Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. and the Democracy of Printing

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Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. and the Democracy of Printing

Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr., “Rooster Day Festival” (2003), letterpress on chipboard, 19 inches x 14 inches (all photos courtesy Poster House)

Since the announcement of my fellowship, multiple libraries and community spaces have reached out to discuss how an exhibition of Amos Kennedy’s work might be adapted to their individual facilities. As I noted in my previous article, my hope is that this opportunity results in a constellation of simultaneous shows featuring his posters and prints, particularly in venues and locales outside of the traditional museum structure. I have encouraged people to reach out to Amos himself to provide work tailored to their interests and needs, while I have offered to provide curatorial support as desired. 

The following is an example of how I approach dissecting his event posters, all of which are currently in the permanent collection of Poster House in New York City. Part of my curatorial philosophy, in keeping with the direct nature of poster messaging, is to make exhibition texts as accessible as possible. This includes avoiding jargon or overly academic language, and providing viewers with concise information about each poster’s contents to elucidate its purpose and function. I use bullet points in wall labels so people can skim and easily pick out the ideas to which they are most drawn. Texts like this can be used in an open-source manner, with venues adding and subtracting labels or simply presenting the basic biographical information about Amos alongside a variety of his posters and prints.

Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr.’s life took a sharp turn after he saw a vintage printing press in action while visiting Colonial Williamsburg. That chance encounter inspired him to change the course of his career, studying printing and eventually becoming a master letterpress printer. The pieces shown here chronicle just a small portion of his prolific output, focusing primarily on the advertisement and promotion of Black cultural events in the rural South.

Unlike so-called “fine printers” who have chosen to embrace letterpress as a precious form of high art, Amos’s work doubles down on the democracy and immediacy of printing. An excitement and urgency is present in each piece, resulting in posters that are equally informative and visually delightful. He has taken a centuries-old tradition and adapted it for modern messaging. 

He underscores the democracy of the form with a price point of around $20 for most of his posters and prints — which he occasionally waves altogether so as many people as possible can live with his vibrant, text-based compositions. He is best known for his intense use of layering, a hallmark of the “School of Bad Printing” — an unofficial group of like-minded letterpress printers around the world — stacking phrases and words atop each other until they are abstracted, almost hidden. He also deftly mixes wood and metal type in his practice alongside handmade pressure prints, linoleum cuts, carved designs, and laser-cut imagery. Visual jokes are plentiful. Most importantly, though, these posters document moments of small-town, rural life that generally would be forgotten, bearing witness to people and places often ignored by history.

Rooster Day Festival, 2003

  • Starting in 2002, York, Alabama began hosting a Rooster Day Festival, an annual free event focusing on arts and cultural activities.
  • This is one of Amos’s earliest posters, created at a time when he was based in York and printing under the name “York Show Print” — a nod to the many historic letterpress printers in the United States, such as Hatch Show Print or Tribune Showprint.
  • The green and purple roosters in the background were created through a pressure print process in which a flexible, raised matrix or template is placed between the paper and the printing cylinder. When run through a press, the extra pressure of that raised design pushes those parts of the paper into the ink, creating a fuzzy image. Amos frequently uses this technique to add visual texture to his designs. 

Ideas Festival, 2005

Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr., “Ideas Festival” (2005), letterpress on coated stock, 19 inches x 14 inches
  • This submission-based creativity festival took place at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, and featured a keynote speech by video game developer Gordon Walton (best known for his involvement in The Sims).
  • The poster is printed on coated stock — hence the white background — a type of board that Amos no longer uses. Not only is the uncoated chipboard he incorporates today cheaper, but the brown background color it provides harmonizes visually with the natural setting of most of these rural events.
  • The mask design in the upper right was hand carved by Amos out of masonite and printed like raised type, while the background features a repeated pressure print of the number “2005.”

Tee’s Lounge, c. 2002

Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr., “Tee’s Lounge” (c. 2002), letterpress on chipboard, 19 inches x 14 inches
  • This is one of Amos’s most straightforward letterpress posters, combining a variety of sans serif typefaces in a single composition. Mixing typefaces like this was a common way of creating eye-catching posters and broadsides in the 1800s (similar to “Wanted” notices that juxtaposed mug shots with explanatory text).  
  • The composition shows off Amos’s knowledge of and love for the printers who came before him through subtle humor. He’s substituted an upside down “7” for the “L” in “Flavor.” In the early days of letterpress, printers would often have to resort to using numbers or other glyphs creatively when they did not have enough of a given letter to complete a phrase. 

Juneteenth, 2005

Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr., “Juneteenth” (2005), letterpress on chipboard, 19 inches x 14 inches
  • Juneteenth is an annual holiday that celebrates the emancipation of enslaved African American people. The date, June 19, commemorates the day that the last enslaved people in the United States were informed of their liberation, two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. 
  • The logo of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the sponsoring organization for this three-day event, is repeated as a pressure print throughout the background in various sizes, providing multicolored visual texture to the composition. 
  • Amos further displays his humor in the noted start times of events on the first two days of the festival (7:02 pm and 10:01 am, respectively). He often plays with time in his promotional posters with the belief that people will remember a mistake, and therefore remember the event more readily than if the information had been presented accurately.

Woman Singing the Blues, 2013

Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr., “Woman Singing the Blues” (2013), letterpress on chipboard, 19 inches x 12.5 inches
  • This poster announces an all-female blues lineup as part of the Johnny Shines Blues Festival in Holt, Alabama. 
  • Again, Amos has played with the starting times of the show, with doors at 10:57 am and the concert at 12:06 pm. These unexpected visual jokes help to make the poster’s messaging more memorable.

The Night Was Black, 2011

Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr., “The Night Was Black” (2011), letterpress on chipboard, 19 inches x 12.5 inches
  • This poster was created for the reopening of the Safe House Black History Museum in Greensboro, Alabama. The organization was founded in 1992 by Theresa Burroughs, a childhood friend of Coretta Scott King and participant in the Selma March over the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
  • The museum is housed in the building where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hid from the Ku Klux Klan on March 21, 1968, a few days before he was assassinated. Today, the museum’s programming generally focuses on Civil Rights history at the local level. 
  • When speaking of that evening, Burroughs noted that “the night was black and so were we,” referring to members of the Greensboro community who hid in the brush around the home to protect Dr. King. Amos printed the first half of this quote at the top of this poster.
  • The background image is a repeated pressure print of the state of Alabama, a motif Amos frequently used in his early posters. 

Rise for Climate, Jobs and Justice, 2018

Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr., “Rise for Climate, Jobs, and Justice” (2018), letterpress on chipboard, 19 inches x 12.5 inches
  • Emerging out of the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City, the People’s Climate Movement organizes ongoing mass mobilization for causes related to climate change, as well as economic and social justice.
  • This commissioned piece was created for the 2018 march and repeatedly features the word “rise” in a variety of colors similar to flames. The result is an incredibly evocative call to action.
  • While more sparse than many of his other posters, the layering of a single word within the composition to the point of unreadability reflects a hallmark of Amos’s style (and that of the School of Bad Printing).

People Are Dying of AIDS, 2012

Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr., “People Are Dying of AIDS” (2012), letterpress on chipboard, 19 inches x 12.5 inches
  • In the 1980s, Elizabeth Taylor became one of the first major celebrities to speak out about the AIDS epidemic, using her platform to bring attention to the national health crisis.
  • In this poster, Amos uses one of Taylor’s most famous quotes from that era to announce the 26th annual AIDS Walk in Washington, D.C., organized by Whitman-Walker Health.
  • This is an excellent example of Amos’s signature layering technique in which he has printed the words “AIDS WALK” in at least four different colors, overlapping them by passing the poster through the press multiple times in a variety of lockups. There is also evidence of a pressure print of the word “AIDS” in the upper register.

Black: African American Art from the Corcoran Gallery, 2006

Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr., “Black: African American Art from the Corcoran Gallery” (2006), letterpress on chipboard, 19 inches x 12.5 inches
  • This poster advertises the traveling exhibition Black Is A Color: African American Art from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, on view at the Mobile Museum of Art in Alabama.
  • The show featured work by Mel Edwards, David Driskell, Lorna Simpson, and Kiki Smith, among many other artists, focusing on artwork in a grayscale color palette — a unifying theme reflected in Amos’s black-and-silver composition. 
  • The title comes from Raymond Saunders’s 1967 pamphlet of the same name, in which he argues that Black artists should not be expected solely to tackle racial issues in their work.
  • Although the Corcoran Gallery of Art was one of the first art museums in the United States, it dissolved in 2014, with most of its collection going to other institutions.

York to New York, 2003

Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr., “York to New York” (2003), letterpress on chipboard, 19 inches x 14 inches
  • This poster is for a private fundraising event in New York City benefitting the Alabama Federation of Democratic Women. The host, a prominent financier, had ties to York, Alabama, thus bridging York and New York.
  • One segment of the fundraiser was a fashion show of upcycled denim garments created by Black seamstresses whose former work had been outsourced to Mexico. The Coleman Center for the Arts, an arts organization focused on Alabama’s Black Belt, provided a creative outlet and means of income for their skills.
  • The pressure print in the background includes the word “York” alongside the silhouette of the state of Alabama, while the dingbats (small printing icons) in the upper and lower registers feature the Empire State Building and the Democratic donkey — a subtle visual link between the two cities.

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