Peoples' History Posters (2018 - present)
Varied print techniques, digital assembly & output
For many years I have used my studio practice as a vehicle through which to investigate and foster discourse around complex, often abject subjects. I’ve drawn, carved, and printed thousands of images that catalogue and critique the worst tendencies of humankind.
These new works are a departure for me, conceptually and formally.
Rather than propagate images of the grotesque - imperialism, war, industrialized animal agriculture, the ravages of capitalism against the body of Mother Earth - I have chosen to focus my creative energies toward the resistance that has blossomed in response to such oppressive systems. I am making largely digital posters to commemorate the social movements that challenge and undermine oppression, and celebrate the courageous leaders who organize them. I am producing other imagery – protest graphics – intended for direct action, and prints that can be shared and sold inexpensively to educate and raise revenue for emergency aid, legal support, and other resources necessary to struggle against injustice.
This is how I’m making sense of my role as an artist/educator in 2019, and my myriad unearned advantages as a white, cisgender, straight, male person who does not live with a disability – turning to hope rather than cynicism, leveraging my skills and the platforms afforded me to support the tireless heroes all around us.
It’s rare that a political poster is celebratory, and when it is, it almost always focuses on a small canon of male individuals: MLK, Mandela, Ghandi, or Che Guevara. Rather than present another exclusive set of heroes, with this series of images I hoped to bring to life successful moments in the history of social justice. The first step was choosing my subjects, a process that began with simple curiosity – looking, listening, reading. I scanned for events, groups, and individuals who have moved forward the collective struggle of humanity to create a more equitable and just world, and shied away from anyone or anything that had been covered extensively over more mainstream media platforms. A primary objective of this project is to suggest a new relationship to the past -“teach history from below” - not to echo the dominant narrative.
After determining a subject, my next step was to search for compelling accounts, reliable information, and of course, reference images. I spent weeks collecting and summarizing stories. All drawings were first sketched from photos intended for public use, rendered with pen and ink, scanned, and adjusted for contrast. The final posters are a mixture of text that I’ve composed*, quotes, images, and design elements created digitally. Colors, fonts and layouts were chosen or conceived to conceptually support each subject. For example, the yellow of the Durham poster references the strap used to pull the confederate monument to the ground, and lavender (its complement) symbolizes the community of queer-identifying folks that led this action. The light blue and orange-red of the Anthem poster are the team colors of Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers and Kaepernick’s San Francisco 49ers, respectively. The green and pink elements of the VINE Sanctuary design suggest the vegan ideology and feminist politics of its co-founders.
Another objective of this project was to better familiarize myself with contemporary print technologies and modes of producing/disseminating political propaganda. For the past decade I have worked primarily with one of the most ancient means of image reproduction – relief printmaking. I have carved a catalog of hundreds of small individual blocks, and exhaustively explored the different compositional and narrative possibilities of them. As this new project progressed, I found myself applying the same thinking and sensibilities: accumulating elements, working in collage, layering and rearranging. Sophisticated software enabled the creative tendencies of my analog process, making it relatively simple to shift the scale of an image, flip it, superimpose another, change the color palette, add words.
By far, the most challenging aspect of constructing these posters was the same as it has always been for me: arriving at a singular, satisfying conclusion. As I would develop each design, an array of alternative arrangements would begin to take shape. The result of so much potential is a set of twelve posters commemorating six subjects, and dozens of other ideas left unresolved, unprinted. Every poster you see here is the product of many drawings and pages of copy, and though most that work was ultimately tucked away in a folder, all of it was critical to the process of getting here.
*The text for Grand Rapids Furniture Strike 1911 was generously provided by Jeff Smith, co-founder of the Grand Rapids Peoples History Project.