UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 10 Summer 19 Library
Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. conducted a workshop at the Virginia Book Center at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center in Charlottesville on 11/16/18. (Credit: Pat Jarrett/Virginia Humanities)
Virginia Humanities

Finding Wisdom: Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr. Gives Voice to Community through Letterpress Printing

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The letterpress-printed posters of Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr. have something to say, their text echoing the collective wisdom and history of the communities in which he works. Recently named the inaugural Frank Riccio Artist-in-Residence at the Virginia Center for the Book, Kennedy invited the Charlottesville-Albemarle community to engage in a collective art project this spring through the hands-on practice of letterpress printing. 

In many of his posters, the text jumps out in bold block letters from a background printed in layers of vibrantly colored shapes and patterns, sometimes with other letters cast like shadows. A printer based in Detroit, Kennedy prides himself on the fact that no two of his posters are the same. To create the layering effect, he runs some of his more complex posters through the letterpress up to six times. 

“I like the variance,” he says, “the randomness, or our perception of randomness.” 

Like his compositions, his philosophy is steeped with intention, beginning with his choice of medium. He has focused his career on posters rather than artist books, he says, because “posters represent the democratization of art in that they are affordable to the masses, not just a select group of people.”

He brought this same approach to the Frank Riccio Residency, which supports a visiting illustrator, printer, or book artist in the completion of a collaborative community project at the Virginia Center for the Book. A program of Virginia Humanities, the Virginia Center for the Book moved its letterpress studio to the Jefferson School City Center in Downtown Charlottesville in 2018. Kennedy’s residency project, titled Finding Wisdom, involved direct participation by more than one thousand residents and culminated during the Center’s 25th annual Virginia Festival of the Book.

Last November, Kennedy visited Charlottesville to get to know the partners in the project, the Charlottesville area, “and the relationships that exist there,” he says. During the four days he spent scouting for his longer 2019 visit, Kennedy interacted with more than 300 residents through a dozen public events, teaching letterpress printing and giving completed posters to attendees to take home. 

After getting to know Charlottesville, Kennedy proposed a project in which community members would share quotations or aphorisms that had personal meaning to them in order to “create a sense of ownership and community,” he says. When he returned in March, Kennedy worked with residents to turn those aphorisms into letterpress artworks. His hope was that quote contributors, exhibition viewers, and workshop attendees alike would recognize there is a lot to explore in the world of printing that could enrich their lives. This, he says, is the driving force of his work, inviting “people to re-engage with the community and become citizens instead of consumers.” 

Maggie Guggenheimer, Director of External Relations at Virginia Humanities, says, “His generous spirit of engagement, openness to all participants, and enthusiasm for the power of language and longstanding cultural traditions to connect us fits incredibly well with the mission of Virginia Humanities.”

The most fun, Kennedy says, is the interaction with the public and their engagement with the process. “There is something very magical about letterpress printing,” he says. “The blank piece of paper rolls over a form and suddenly text appears. People participating were in awe and thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread,” he says with a laugh. 

Recent UVA graduate Tia Nichols (College ‘18) assisted Kennedy in his Detroit studio, printing backgrounds for over 7,500 posters to be used in the Charlottesville-Albemarle community project. Nichols completed her B.A. degree in Studio Art with a concentration in printmaking a semester early to allow herself “the freedom to engage in projects such as this,” she says. Despite being a labor-intensive project, Kennedy’s approach made it “nothing but fun and a great experience,” says Nichols, who will continue to work with Kennedy as she pursues her M.F.A. at Wayne State University. 

Kennedy’s residency included printmaking workshops offered in partnership with Charlottesville and Albemarle public schools, the Boys and Girls Club of Central Virginia, Jefferson Madison Regional Libraries, Monticello’s Getting Word project, and others. Nichols assisted in leading workshops at the Virginia Center for the Book and oversaw the installation of over 10,000 posters in about 40 public locations, featuring the “words of wisdom” that had been collected from local residents by partner organizations since November. 

Out of the many aphorisms Kennedy has collected and printed over the years, one, in particular, stands out to him that has been attributed to Malcolm X: “When ‘I’ is replaced with ‘we,’ even illness becomes wellness.” 

“That sums up what community is about,” Kennedy says. “Not the ‘I’ but the ‘we.’ When focused on ‘I’ there is a sickness. But when it becomes a ‘we’ thing, it becomes something greater and inclusive and you know that you’re not alone. Just the idea of being in a group is an assistance to you. It gives you some sort of mental rest.”

By emphasizing community in the Finding Wisdom project, Kennedy hopes people “will recognize that all of Charlottesville is connected, and in order to prosper everyone must prosper.”

View Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr.’s artist talk at VaHumanities.org/apk-artist-talk/ and sign up for a letterpress class and learn more about the Virginia Center for the Book at VaBookCenter.org.

  • Raennah Lorne
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