The Ms. Q&A: Adam J. Kurtz on Feminism, Vulnerability and Staying Hopeful

Artist Adam J. Kurtz is the kind of person who lights up a room—or, maybe your phone screen, if you’re one of his many Instagram followers. People love him online and in-person for his levity—he seems to make things just sound and seem better.

His optimism can be found in his work, too. In his newest book, Things Are What You Make of Them, each colorful, perforated page offers advice. With headers like “How to Be Happier”—“embrace yourself,” “acknowledge the sad,” “create and meet goals”—the pocket-sized book is the kind that’ll fit in any pocket or vacation-bound overstuffed suitcase, and its perforated pages are ripe for the ripping, which I did, and taped up on my wall, and gave to friends. His work makes many think: I wanna be friends with this guy. And his reassuring and hopeful designs feel needed now more than ever.

Kurtz spoke with Ms. about the women who inspire his work and his activism, paying it forward as a white, cis gay man and how he remains hopeful in the midst of political turmoil.

How would you describe your work to someone unfamiliar with what you do?

My simple, illustrative work tackles life and shared experiences with honesty, humor and a little bit of darkness. Think short aphorisms on bright colors, introspective journaling books and novelty souvenirs that all get a little bit too real. But still cute!

Who are some artists that inspire you?

Of course, aphorism and mantra-driven work means a lot to me. Artists like Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer really own and embody that work. There’s no time for subtlety!

Your work resonates with so many people. Were you surprised by the success you’ve found? 

When this started as a hobby, it was just a fun way to share myself, mixed in with the usual sort of posts and tweets about life. As it grew into products and books, I’ve had to sort of adjust my thinking. Now it’s a career and I’m constantly just so surprised and grateful for the opportunity.

It’s very special to make often vulnerable creative work that really is rooted in who I am and have others not just like it, but really embrace it, find themselves in it, use the journals for their own growth, and tell me “hey I’m like this too… and we’re both okay.”

Your fans appreciate your penchant for honesty and vulnerability. Is the ability to be honest and vulnerable something that comes naturally to you?

Well, I’m Jewish! But also, honestly, this is something I’ve been asked about, or complimented on, a lot lately—and I have to say, I really don’t think I’m that vulnerable? Or maybe, like, I am—but others are, too. So many of us have found ways to share ourselves through art, through social media, in writing—and we basically find our communities and our people and then can create a safe space for all of it. I think it’s kinda rooted in sexism: As a man, being open about my feelings earns me praise for “being vulnerable,” but the same words from a woman are a display of “being too emotional” or “showing weakness.” It’s fucked. The bar is so low for men, and I absolutely benefit from that, so I try to remind people.

In honor of Pride Month, you donated your author royalties from June sales of your book Things Are What You Make of Them to the Tegan and Sarah Foundation, a non-profit which fights for health, economic justice and representation for LGBTQ girls and women. How did you choose this foundation, and why is its work meaningful to you?

The Tegan and Sara Foundation was born out of the activism and representation that the band have led their art with since day one. To me, they’re a perfect example of artists doing what they can with their platform to mobilize their audience and give back to their community. I remember being a gay teen who didn’t quite feel like they fit what culture in the early 2000s was telling me gay men were like. Tegan and Sara showed me other sides of the queer community.

As an organization, they fundraise well, then redistribute to a range of female and female-identified causes within the LGBTQ community. The specific focus feels important. It’s important that as a gay, white, cisgender man I own my privilege and look outside the scope of my immediate peers. Too many white, gay men ignore the rest of our community—so between the personal connection I feel to the band, and their focused mission, it felt like the perfect fit to raise money for.

Things are What You Make of Them is all about the emotional challenges of being a creative type—the expectations and realities, the internal struggle and the desire to do good in the world. For its 2017 release, the publisher and I teamed up for a double donation: Penguin donated $1 per pre-order sold, and then I matched it. We ended up giving over $7,500 to the organization, and it felt so incredible to use my own art for good in that way. For Pride month, I just wanted to keep it going.

Do you identify as a feminist?

I absolutely do. Frankly, I feel like the default is feminist—and if you’re actively not a feminist, then you’re just an asshole. Also, a friendly reminder that if your feminism isn’t intersectional, then you’re doing it wrong.

Who are some of your female heroes or role models?

Everyone I’ve mentioned so far is female! Barbara, Jenny, Tegan, Sara—but the ultimate hero of my life is Alanis Morissette, for the way she channels pure emotion into her songs, many of which are super wordy, literal and therapeutic. Of course, we all love “You Oughta Know,” but deeper cuts like “That I Would Be Good” and “The Couch” really speak so intimately to what she was going through at that time in her life. She gave a voice to so many and taught us to embrace our emotion and release it for our own health and sanity. She wrote a blurb for my book and I swear, I fucking screamed when her assistant sent it over.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?

My husband is so great at calling me out on my bullshit, and thank god for that. I fall into the trap of talking about a thing, and he can cut right through with a “so what are you going to do about it” and remind me to actually act. I’m still working on it. Soon.

In these turbulent times, what things give you hope?

“Turbulent times” is the softest description of 2018. I mean, life is fucking nightmarish, and because of the Internet we are actually hearing about—and even witnessing—the horror in real-time, which is often part of the problem. Every day feels like an emergency. “Alternative facts” feels like it was 500 years ago.

What gives me hope is that things, as awful as they are, are also better than they’ve ever been. We’re not done, and in some ways it feels like we’re slipping backwards, but when we think about human history, on an individual basis, more people have more rights than they’ve ever had before. More people are being heard. More stories are being told. The change is slow, but it’s there—and it’ll keep coming if we work for it and educate the people around us, and white people like me shut up and listen to those putting in the labor to educate us.

About

Anne McCarthy is a contributing writer to The Telegraph, Second City Network, Bonjour Paris, France Today and more. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Westminster in London and is a graduate of the Writing Program at Second City and the Soho Theatre Writers Lab. She lives in New York City, where she is writing a memoir about life in London.