Letterpress Printer Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. at CCA

I found out about a week ago that Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. would not only be in town from Detroit, but would be giving a Sunday workshop in the letterpress studio at CCA, the room in which I teach. In my classes, I've incorporated online links to him, the film about his life, Proceed and Be Bold, and his letterpress poster work for many years. I knew he was a character, someone who liked to challenge and prod, provoked discussions, and that he had a sense of humor. He had curated an exhibit about racism in 2009 at the Center for Book Arts in New York, and there is a great video of him walking through it and giving commentary. He was also scheduled to give a talk at our SF campus, which I would not be able to attend. But he was invited into Emily McVarish's Intro to Letterpress course this morning to be the guest artist. Emily graciously agreed to let me and my students observe. His friend and former student, and current instructor at CCA as well, Brian McMullen, came with him.

Introducing himself as "not an artist" (because he thinks it is an elitist term), Amos said he was "stuff maker" (a term he learned from Brian). "Ink on paper" is what he does. A stack of posters overflowed from his suitcase, proving his love of printing. He believes in printing every day, even if that means he just rolls a brayer over the page. It keeps the work flowing and generates ideas, a version of what I've always said, "keep your hands moving." Someone asked him once if keeps a sketchbook or if he plans his prints. He said he drew a rectangle and pointed to the center: "I'm going to put ink there."

Amos told us that he can't explain his work. He believes in a division of labor; he makes stuff and leaves the interpretation and analysis to the art historians and critics. "They will see more in my work than me. I just print and have fun." When asked, he calls his work, "oversized greeting cards."

"My niche is layering. I can do this because I have a lot of free time." He takes 2000 to 2500 sheets of paper, usually chipboard, and just starts printing. "I like to do backgrounds and have them relate to the text." He "jumbles them" as he prints so that no two posters have the same colors. Each takes about two weeks to do. "You need about twenty years before you've learned to do it," he told the students. "I'm 66. Don't get discouraged. Give yourself twenty years. Then if that doesn't do it, do another twenty. Then another twenty." Then there was something about then you'd be dead anyway but at least you would have had fun.

"Failure is a learned trait, otherwise you would never learn to walk or talk. No one says to a baby just learning to walk, 'you fell down, you just stay there.' Failure is learned. That's probably why you don't sing anymore. Someone told you you couldn't."

"Art should not be just for the wealthy." He sells his posters for $20 each at craft fairs and hates when people ask for a discount. (A friend said "he should have said, 'that is a discount. They should be $50.'") He likes the idea of being affordable: "I tell people I'm a gateway drug to buying art." He doesn't mind selling through stores now, doesn't mind that they take a 50% cut, in fact it makes it easier: he delivers a box of prints or postcards; the mail carrier delivers the check. Pricing is low so that he and his friends can afford it. Everyone should be able to have something nice on their walls. His materials are inexpensive, and sometimes he discovers new sources of paper. Like these maps. Apparently, elected officials are often pictured on state maps; every four years the face changes and the maps are obsolete.

Amos believes in the power of print, the power of plastering walls with the same message. You can't get away from it, you can't delete what you see. It's right there, confronting you.

"The printed word is more aggressive than the internet. 
Don't piss off a man who buys his ink in a 50 gallon drum."


Velma Bolyard said…
i had the enormous pleasure of spending a few hours with amos. he even let me print! we talked and had tea and talked and talked and talked. he is a treasure. i loved how he interacted with the students, too.