Behind the Design: Q&A with Artist and Illustrator Chelsea Alexander

Two people wearing colorful Outdoor Afro + REI Co-op clothes stand in front of a brightly colored tent with a patterned fly designed by Chelsea Alexander

Can art inspire us to get outside? That’s one of the questions artist and designer Chelsea Alexander asked herself when the Outdoor Afro Inc + REI Co-op design team approached her to create an original pattern for pieces in the latest camping and hiking collection. Rather than approach the task as simply a 2D illustration that would be printed on tents, camp pillows and comforters , Alexander found herself both reflecting on the influence nature has had on her and taking a closer look around at how—and why—other people might not have the same affection for “roughing it.”

“Something I learned about this project is that not everyone has a positive experience with nature—which I assumed everyone did,” she says.

Alexander has spent much of her life in cities both small and large—she grew up in Austin, Texas, and has lived in New York City and London—but she is an avid runner and loves spending time outside for self-rejuvenation as well as inspiration. She wanted to pull imagery and inspiration from nature itself to create a positive narrative as she designed patterns for the Outdoor Afro and REI communities. “I wanted to show a broader picture of camping—not just about tents, but about experiencing water, experiencing the changing of colors, learning about plant life, etc.,” she says.

Studies have shown that Black people and other communities of color don’t always have the same access to the outdoors that white Americans do. According to Trust for Public Land research, 1 in 3 people lack trails, parks, campgrounds, playgrounds or other recreational areas within walking distance from home—a disparity called “the nature gap.” Outdoor Afro, a national not-for-profit and longtime REI partner, has spent nearly 15 years encouraging Black joy in the outdoors with group experiences, leadership training and programming designed to empower Black people everywhere to see themselves in nature.

In addition to geographical access to nature, the outdoor community has a representation problem when it comes to gear and apparel: A majority of products designed for the outdoors are made by (and largely for) white recreationists, without considering the specific needs or cultural connections that Black, Indigenous and other people of color may want or need. In 2022, the for-profit arm of Outdoor Afro launched its first collaborative hike collection with REI Co-op, seeking to fill that need in the outdoor industry by providing clothes that particularly fit and complement Black bodies, and gear that can help everyone—but especially marginalized folks—get outside with ease and comfort.

A Black camper wearing colorful outdoor clothes steps out of a brightly colored tent
Outdoor Afro + REI Co-op Skyward 4 Tent featuring Chelsea Alexander’s design, $374. Photo credit: Javaris Johnson

For this updated collection, Outdoor Afro Inc. and REI invited members of the Black community to participate in a sleep insights study and offer feedback on the new collaborative tent and sleep systems. The result? An oversize satin camp pillow that supports all hair types and styles, including natural and curly textures, by reducing frizz-creating friction; a convertible comforter that can be used as a blanket, sleeping bag or double-wide cover for two; and a bold, bright new tent that has space to stand and stretch—all featuring Alexander’s beautiful natural-abstract imagery. “During this project, I wanted to visually create something enticing and inviting for this community,” Alexander says. 

We recently interviewed Chelsea Alexander via email from her home in the U.K., and she shared thoughts about her relationship to nature, what inspires her art and how she’s using running (especially London Marathon training) to honor her late mother.

Chelsea Alexander stands in front of a colorful textile that she designed
Photo courtesy of Chelsea Alexander

What are your memories of camping or getting outside as you were growing up, and how do you seek outdoors time now?

I have one memory that taught me about camping with family, and I have another set of memories where I learned about camping individually at an actual camp. What I learned with my family is that even during accidents and mishaps, we always found a way to laugh about it. (The short story is basically my parents didn’t have experience putting up a tent before and it rained really hard. Our tent quickly filled up with rain. We woke up in water, but found a way to laugh about it.) As for my individual experience at camp, that’s where I really was tested. I learned to kayak by myself, I learned to make friends, I learned to start a fire, I learned to dive, I learned to not be afraid of heights (thanks to tree hopping and paragliding). Ultimately, I learned how to be comfortable being afraid of new things, which is what I carried into my teenage years and adulthood—and still carry today. 

Have you had a long relationship to REI Co-op, and can you tell us how this collaboration with Outdoor Afro Inc. and REI came to be? 

I have actually always loved REI. Even as a kid [growing up in Texas], my parents would take me there to buy sports gear, because I played a lot of soccer as a child. This collaboration came through [REI art director] Todd Durkee and his team: They found me (I still don’t quite know how!) and I immediately loved the story of REI and Outdoor Afro. It connected to me and my own story very deeply. I work a lot in communication and purposeful/impactful art and design. They approached me with a problem: connecting to these communities visually. My solution was to pull imagery and inspiration from nature itself, to create a positive narrative. The narrative I built was through words or affirmations, and shapes that provided a different take on all the elements of camping.

Your work seems so organic, with bright colors, fluid lines and shapes that reflect the beautiful chaos and curiosity of the natural world. Are you inspired by nature, and have you always been inspired by nature?

I pride myself on utilizing patterns from the things I’ve experienced in my life. I think I’ve always been inspired by what’s around me physically. Flora and fauna are definitely prevalent in my life. I’ve done a lot of running for two years, and I make it a point to be very observant during my 14-mile runs. There’s so much to experience, and because I’m a very sensitive person visually I take notes of new shapes and forms I find throughout my walks and runs. I’m also a traditional graphic designer, so I love expanding the idea of communication through letters and self-expression. In this project, I really wanted to utilize letters as forms to combine with elements of nature to express a story about the Outdoor Afro and REI collaboration in particular. 

When you dream about getting outside, what does that mean or look like to you? 

I go back to this love I have for running long distances. Before I wake up, I tend to dream about happiness and freedom. I’m never as happy and free as I am on the days I run 14 miles. I don’t know what it is, but it feels like I don’t have to do anything except look around me and put one foot in front of the other. No pressure, just observing the beauty that already exists. I think too much nowadays, we as creatives are expected to make something perfect and beautiful all the time—but we’re imperfect, we’re human. Going outside just proves that: We can’t make nature, we can only appreciate it, draw inspiration from it and respect it.

A sketch by the artist Chelsea Alexander, featuring a stylized runner and the REI Co-op logo.
A sketch by Chelsea Alexander, inspired by her love of running.

What was it like designing a pattern for a tent? How was it different than other textiles, and what sorts of considerations did you take into account? 

I think designing for a tent was actually the last thing on my mind, oddly enough! I love designing for large, large pieces of textiles and fine art, which I knew would work seamlessly for REI. I really focused my designs on the storytelling aspect of the project: How much did I want to show visually, and what elements/shapes showed those feelings exactly? For example, the blue piece I designed is meant to evoke movement within nature. The shapes I used were intentionally selected to fit different enticing flora and fauna. I was interested in how I could combine design, textiles and this concept of connection and storytelling, which would be possible to expand as a larger pattern for different needs!

A satin pillow featuring organic shapes in a variety of blues and blue-greens.
Outdoor Afro + REI Co-op Nature Nap Satin Pillow with art by Chelsea Alexander, $60

Do you wish you could be a fly on the wall for the folks who are taking this tent out? What kinds of thoughts and feelings do you hope this piece evokes for them? 

Oh, if only! I hope that people can see through the designs in the sun! I hope they can see through them figuratively too, and better understand their own connection to nature is intricate, collaborative, creative, complex and beautiful just like the designs I made for this project. I hope it makes them feel safe, ultimately. I hope it makes them feel creative and curious as well, maybe invoke feelings of love, feelings of hope.

Do you have any outdoor goals this year? Are you training for a race or planning to learn a new activity, spending more time doing anything in particular?

This is a very personal question for me, actually. But it defines me and where I am in my life right now. I started to run consistently almost a year and a half ago to cope with being an on-and-off caretaker for my mom at the time. I just lost my mother to breast cancer in December of 2023. Before she passed, I decided I would do as many breast cancer runs, triathlons, marathons, anything—as much as I could, for the rest of my life—because, part of me wanted so badly to feel her pain, and empathize with her during her treatment. So now I put my own body through hell to continue to remind myself how inspiring she was to me.

I think this has also brought me closer to my own curiosity in nature again, as I mentioned:  I’m always taking visual notes when I’m running for two to three hours at a time. I’m running in the London Marathon this April! I’ll be supporting Breast Cancer Now, a nonprofit research and support organization here in the U.K. The goal is to raise 2,500 pounds and not faint during the race!

Follow Chelsea Alexander and her work through her fine art and design website chelsealexander.com, and for more creative colorful products visit her web shop and small business, sqwigl.com

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