This guest post by Katherine Blood, Curator of Fine Prints, Prints & Photographs Division, highlights posters that complement the New York Poster House exhibition “The Letterpress Posters of Amos Kennedy” (October 8, 2020–January 3, 2021), curated by Angelina Lippert.
Detroit-based letterpress artist Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr. wields wood type and ink in ways that can suggest poetry, declamation, singing, or conversation in a room where the volume rises and falls and voices overlap. While some of Kennedy’s artworks are stark and simple, he is known for his extraordinary technique of layering text, sometimes punctuated with images, in multicolor letterpress poster prints featuring quotes by thinkers of all kinds. The artist explains: “I have always been fascinated with proverbs. Because proverbs are these little jewels of wisdom, normally, in 10 words or less, and for every proverb, there’s a proverb that counters it. So, it really becomes judgmental for you to figure out which one…I like aphorisms, and there are quotations that I like by people that I want to put out there.”
Some of the featured sayings in Kennedy’s works reflect the signature wit, humor, interests, and zeitgeist of the artist who was born in Louisiana and came to Detroit by way of Gordo, Alabama, among other places. Examples include I am as Southern as Collard Greens; We Demand the Very Best From Our Clients; To Drink Is Human, to Drink Coffee Is Divine; and The Essence of Art Is Generosity. Among specific voices that Kennedy has chosen to amplify through his art are those of American scientist George Washington Carver (If You Love It Enough, Anything Will Talk With You), American abolitionist Frederick Douglass (If There Is No Struggle, There Is No Progress), Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus (Your Library Is Your Paradise), and French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (When the Rich Wage War It’s the Poor Who Die).
In the current Library of Congress collection of nearly 250 Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr. letterpress prints, posters, and ephemera created between 2003 and 2020, about 30 feature quotes by civil rights activist and pioneer Rosa Louise Parks. Shortly after Parks’ death in 2005, Kennedy embarked on a series of prints that highlight the power, humanity, and determination in her voice.
Kennedy observes: “The thing is that most people know the sanitized story of Rosa Parks as this woman who was tired after a day of work and wouldn’t give up her seat, but she was actually very involved in the Civil Rights Movement.” The artist also remarks on the intentionality behind his layering technique: “When you look at something like the Rosa Parks, you’ll see that there’s one layer that has dates that are significant to her life. There’s another layer that has places that are significant to her life, and this continues for about four layers, because one of the things I like to do is I envision people having that aha moment. Where that poster is on the wall for a considerable amount of time, and they see it every day, but suddenly, they turn their head a certain way, and they say, oh, Montgomery’s behind there. I never noticed that before. And then that will draw them in and to look and study it more.” This multidimensional aspect gives Kennedy’s work a long reading time and multiple options for engagement.
His most highly layered works also have a deep terrain that can shift according to the play of light; degrees of ink opacity and transparency; color interaction; embossing, font size, type, and design; and each viewer’s perspective in relation to the text and image.
Until January 3, 2021, you can see more of Kennedy’s work, by visiting the Poster House in New York City to view the exhibition entitled The Letterpress Posters of Amos Kennedy.
In selecting recent works for their collection, curator Angelina Lippert said she focused on “…posters that highlighted events around the country, but predominantly events in the rural South because those are the types of events that never make it into the history books.”
- You can see more of Amos Paul Kennedy Jr.’s Rosa Parks series prints online, along with further selected works in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.
- Tour recent exhibitions featuring his work:
- The Letterpress Posters of Amos Kennedy (Poster House, New York City, October 8, 2020–January 3, 2021).
- Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words (Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Opened December 5, 2019)
- Art in Action: Herblock and Fellow Artists Respond to Their Times (Library of Congress, Washington, DC, January 31–August 17, 2019), with Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr.’s related gallery talk.
- Watch Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr. in action in the feature film, Proceed and Be Bold! Full Feature Length Documentary about Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr. (Laura Zinger/20KFilms, 2012).
- Reminisce with us about an exciting 2018 collaboration with Poster House that challenged viewers to animate vintage posters from the Library’s collection: Poster Parade: Free to Use–and Animate! and, showing some of the results of the competition, Posters on the Move.
Great to see this attention given to Amos’s fine work as a printer and community activist. Just to add to your ‘learn more’ list, a short monograph I wrote about Amos’s work is posted on Academia’s web site as a PDF:
Thank you for the great examples, and discussion of the layering effect.
This is a lovely post on Kennedy’s life and works, and a powerful introduction to letterpress printing. Thank you also for the link to “Proceed and Be Bold,” the full-length documentary by Laura Zinger, and for the information on the Poster House exhibition. Well done!
Sending appreciation for all your kind, thoughtful comments and to Andrew for sharing the link to his article which I learned from and enjoyed–also appreciating the word/concept “rabblerousery” in relation to Amos’s work and ethos.