Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. learned fine letterpress printing at the University of Minnesota, but he uses his skills in a more free-form manner, creating layered posters in series about social responsibility, the value of books, art, and civil-rights pioneer Rosa Parks. Kennedy is in Santa Fe Friday and Saturday, March 3 and 4, for a talk, poster sale, and printing workshop at the New Mexico History Museum (the last of which was already sold out at press time). His appearance is presented by Diane Hanson, who worked with Kennedy when she had a gallery in Knoxville, Tennessee, and recently moved to Santa Fe with her husband, Doug. “He’s such an emissary and so important, I thought, if we can get him to Santa Fe to share some of his good messages, that would be fantastic,” she said of Kennedy.
Kennedy was born in Lafayette, Louisiana, and studied under book designer Walter Hamady at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he earned his master of fine arts degree. He now lives and works in Detroit. His shop is equipped with five presses — two Vandercooks, an Asbern, a FAG, and a Heidelberg — “and not enough wood type,” according to his website, www.kennedyprints.com. “Printing is what we do,” he says on the site’s Order Posters page. “You send the text and a check, and go home and pray. We do not know what will happen until we are at the press. The design of your poster is determined in real time.”
His results are widely praised. “He’s a hurricane of ideas and strength and positive energy,” says Ivan Pengo, owner of the Italian art-printing house Il Foglio, in an interview for Proceed and Be Bold!, a 2008 documentary film about Kennedy. “I was trained with one of the best to do poetry books and broadside,” Kennedy told Pasatiempo. “But I made a way of my own.” His Kennedy Prints! posters are sold at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts in Minneapolis; the Alabama Rural Heritage Center in Thomaston, Alabama; and the Stamperia del Tevere in Rome, among other outlets.
In late February, Tom Leech, director of the Palace Press, where Kennedy presents his workshop on March 4, said he had received three boxes of Kennedy’s posters for the public sale. “Their quality and vividness are amazing. They’re the real thing.” Nine of Kennedy’s Rosa Parks posters have been framed and are hanging in the New Mexico History Museum.
In this particular artistic realm, are such posters considered one of a kind? “In terms of printmaking, this would be called ‘edition variable,’ because Amos might start with one color, and as he’s printing, he might throw in another color, or he could change one of the letters,” Leech said. “It’s all very fluid and organic. We call what Amos does ‘grunge printing.’ There’s no concern about it offsetting on the back, and the registration can be off a little. And he has been critical of some of the kinds of work I do. I’m just releasing a book that costs $400, and he has a quote — something like, ‘Why print something that expensive that’s just going to go to a library and nobody’s going to see it?’ ”
“I think the basis of his thought is that art should be available to everyone,” Hanson said. “He likes shows in post offices.”
Kennedy spoke with Pasatiempo from his shop in Detroit.
Pasatiempo: Why did you first want to do printing?
Amos Paul Kennedy Jr.: I don’t know. I studied calligraphy in my twenties, but I’ve always been interested in texts and books. As a young kid I remember that my mother, who was a den mother, took our Cub Scout troop to the local newspaper in Ruston, Louisiana. Just goes to show you: This was back in the early 1960s, and this black Cub Scout troop was allowed into the newspaper in this little Southern town. Up until the ’60s, printing was taught at many historically black universities. Printing was one of the various ways you could get a job, once you graduated, because there were lots of black papers around, and just being an independent printer for the black community was possible in the 1940s and 1950s.
Once upon a time, journalism schools at the larger universities would have a print shop with a linotype machine, because that is what you were going to work with when you graduated.
Pasa: You lived in Alabama for many years. What took you there?
Kennedy: I went down there because the rent was free. I was raised in the South, so I knew what it was like. I was offered a free apartment, and that allowed me to concentrate on what I wanted to do, which was to print. I lived in York starting in 2002; then I was in Akron, and then Gordo until 2013.
Pasa: In the film Proceed and Be Bold!, two young men describe your shop as a mess and say that you often had ink on yourself and you didn’t mind getting a thumbprint on a poster.
Kennedy: That can be frustrating. You can really get ink all over things.
Pasa: You were involved in Auburn University’s Rural Studio, which is famous for Samuel Mockbee, the architect who did neat buildings for poor people.
Kennedy: Those two young men in the film were students in the Rural Studio. A lot of architects have an affinity for printing, so those two young men and other architects would come over and print stuff or just putz around the shop.
Pasa: Tom Leech said printers are always running out of letters, that they’ve been so picked over by the antiques collectors that it’s hard to come up with a full font.
Kennedy: Well, what I’ve taken to doing is using a lot of bastard type. I have cases of type that’s all the same size but it’s not the same design.
Pasa: Do you use different types of paper or board for printing?
Kennedy: I started using chipboard when I moved to Alabama. That’s the material that cereal boxes are made of, and it’s the principal paper I print my posters on. It lasts pretty well outside for a few days.
Pasa: Sometimes you use rag paper?
Kennedy: That is more of the high-end stuff that I do. I used to think I could sell things at the libraries, but there isn’t that great a demand.
Pasa: Most of your posters focus on words, but there are a few with African heads and antelopes, more figurative marks.
Kennedy: I have several different styles that I work with. There’s just one that is financially more profitable for me, so I have a tendency to go in that direction more than others. I do a lot of sparse things, more political. For example, I did a series this past year of postcards with “I am Negro.” “I am gay.” “I am bi.” “I am mother.” “I am father.” “I am beaten.” “I am lynched.” Those are all just a red head with Negro features and then the text is black.
In the early 1990s, I did a series of postcards dealing with the fact that all these children in Chicago were murdered, and all those were more Bauhaus and sparse with black ink and red ink on paper. Usually when I do political subjects, I limit the palette.
Pasa: In some, there’s just a small square with text in it.
Kennedy: That was my art series with things like “Make Art!” and “Vote Art!” and “Buy Art!”
Pasa: One poster says, “Coffee Makes You Black.”
Kennedy: That’s a saying from down South that both blacks and whites grew up with, because nobody wanted to be black, so it deterred children from drinking coffee. When I do the layered ones like the Rosa Parks posters, there’s all this biographical information — for example, when she was born and married, the date of her arrest, the bus number — and all that’s in those layers. I feel if people have something on the wall over time, these details will pop out and they’ll discover something new.
Pasa: What are you doing now? Are you doing both art prints and job work?
Kennedy: I do both; unfortunately, neither pays the rent. What pays the rent are my little $20 posters, and now I have a $10 poster that’s very popular. Right now I’m working on two installation pieces for the Brooklyn Public Library. One for the teen and young-adult area is about books and reading, and the librarians have given me a list of quotations about books and reading and libraries.
The other is for the entrance to a black film festival, and that will be more political. I did a series a long time ago that I’m thinking about reviving: “Equal rights is a privilege for blacks in the United States of America.” It speaks to that idea that you’re racking up all these special privileges, but just to have equality is a privilege. I have to figure out what else I’ll do, but possibly it will be quotations by Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker and other females from the struggle.
And I’m going to do a subseries dealing with the enslavement of human beings by the United States government. I’ve decided that right now I’m becoming a 21st-century slave abolitionist. The United States is the only country in the Western hemisphere that has a constitution that allows the enslavement of human beings. It’s been that way since the passage of the 13th amendment, and no one has seen fit to nullify that. Technically speaking, if you get arrested and put in jail, you can be enslaved.
Pasa: You did a series about books. One has the Frederick Douglass quotation, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free,” in black against a layered background with the word books repeated multiple times in different colors, fonts, and sizes.
Kennedy: I’m getting ready to reprint that series again, as soon as I can get three weeks in a row.