Free­dom and the press Printer Amos Paul Kennedy Jr.


Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. learned fine let­ter­press print­ing at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota, but he uses his skills in a more freeform 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, “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.

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.

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