Little Rock artist Erin Lorenzen succeeds with a design inspired by hometown pride and a passion for travel.By Dwain Hebda Photography by Matthew Martin
If you've ever seen the “I Heart AR” T-shirt around The Natural State, you’re not alone. The design, which echoes the famous “I Love NY” logo of the ’70s, was an instant local success from the moment it sprung from the creative juggernaut that is the mind of Little Rock-born artist Erin Lorenzen.
At first blush, the homespun simplicity of the design suggests a merely quaint and heartfelt homage to one’s place of origin, particularly when one discovers she came up with it while studying abroad in South America. However, as with most things in Lorenzen’s life and work, there’s always a lot more going on than at first appears.
“I was in Argentina; I was living in Bueno Aires and I was making maps for paintings,” she said. “I took some silkscreen classes and I made a big map of Argentina and a big map of Arkansas and I noticed that we have the same initials, Argentina and Arkansas. So I kind of made it for both places.
“I was coming back and forth between here and there and it just caught. So, yeah it was for Arkansas and Argentina because I really, really fell in love with that place, too.”
Lorenzen didn’t elaborate on what became of the painting project, but the shirts sold like hotcakes. She’d barely unpacked her bags from her international jaunt via the Donaghey Scholars Program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock before demand for the T-shirts and tank tops with hand-cut and sewn lettering of recycled cloth material kicked in. She launched her label ShopELL in 2002 and the ride began.
“Marketing was not difficult, because I’ve never really had to,” she said. “It all sort of happened organically. The shirts I started making came out of the art I was making. I put them up in a place that also was showing my art and it just took off before I could even think of the word ‘marketing.’ Only now, about 10 years later, am I thinking, ‘Oh, OK I do have to think about this.’”
Many people might have morphed the concept into a warehouse full of merchandise by now, but Lorenzen is not one of them. In fact, one of the most difficult balancing acts she’s had to pull off is tending to her cottage industry while indulging the spectrum of other artistic medium that is drawn from the same wellspring of creativity.
“Potter, painter, sculptor, designer, dressmaker, screen printer, consultant, yogi and globetrotter,” is how her website sums her up. To that, add advocate for the arts in Arkansas, be it helping friends get an art community off the ground in Helena-West Helena, or just trying to pin down what it is about our state that inspires so many to create.
“Well, I think [Arkansas] is beautiful, but I don’t know if there’s something else that inspires that,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about Arkansas that interests people and what it is I love so much about it. It just seems to have something slightly undefinable. Charles Portis wrote something about it just being hard to get out of. There’s something to that.”
The daughter of a bookstore owner, Lorenzen’s upbringing contributed to the elegant chaos of her creations. Her artwork runs the gamut of mixed media, and her fashion has a certain intentional shabbiness without looking forced or contrived.
“At my dad’s bookstore, everything he read was always around him and there were always all kinds of different worlds at the tips of your fingers,” she said. “And my mom and my grandma are eclectic, too; they like to make things
from recycled materials just because that’s the way it was. My dad’s mom had a very Depression-era mentality and saved everything. So, my art is me trying to fit everything I love into my life and have it around me.”
These days, her focus is back on the “I Heart AR” project, currently available in boutique stores around Arkansas, and how to shepherd it to a wider audience. It’s not something she can do by hand as she did in the early days, but something she’s determined to do the right way, nonetheless.
“So far they have all been locally made and it’s my intention to keep going with that. It’s just important to me. I did hand-make them all in the beginning, but now I’ve had help from a lot of different people,” she said. “It is a challenge and I have had all kinds of fun experiences trying to figure out how to do it.”
Find Erin at erinlealorenzen.com