then super happy for her.
What do you hope people take away from wearing your face on a Polo?
At the surface level, I just want people to love it. I want them to have that unbeatable confidence when you put on a nice shirt or outfit, the same feeling when I wear my favorite pieces. Ultimately, though, I hope they realize at some point that this shirt they’re wearing is a literal symbol of hope. A reminder that beauty can come from chaos if you keep your head up. My mother and I are just lifelong Ralph Lauren fans who hoped to win a competition. I think that’s proof that if you love something and work hard at it, you can manifest your dreams and do some good for the world at the same time.
Why do you think it’s important to never lose sight of hope in our daily lives?
I think hope is so important because it is the first step in believing. When you have nothing else, at least if you have hope that things will get better or the situation will work in your favor, you can build from there. From that comes believing, and then manifesting. Hope and faith are the building blocks of creating a better tomorrow.
Besides being your mother, what is it about Michelle that makes her so extraordinary?
It’s hard to put into words. I guess if I had to try I’d start with her strength and resiliency. Her capacity for love and forgiveness. The way she balances a full-time job, being a parent and an artist, and volunteering at the local APL; and teaches a class at the local community college; and ... goes on and on. She is the most selfless human being I know.
How does your mother inspire you?
She inspires me to keep chasing my dreams no matter what anyone says. Watching her continue to balance everything in her life shows me that I have no excuses to quit. I have watched her hard work pay off on many occasions, proof that I could work hard at my passion and be successful as well. She also inspires me to work on myself as a person, not just as an artist. Striving to be more selfless and helpful like her.
One of the key values embedded within the Ralph Lauren brand is family. What does family mean to you?
Family means loved ones, to me. Blood isn’t the only qualifier; however, I believe we were put here, connected to each other, for a reason. Family means you love and support each other, pick each other up when you’re down, etc. We all should have a support system to fall back on when life gets rough. Family is there for you when you need them and the ones you want to share the good times with.
You’re a fan of the brand—do you remember your first Polo piece? If so, what was it?
I honestly could not tell you because I born into this love of Polo, so it was probably something as a baby! My grandparents have always bought me Ralph Lauren for Christmas. I only wanted toys and frowned at clothes on Christmas, but now, I am so appreciative.
- Images courtesy of Michelle Smith and Micah Smith