Art as activism: bright cartoons with punchy messages

Jess Harwood is a Sydney-based artist, cartoonist and communications professional who is passionate about protecting the natural world, wildlife and combating climate change. She has long been involved in community groups and the not-for-profit sector and has recently started using her art to support her activism.

Jess loves telling important stories to highlight campaign moments and shedding light on the underhand methods that big mining companies, developers and lobby groups use to profit at the expense of people and the planet.

Sydney-based artist, cartoonist and activist Jess Harwood.
Sydney-based artist, cartoonist and activist Jess Harwood.

Jess recently took the time to chat about her art and campaign work.

I read in one of your Instagram posts that you used to work as a lawyer briefly. Why did you decide to stop? Is your art now your full-time vocation?

I have always been keen to change our environmental laws, so they protect and preserve our precious environment, our wildlife and our heritage.

Art with a clear message.
Art with a clear message. Copyright: Jess Harwood Art.

However, once I graduated I saw that the changes I could make as a lawyer would be incremental. I also realised that I was actually more interested in building social movements to generate the change we need. That’s why I left the law and then started working in the NGO sector.

Art is not my full-time vocation, but I use my art to support my activism.

How would you describe your art? What’s your medium of choice?

My art is my activism and also the way I pay homage to the natural world. I find paints too fiddly, although I do sometimes do an oil painting or two. But more likely, you’ll find me with coloured pencils or on my iPad which allows me to make quick and bright cartoons.

How did you get into art in the first place? Was the environmental messaging always a part of it or did this evolve over time?

I started drawing when I was three. My Dad brought back boxes and boxes of white cardboard that someone was throwing out because he thought I could use it for drawing.

Cartoon art during COVID-19. Copyright: Jess Harwood Art

I was an only child and so after school, I’d come home and draw the afternoons away with no brothers or sisters to disturb me! My Mum’s influence meant I always had a keen eye on environmental issues and birds and forests, especially the jungle, were my early influences.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Honestly, these days I follow my gut. If I read something in the news that makes my gut turn, or ignites that fire in my belly, then I decide to do a cartoon about it.

Jess' cartoon commenting on the bushfire crisis got picked up by the BBC. Copyright: Jess Harwood Art.
This cartoon on the bushfire crisis was picked up by the BBC. Copyright: Jess Harwood Art.

Over summer, as catastrophic bushfires raged around Australia and our Prime Minister ignored the obvious climate change connection. I was furious. So my reaction was to draw a cartoon about it.

A number of my cartoons went viral, one featuring Scott Morrison even ended up on the BBC. So my method is to be timely and to follow the fire in my belly.

If you had to describe your work with three adjectives, what would they be?

This is a hard one! I aim to be punchy, political and timely in my cartoons.

Do you have a work of art that you are particularly proud of?

I’m particularly proud of my latest print featuring two loving Galahs and gum blossoms. It is one of the finest examples of botanical art that I’ve done so far. And it features gum blossoms which are my favourite native flower.

Loving Galahs and Gumblossoms. Copyright: Jess Harwood Art

Do you feel optimistic about the future of the planet?

Honestly, I don’t feel very optimistic but there are times when I do.

During the School Strike 4 Climate last year, when 350,000 people took to the streets to demand action on climate change – the biggest climate mobilisation in Australian history – I felt like the people are ready for change. Listening to young people involved in School Strike makes me optimistic about the future.

What advice would you give people wanting to get involved in activism?

Don’t underestimate what you can do when you join with other people to change the world. The power that developers and mining companies wield over politicians only works if we the people do nothing to pressure politicians.

And we must build movements to make those politicians realise that if they don’t serve the people, they won’t be politicians for much longer.

Want to see more of Jess’ art and activism?

To see Jess’ latest artworks and cartoon, follow her on Instagram or Facebook. You can also buy prints of some of her work via her official website

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