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ASME vs. Esme

UT engineering group withdraws logo based on Barrera memorial design

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Nov. 30, 2012

Charlie Chauvin's original For Esme design (l) and the UT student group's redone version (r)
Charlie Chauvin's original For Esme design (l) and the UT student group's redone version (r)

It's hard to design an iconic logo, but the For Esme design – created to commemorate the life and tragic death of Esme Barrera – has achieved that in Austin. Now the University of Texas branch of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers is apologizing for printing T-shirts that clearly mimic the tribute.

Barrera, 29, was murdered in her West Campus home on Jan. 1 (James Loren Brown, whom APD described as the prime suspect in her slaying, committed suicide a month later). She was a teaching assistant at Casis Elementary and, through her work as a volunteer with Girls Rock Camp and an employee at Waterloo Records, had become a mainstay of Austin's live music scene (see "Excited About Life," Jan. 13). The For Esme logo became a way for her many friends in Austin and her hometown of El Paso to commemorate her: friends such as John Walker, who wears the logo as a tattoo on his arm. On November 20, he was in Torchy's Tacos on Slaughter Lane when he saw students wearing what he thought were For Esme shirts. Walker said he approached the students and asked, "'Hey guys, are you all friends of Esme's?' They looked a little perplexed." Looking closer, he saw the design had been altered to read "Hooked on ASME," and the students explained that they were part of the UT engineering group. Walker spread the distressing news via Facebook, and soon ASME came under pressure. Walker explained: "There wasn't an organized effort. I think everyone is so emotionally entrenched in the whole Esme thing that they acted naturally, and started calling and writing." While ASME was initially defensive, Walker said that "within 24 hours we had full apologies from the head of engineering, the head of the organization, and someone from the board of regents wrote me back."

Since the uproar began, ASME is trying to make amends. In a statement, Katie Leahy, chair of the ASME Student Section wrote: "We made a mistake. We are sorry for any sadness we caused friends of Esme Barrera and we have learned from our mistake." She explained that the group ran a contest, and received three submissions, including the winning design by graduate research assistant Jared Garrison. They ordered 550 shirts to be handed out to new members at the beginning of the school year. The group has promised to destroy the 90 shirts still on its shelves, and Leahy is also asking members to return the 460 that were distributed. "We were not fully aware," she said, "of the meaning and purpose of the Esme logo which the winning logo looked so similar to."

The Esme design clearly predates the ASME logo. A few days after Barrera's death, local graphic artist Charlie Chauvin was contacted by his brother, who had worked with Barrera at Casis. His brother asked him to design a symbol that would memorialize her life, and he put the design online on Jan. 5. ASME announced Garri­son's design via their Facebook page on July 16 – six months after Chauvin released For Esme. Chauvin's design, with its thumb straight out and two fingers up, evokes the American Sign Language sign for "I love you" (something that Chauvin said on his blog at the time was a happy coincidence). With the thumb folded in, Garrison's design looks more like the familiar "rock on" and "hook 'em horns" signs. However, the similarities – the font, using the vowels to make the raised fingers, the staggered positioning of the s and the m – dramatically outweigh the differences. In an email, Chauvin called the ASME shirt "inappropriate and insensitive. I am not okay with any derivative of the original design as there are too many visual similarities."

For Chauvin and Walker, the issue is not about copyright infringement, but rather about respecting Barrera's memory and the meaning of the design. When he first saw Chau­vin's design, Walker said: "It was the first time I saw anyone giggle or laugh at anything in the couple of weeks since Esme was murdered."

Garrison and UT mechanical engin­eer­ing departmental chair Jayathi Murthy have both written to Chauvin to apologize for the misappropriation of his design. Chauvin said, "I appreciate that [ASME has] been sensitive to the matter and took immediate action to resolve the problem. There are so many people that hold Esme Barrera close to their hearts in this community, and it would be an injustice to dismantle something that has so much meaning to so many people."

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