Q&A: New State Flag, Touring Exhibit—This Was Luis Fitch’s Whirlwind Year

The Minneapolis-based design, marketing, and branding guru reflects on a year of big impact
Luis Fitch
Luis Fitch

Photo by Rik Sferra

One could consider 2023 a “Taylor Swift year” for Luis Fitch. The marketing and branding guru of Minneapolis’ UNO branding and design agency has not only been working with multi-million-dollar companies to capture the Hispanic market; his art was also part of a group exhibit touring 20 Mexican embassies in the United States and Mexico City. He spent a few weeks in Albuquerque working with artists printing at the prestigious Tamarind Institute. His colorful sugar-skull prints were acquired by both the City of Albuquerque and the National Hispanic Cultural Center. And Fitch was selected as chair of the commission that pored over more than 2,000 applications to decide on the new Minnesota flag—which, according to Fitch, has moved up, from one of the least popular state flags to the top 10.

I gave Fitch one of his first exhibits at my gallery, Flatland, in northeast Minneapolis nearly 20 years ago, when he and his wife, Carolina, ran UNO out of a one-room, second-floor office on Lake Street. Our relationship came full-circle last year when I suggested him for a program to accelerate diversity and inclusivity at the Tamarind Institute.

If you listen to Fitch, he’ll tell you he’s just a border-town kid from Tijuana who always believed in thinking big. But it has taken years of hard work. We sat down for a conversation about his 12-month whirlwind.

Could you have ever thought this would happened to you—everything that came to you in 2023?

To be honest, I already forgot what happened [laughter]. Yeah, I’m living on the day-by-day, believe it or not. And just look[ing] ahead and not to the past. It’s more of a feeling than visualizing, “I want to do this or that.” More like, “These things are going to come, and I don’t know from who, but you’ve got to be ready for it.” So, yes, I can visualize that every year—it’s more when it comes to my personal work and my personal growth that I can see that happening. I guess the older you get, the more experience you have and the faster you can work and can say yes to workshops or to your own work.

It’s the whole idea of being prepared for those opportunities. The doors are there, and they’re open, but a lot of artists are never ready for those opportunities. I am. I’ve been doing this since I was—what? Fourteen years old, when I had my first art exhibit. Since then, it just adds to be prepared and have your resume and titles and work ready, to understand what a collection is and how to transport the information. It’s more than just creating; it’s admin work, all these things that takes years and years, that you don’t really learn in school—or in design school, for that matter. So, it’s the business side of art that I think I’m getting better and better at. It’s the consistency in trying and trying and trying.

I can go through the list of things that I got last year, and there’s a lot. Plus, there are things that are a surprise … People call you and say, “Hey! There’s an opportunity at the Tamarind Institute [we both laugh], are you ready for it?” And I say, “S@#! Yeah! I am!” But you have to be ready.

And that’s what I’ve learned in the past 25 years. How to balance those three things: managing your family, work life, and personal art life. Because more and more and more, they’re becoming one.  Sometimes I’m thinking about art at the office. A lot of times, I’m thinking about art and design at home with my family. And when we travel, we go to galleries and museums and visit other studios and other friends. It’s all related to the industry. Both industries are very close. Thank God the design and branding and communications and urban art and fine art and museums and galleries and product development all live in the same world—for me. Other artists don’t like that. Other artists separate it. Others are more puritan, and it’s art, and that’s it. They don’t care about the business side. I care equally for everything.  Because one thing adds to the other one. It’s a balance, right?

What I’ve learned is you organize yourself, and if you make a proposal for something and it doesn’t work, don’t give up. Recycle it and redo it. And send it to someone else. And that’s how I’ve been able to submit as many as 20, 30, or 40 applications per year. And all I need is three or four of those. So, people think I win a lot. I lose a lot! It’s the percentage of the amount I submit that I’m winning.

I have other friends that are like, “Leave something for us! You’re all over the place” and I’m like, “Dude—I work so hard to submit on everything. I submit everything.” And because of that, I can tell you how the year went.

What really was it like for you, personally? What were your feelings when you were going through the realization, “I’m going to be going through the same place as my heroes.” Was it a momentary freakout, or did you say, “I made it”?  

I’m at the feet of these people. When you’re a kid, you have these heroes, and they go through the same process as I do. They leave this collection of art that’s very personal for them. They die, but it’s documented by books, their own personal art. That’s what I want to do. I want the next generation of kids like me to hopefully be inspired by me. People of color, African American, Latinos, Hmong, poor white people who have no access to the arts and the field of design. That’s who I’m going after. So, the idea I feel superior to anyone else? No. Other way around. I feel very blessed people pay attention to what I do. And my work, the way it’s documented and registered in a place like the Tamarind Institute. and its part of the collection. I was able to produce 10 pieces that will hopefully go to more museums by me donating it to a permanent institution that a 4-year-old kid, who would think they could not make it in the arts, could see and be inspired by. That’s really the bottom line [wipes eyes].

I’m not trying to make you cry! [We both laugh] But, man, it had to be like this Cinderella, belle of the ball moment. All these things are happening at once! 

Yeah, it happens. But it requires a lot of people. It’s not one person. It’s not just me. It’s you, local government. It’s Tamarind. It’s all these people that become part of this thing. And it’s bigger than you.   You just have to believe in a group effort, versus an individual effort. Mexicans and a lot of different cultures—we believe in this effort of community. So, for me, it’s [easier] to be part of a community than be about me, me, me, me. And that’s what I wanted to bring to the flag, too.

I don’t know why they chose me as commissioner for the flag. Twelve of 13 people voted for me. To me, that was strange. Maybe they did research. I didn’t even know who the senators were. I didn’t know who was a Democrat, or Republican, or anybody. I came with this idea I wanted to have union and not separation. They saw, in those 18 weeks, that I was not a politician. And I think that is why I got a lot of praise for working with both parties in a very independent and focused way. It was about the design and the process to meet a deadline and, hopefully, have a flag that better represents all of us and not just a few. That was my assignment and that was my focus. There were always, always, always a lot of political things happening.

Minnesota's new state flag
A mock-up of Minnesota’s new state flag

Did you expect all that to happen?

No! I was totally naive about it. I didn’t even know what the role of a commissioner was. I didn’t even know the role I had to bring to the table. So, I stayed focused, like it was a design project. And that really helped me. That’s what I’ve been doing since I was 18, professionally. Your ego is not part of it. They come to you because you can produce something they need. But they don’t know what it is. So, basically, you’re helping them land an idea. It’s a lot easier to work with an institution or organization or entrepreneur that has general ideas they want, and they come to you because you’ve done it for other clients, where you can help them land the idea in physical and tangible things. For me, I thought it was a piece of cake to design a flag. I was very naive about the political aspect of it. It got very ugly towards everyone, not just me.

People lost their minds…

It’s because the country and the state are divided. There are those people who love the flag; they’re not speaking about it, not making a big deal about it. They liked the process. They saw it, and they’re happy with it. They were happy about it. But, man, there were a lot of people on social media, and they didn’t want those historical symbols. They’ve never seen the flag or seal, to be honest. I know they haven’t.  There were things like, “The flag was used in the Civil War.”

All this fringy stuff people were inventing. We hadn’t even finished the process; we still had, like, six flags that looked very, very similar, but there were changes in each of them. But they grabbed one and said it looked like the Somali flag, and they went crazy with it. If you google “MN Somali flag,” you’d see news reports, very serious. They put it on Twitter, and everyone went crazy. I’ll be honest: Yeah, there were similarities with one of those flags, but that flag never became a contender at the end. That’s the state of politics. I believe in what I did, to the best of my knowledge, and I learned very quickly about flag design and seal design. The timing was very realistic. There was no budget.

No budget!?

Well, let me compare it. Utah designed only a flag. We designed a flag and a seal. Two things. And our budget and timeline were $36,000 and 18 weeks. Utah, just to design one flag, got half a million dollars and they got 18 months. And they’re still going through craziness. So, we saved so much money on taxes, and people still complain. It was an experience. I’d probably do it differently now that I’ve experienced this. I went in naive. And I think that’s the best way to do something like that—to go naïve.  I’m glad I’m not a politician. I would’ve done things from a politician’s point of view. But I’m not a politician. I want the best for everyone. And that’s when art, management, and design can change public perception about what we do. But they don’t see the value. So, yeah, they see the final product, and they go, “What the hell is that? My kid could do that!” Yes, that’s one of the things we wanted. That your kid could do it. Because right now, your kid can’t draw the flag we have. It’s crazy, right? And most importantly, it’s hurtful to some of the community. Change is not going to happen easy.

It wasn’t politics. I didn’t allow politics to judge the flag or the seal. People individually voted for it. The public had its opinion. And we listened to those opinions: [more than 2,000] submissions for the flag, 399 submissions for the seal.  We had hours and hours and hours of conversation about these.  It’s not a trademark. It’s not a logo. It’s a flag! And the flag has to represent certain universal things. It represents the Star of the North, the shape of the state of Minnesota, and it represents lakes and water—the colors. And if you turn it vertically, I saw the Mississippi River pointing up to the north. I saw the reason we come as immigrants to Minnesota, including all the way back to Europeans coming here. Why did they come here?  They came because of the Mississippi River. Native Americans, they didn’t come because of the cold. They came because of the Mississippi River. Right? African Americans leaving the South and coming north, they didn’t have a map, no GPS—how did they come here? The Star of the North—that was their guide. So, all these things have meaning, but people don’t want to see it because of political problems.

Would you do it again?

Yeah, I’d definitely do it. If I’m helping unification, if I’m helping present people come together—and, hopefully, future generations—I would do it again and again. That’s what design does. That’s the purpose of civic design and public art. It’s us as artists looking at problems and resolving them in a way that people come together.