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Harkiran Kalsi, 37, is speaking out against social, racial, and political injustices through the melding of two passions: art and running.
A London-based freelance graphic designer and illustrator, Kalsi utilizes bright colors, bubble letters, and uplifting phrases to illuminate causes including racism, sexuality, women’s rights, and the current conflict in Ukraine.
“It’s really important for me to use my art as a way to stand up for causes, not just because I believe in them, but because it’s the right thing to do,” says Kalsi, whose work has appeared on murals across London and in campaigns around the globe for brands, events, and companies like Comic Relief, the London Marathon, Lululemon, Footlocker, and the NBA.
Recently Kalsi discovered an additional way to advocate.
In the fall of 2021, she joined The Stolen Starts, a global running community comprised of 10 women. Created by New Balance, The Stolen Starts helps elevate these women and the causes they care most about, from racism to sustainability to mental health.
With this support, Kalsi says her voice, which was already loud, has become even louder. “I want to continue to raise awareness for women in running and for the causes I’m passionate about. To be a part of a collective with all of these women across the world, I thought it was such a beautiful thing,” she says.
Though The Stolen Starts members live in New York City, Los Angeles, London, Paris, South Korea, Tokyo, and New Zealand, Kalsi says there is an inherent connection based on their mutual desires to better their communities.
Kalsi has also put her creative talents to use for the group: Leading up to the 2021 New York City Marathon, she was chosen to design the race kits worn by the group’s members who competed in the race.
When brainstorming the design, Kalsi wanted to utilize her unique artistic style to capture the grit and determination of runners.
“It’s quite abstract and quite fun, and it’s got all of these different shapes and forms to it. It felt like it’s free flowing with movement and all these things we’re experiencing,” says Kalsi, who included hills, rain, sunshine, and the night sky.
Although she was not personally able to compete, Kalsi says she is “dying to run New York,” a race that’s long been on her bucket list. “New York is kind of like my soul city. My soul belongs to it. What I love about New York is that every corner of the city just has some piece of inspiring art.” Kalsi is particularly moved by graffiti.
In her two times visiting and running in New York City, she visualized the city as a canvas filled with other people’s imaginations. “I remember running on the streets and seeing my favorite artist, and I can’t explain how inspired it made me. It made me go, ‘I really want to get back to London to start creating some murals,’” says Kalsi, who did just that upon her return home.
Running and art consistently overlap for Kalsi, who frequently stops mid-run to take photographs of inspirational work. During the pandemic she dedicated a 20-mile run specifically to finding Paddington Bear sculptures located throughout London.
“When I saw those Paddington Bears, I really wanted to paint a sculpture, which I ended up doing last year,” says Kali, whose sculpture about ‘Gratitude’ was part of a national public art installation in the UK.
Kalsi also pulls inspiration from her mother, who she considers her guiding light. She credits her mom, a skilled dancer and painter, for her own artistic talent and for encouraging her to use it.
“I don’t remember any time in my life when she turned around and said, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ She always said, ‘Find a way to make it into a viable career.’ She’s always believed in me. She’s always been my biggest supporter,” Kalsi says.
Her support is particularly meaningful, given all that her mother lived through. Back in the 1980s, Kalsi explains that her mom came to the UK, unable to speak English and in an arranged marriage riddled with domestic violence. When Kalsi was 8 years old, her mom got a divorce, which was taboo in South Asian culture at the time.
“Through it all, I saw her rise as this incredible woman. I look at her and [think] how did you do what you did,” says Kalsi, whose mom raised three children on her own. Seeing and hearing what her mother endured as a woman of color, as well as her own experiences, has inspired her work around racial injustice.
“That will always be one of the most important things to keep highlighting… The color of skin, we’re just born into it. It’s such a silly thing to hate people for that and create these barriers around it,” Kalsi says.
Prior to the pandemic, she was more wary navigating advocacy, afraid that she might receive backlash if she were to speak up.
“What happened in 2020, it opened up this whole conversation about race,” says Kalsi, who was particularly moved by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. She initially felt helpless, but after talking to Run Dem Crew founder Charlie Dark, he encouraged her to use art as her platform.
“He said, ‘Art is your voice, use that. You’re either all in, or you’re out. Get off the phone, create a piece of art, and put it out in the world,’” she says.
So, she did. Kalsi created her Black Lives Matter power fist poster, which gained international traction. People could download the poster for a small fee, with all funds raised supporting anti-racism charities.
“This one poster was connecting so many people together by downloading and printing it,” she says. “After that, I was like OK, this cause is important, but we have to shine a light on all the injustices that are happening in the world. I want people to feel seen. Art is such a powerful tool to make people feel seen.”
Not only did her artwork help others process, heal, and advocate for change, but Kalsi says it also helped her. “It’s such a great way of putting yourself in a happier place or cutting out the noise from around you. It has played a pivotal role in my life regarding my mental health. Without it, I’d be very lost.”
As art evolved from a hobby into her career, Kalsi needed something else to manage her feelings and emotions. That’s where running has come into play.
“Running and art to me aren’t two separate things. I need both of them in my life to function,” Kalsi says. She first started running with an ex-boyfriend to manage her weight and get fit.
However, when that relationship ended, running took on a new significance. “It made me fall in love with [running] even more, because I found an independence through doing it by myself, and then I caught the bug for it,” says Kalsi. After running on her own for a while, she transitioned into running with groups like Run Dem Crew.
In the last 12 years, she has completed five marathons (Brighton Marathon, Copenhagen Marathon, and the London Marathon three times) and an ultramarathon, which she describes as the “hardest thing ever.”
When looking to the future, Kalsi said she is still running, but has recently stopped racing, taking a hiatus after a recent diagnosis of fibroids, abnormal growths that develop in or on the uterus. When her running started to decline, Kalsi says she knew something was amiss.
“I didn’t realize that so many women go through this, because we don’t talk about it. It’s amazing how it’s just not spoken about. I shared on my social, and all of these women came forward, runners and non-runners, loads of them,” Kalsi says. “It feels really important to share it. If it can help someone else, so they can feel seen and not go through this alone.”
But just because she’s not racing, doesn’t mean she isn’t planning future races. Kalsi hopes to run the London Marathon again and then make her dream of running the New York City Marathon finally a reality.