Feb 24, 2011 Nancy Keefe Rhodes Uncategorized
Clad in a crisp pink Oxford cloth shirt and his trademark denim bib overalls, looking younger than his sixty-plus years, genial, full of energy and signing prints with a flourish and a black Sharpie, printmaker Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr. was having a good time for himself Saturday afternoon, despite the sudden frigid winds and snow that howled up East Genesee Street. Asked when he was leaving, though, the Alabama-based Kennedy said, “Two o’clock sharp, before the real winter gets here!”
The opening reception for “Amos Kennedy Prints!” – billed as a “cash’n’carry sale” with all prints $20 each – occupied both main galleries at the Community Folk Art Center, where the exhibition remains up through April 4. It’s stocked with hundreds of letterpress posters that Kennedy had produced over the previous three days. As part of what Kennedy brings to town when he does these events, he’d used that time – and a letterpress, type and other equipment lent to CFAC for the occasion by Harold Kyle of the local Boxcar Press and others – to turn the front gallery into a working print shop with local students, both from SU and area schools and after-school programs, as his crew.
The colorful, often multi-colored posters address racism, poverty, war, gender and financial issues as well as events and popular hang-outs, often in a distinctly Kennedyesque tone and many in topical series. “I knew God was a woman but I didn’t know She was Black!” “Don’t be a credit card SHARECROPPER!” “Doing the dishes is a part of eating. Eating is a part of sex. DO THE DISHES!” “Remember Stonewall 1969!” A series of posters from Tee’s Lounge in Kennedy’s 1,700-strong community urges patrons, “Be grown or Be Gone!” and “Ladies! NO Fighting in the Bathroom!” He pokes fun at politicians with “When a thief gets real good, he runs for office.” There are African proverbs: “She who learns, teaches” from Ethiopia and “Children of the same mother do not always agree” from Nigeria.
Some are distinctly regional; Kennedy is a regular at Southern book fairs so he has a series on that theme, such as “Wear an old coat and buy a new book!” He says fishing is a popular Southern passtime so there are wry sayings such as, “A man and a fish both get in trouble when they open their mouths.” “If I had enough coffee I could rule the world” says one from the extensive coffee series. And there’s a lengthy quote that begins with “Put Your Crazy Folk in Your Living Room,” declaring that Southerners like to enjoy their crazy relatives rather than hiding them in the attic like Northerners. “How can you know Jesus,” inquires another charmer, “If you can’t write a thank-you note?”
And Kennedy urges that we embrace life and pursue happiness, even in his Momento Mori series with its taglines such as “You don’t die from being sick, you die from being alive,” and a line attributed to Charles de Gaulle – “The graveyards are filled with indispensable men.”
Co-curators Andrew Saluti, assistant director of SUArts Galleries up the hill in Shaffer Art Center and an expert in his own right on the University’s extensive print collection, and Chris Battaglia, interim curator at CFAC, both stressed the collaboration also went further than borrowing Boxcar Press’ equipment. There was help from SU professor Holly Greenberg’s printmaking workshop, from the University library’s head of preservation and conservation, Peter Verheyen, and from the Newhouse School’s collection of typefaces.
“And there is quite a letterpress print community here,” said Saluti. “It really has quietly become a regional center. You see this in who’s working, in what sells at local arts and crafts shows, and in new shops like Craft Chemistry. Even though Amos won’t be here after today, the press will stay here and we’ll have more print-making workshops over the next several weeks. I’m wanting to bring in other groups of young artists, students from Fowler and perhaps other schools. So his work will stay up and still be for sale but there will be other new work up too.”
Letterpress printing has enjoyed a popular resurgence over the past decade. Amos Kennedy says this has to do with a certain fatigue for computer-generated images and the appeal of beautiful, well-crafted and designed, hand-made objects. His website even notes that Kennedy mixes his colors “by sight” rather than formula. Texts built one letter at a time from raised wood, lead or linoleum type – and images carved in relief – are inked and the paper rolled through the press, one sheet at a time; Kennedy generally makes an edition of 100 prints.
Letterpress printing dates from the mid-15th century, developed by the German Johannes Gutenberg. But in the 1950s and 60s, letterpress printing was largely overtaken by offset printing, a method that uses complete pages printed onto a plate rather setting individual type. Commercially unviable, for years letterpress equipment could often be had for a song and the cost of moving it by artists who wanted to explore the medium. As Gutenberg’s suddenly-accessible Bible helped provoke the shock wave of the Protestant Reformation, modern-day print-making has often served political ends and social concerns such as Kennedy’s posters express. He said he was disappointed too that his schedule here prevented him visiting the Black Panther print exhibition currently at ArtRage Gallery.
A native of Louisiana and the son of academics, Kennedy had served in the Peace Corps in Liberia, had been an IBM computer programmer and, by the late 1980s, worked in management for AT&T in Oak Park outside Chicago. At that point, he took his two sons to see Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. There he saw, among the enactments, an 18th-century letterpress and book bindery. Back home, he set up a print shop in his basement – someone gave him his first press – and enrolled in a print-making course. He says now, “I was trying to live a middle-class, comfortable life, but I wasn’t happy.”
Kennedy went on to an MFA from the University of Wisconsin and taught for several years at Indiana University/Bloomington. In 2001 he moved to York, Alabama, to become resident artist at the Coleman Center for the Arts.
Kennedy recalls the artist Grant Wood in more ways than his bib overalls. Like that Depression-era’s intentional regionalist, Kennedy returned South on purpose. It was important to be in the South, Kennedy felt, because that was “the last strong-hold” of the letterpress “show card”-style poster, and he wanted to get familiar with the still-existing shops in that region. Five or six years later, Kennedy crossed paths at an arts festival with sculptor and painter Glenn House and his photographer wife, Kathy Fetters, and they invited him to visit tiny Gordo, about 25 minutes outside Tuscaloosa. There, they were trying to recruit other artists to come live and work. By this time, Kennedy prints were in the collections across the US as well as Europe, but House threw in a converted hardware store for a studio and in January 2008 Kennedy moved there.
The pace in Gordo suits Kennedy. He pursues making art that’s affordable and may be some patrons’ first venture into collecting, and he travels often to do workshops with young people as part of his shows. Andrew Saluti told me that Kennedy has been to both Rochester and Buffalo in the past three months, for example, and Kennedy says he may be back in New York this spring yet again.
About the same time Kennedy moved to Gordo, Chicago filmmaker Laura Zinger made a documentary about Kennedy titled “Proceed and Be Bold!”, which CFAC screened one evening last week after the day’s workshop labors wound up as a way of capping off the day. In noticing that Syracuse has become a letterpress print-making “center” and bringing the University’s resources to bear on encouraging that in such an expansive way – especially among young people here – CFAC and curators Saluti and Battaglia have not drawn a direct parallel with another Central New York legacy, but it’s a hard parallel to miss. By that I mean the convergence of world-class ceramicist Adelaide Robineau, the presence of Syracuse China, the related University program and the Everson Museum’s ceramics collection – of all which still reverberate generations later in a healthy regional ceramics scene with working professional studios, a discerning market and an unusually active ceramics interest in area schools.
We may have a regional print-making renaissance on our hands too.
A shorter version of this article appears in the February 24, 2011 print edition of The Eagle weekly. See “Amos Kennedy Prints!” through April 4th at the Community Folk Art Center, 805 East Genesee St., Syracuse 13210, 315-442-2230 or communityfolkartcenter.org . Learn more about the artist at kennedyprints.com. Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.