Tessa Forrest Is Getting Vulnerable On Instagram — One Quote At A Time

To read about the rest of the Culture Shifters, including actor Da’Vine Joy Randolph and activist Emily Barker, return to the complete list here. Tessa Forrest is the kind of person you meet and immediately feel connected to. The 28-year-old graphic designer behind the popular Instagram art project Subliming.jpg has an ease and a warmth about her, which came across within the first five minutes we spent together. Of course, we weren’t physically together. We were on Zoom because we’re still amid a pandemic, and the Brooklyn dweller spent the more frigid winter months in the back house of her boyfriend’s parents’ place in Ventura, California.

Forrest grew up in Fort Myers, Florida, and has been an artist since she was little. Her grandmother was an artist, so creative expression was something she was always around. When Forrest was five years old, she drew a self-portrait that left her mother “stunned.” (Sadly, the sketch has now been lost to the sands of time.) She started playing around on her family’s computer during middle school, so her parents bought her Photoshop. That’s when her love of graphic design blossomed — playing around with the Adobe software to beef up her pre-Facebook social media accounts.

“I would make MySpace layouts and graphics for my friends and me,” Forrest said, laughing. “And LiveJournal icons.” (Hers is a genuinely millennial origin story.) But beyond earning some cred with her MySpace friends, Forrest found playing with shapes, colors, and typography calming. “It puts you in a trance,” she said.

And it’s precisely that therapeutic quality that led her to create Subliming.jpg. In this Instagram-based project, Forrest takes quotes and spiritual teachings and remakes them into bold, beautiful, typographical art. (“Do not fear mistakes, there are none,” reads one recent post with a textured beige block print lying atop a green background.) What began as a personal project in early 2016 to cope with a maelstrom of trauma — a breakup, a burgeoning eating disorder, and multiple family health crises that led Forrest to experience a “depth of emotion” she never had before — has since ballooned into something much bigger.

“Community is one of the most vital things, but I was extremely codependent,” said Forrest, speaking about the long-term relationship that left her uneasy when it ended. “Reading teachings about independence was helpful.” As she read more, she began to visualize the lessons she was learning along the way, each new message with its aesthetic personality. She shared a Bryant McGill quote over a sunset gradient, teaching from Rumi in simple sans-serif letters on a seafoam background, and a Pema Chödrön quote looping back and forth across an Instagram square like a snake. (Now, the teachings come from all over: books, Instagram posts, and random signage.) And it turned out that Forrest’s public vulnerability resonated with many people. The Subliming.jpg account has over 500,000 followers, including Dua Lipa, Kacey Musgraves, and Ariana Grande.

Forrest is still in awe of the community she has built; she is almost surprised at how her pain might speak to others. “I’m baring my soul,” she said, “so to have other people message me and say, ‘Thank you so much, this is exactly what I needed to read,’ it’s the best feeling I could ever feel.” In 2017, when Subliming.jpg started to attract a modest following, Forrest got a full-time job with the trendy activewear brand Outdoor Voices. At the startup, she cut her teeth professionally and still feels grateful to the brand’s founder, Tyler Haney, and her former colleagues for taking a chance on her. When she started working at Outdoor Voices, it was “all-encompassing.”

“It was your world, in a way,” Forrest said. And then, in late 2019, there was an implosion. Forrest’s whole team got laid off on Halloween. Leaving Outdoor Voices gave Forrest time to reflect on her relationship with work and allowed her to shift her focus in earnest to Subliming.jpg and other projects. “[Outdoor Voices] wasn’t a perfect place to work, and I would say that towards the end, I lost much of the magic for it,” Forrest said. She also learned an important lesson: “A company is just a company. You don’t have to be deathly loyal to a brand.”

This is a difficulty many millennials have found themselves in. We entered the workforce during a time of great precarity and continued to grow our careers amid an increasing emphasis on the gig economy and the fetishization of “hustle.” Forrest has been able to pivot from her day job successfully but still worries about what it means to be too dependent on a platform like Instagram.

On the one hand, social media platforms have unquestionably made it easier for artists to bypass traditional gatekeepers and connect with consumers. On the other hand, what happens if Instagram becomes passe? Do spiritual teachings no longer hold the same weight once they’ve been tied in a neat little bow on social media? And what does spending all day on Instagram mean for the creator’s mental health? “That’s been my biggest journey this year,” Forrest said. “I think it’s incredible that this kind of content style has taken hold. But it feels commodified and a little oversaturated because it is based on Instagram. I don’t want it to become a trend and go downhill.”

It’s messy to have your identity and your art tied up in a platform that you ultimately have little control over. Forrest knows that are no easy answers to these questions, so she’s trying to branch out while continuing to use Instagram to create contemeaningful content’s not exactly sure what her next creative chapter will look like. Still, she knows it will be “less about tying [pain] up in a pretty bow and making it a beautiful spiritual post.” “It’s more about what I can make with the pain,” she said. “There’s no quote that will fix your grief or your trauma. I’m trying to figure out how to share that.”

Tyson Houlding
I’m a lifestyle blogger with a passion for writing, photography, and exploring new places. I started this blog when I was 18 years old to share what I was learning about the world with family and friends. I’ve since grown into a freelance writer, blogger, and photographer with a growing audience. I hope you find inspiration and motivation while reading through my work!