Cultivate more minorities in arts, says Amos Kennedy
— Renowned letterpress print artist Amos Kennedy was recently in Northeast Ohio at the University of Akron’s Myers School of Art to share his latest exhibit, “Puttin’ Ink on Paper” and to conduct student workshops. Kennedy’s larger than life installation of more than 8,000, 6-inch by 8-inch individual cards was mounted on gallery walls. The colorful and provocative pieces were placed in way that challenged viewers to look beyond each individual piece and to search for images and epigrams created by the installation as a whole.
When you look past the simplicity of each layer of print, you begin to discover the man himself: bold and entertaining, certainly, but also insightful and inciting. It is difficult to look at his work and not then begin to evaluate and question your own perceptions about the issues he confronts through his art and about the way people in this country think and live.
I had the good fortune to meet and talk with Amos Kennedy while he was in Akron. To prepare for our conversation, I watched the documentary, “Proceed and Be Bold,” a film about Kennedy’s life and work. As is his letterpress art, his documentary is a call to action. In it he chooses to de-emphasize his own unique talent and persona in order to let his messages take center stage.
We begin by talking about his experiences as an adolescent in Michigan after spending much of his early life in Louisiana. Kennedy’s father was doing post-doctoral studies at Michigan State University.
“There were 400 total students and four black students in the school,” he says. “The other three were northern and their parents were also teaching at the university or taking classes. I guess they just assumed black people from the south were part of the great migration and coming from an illiterate background. I was always the one that kind of pushed the teacher a little bit; you know, how far can I push you? The thing is, I wasn’t that way because I was there; I was always the odd child out. I liked to aggravate people.”
Kennedy went on to graduate from Grambling State University with a degree in mathematics and become a computer programmer. By the 80s he was a systems analyst with AT&T and living a comfortable middle-class life. He was in his 40s and had two sons. “My sons were young and we took a summer vacation,” he says. “We went to Williamsburg. I was fascinated by the printing press there.” He continues, “I’d had a few encounters with printing when I was younger. A neighbor had been the printer for the college paper, and I would go over there and he would let me putter around. I guess that was the first spark.”
After their vacation, Kennedy returned home a changed man. He had discovered his passion for letterpress printing. “This is why I go to universities and I go out into the community,” he says. “You don’t know how a small event can have an impact on someone. Sometimes it’s just a brief introduction that gets your interest, and then later in life that interest will really be kindled.”
A letter press shop, a ‘true calling’ of aggravating people
Kennedy went on to have his own letterpress print shop for a few years before earning his master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin.
The most tumultuous stories Kennedy shared with me surrounded the years he spent teaching at Indiana University, first as a visiting professor, and then as a tenure-track assistant professor.
When I asked him about his time at Indiana and the way he stirred things up there, he was quick to correct me. “I would like to say that they stirred me up. They gave me an opportunity to continue in my true life’s calling: aggravating people.”
A particular frustration Kennedy spoke about is the lack of people of color on the faculty at Indiana and other universities, as well as his belief that Affirmative Action was then and is still woefully ineffective at addressing issues of race in the workplace.
“I had an organization called NAPPY: Negroes in Art,” he recalls. “It was an acronym. A lot of people would say, ‘Negroes in Art, NAPPY. How do you get that?’ and I would say, ‘Negroes can’t spell. They won’t know the difference,’” in his classic “poke the sleeping lion” style.
“Nappy never really existed. We had a few members: me, my partner at the time, and one or two other people. I would go to the College Arts Association’s annual conference. I actually went to two of them and had a recruiting table for NAPPY. The second time I went it was in Chicago. I went to lunch and when I came back there were these two young black graduate students looking for my table. They said, ‘What are you doing? What’s this craziness?’ I said that every university says they would love to have a black faculty member, but none of them recruit any. There are 126 historically black universities in America, and about 90 of them have art departments. None of these institutions go down and say, ‘We have graduate programs and we’d like to have a student.’ If you want black faculty you have to cultivate that. You have to create relationships where there are black art programs because you don’t have them in your undergraduate programs.”
He continues with his thoughts about Affirmative Action, “For me, Affirmative Action was and still is a policy that does not allow for the diversity that you want because you can’t have it at one level if you don’t have it at the other. You can’t say you want Affirmative Action at the academic level – the university level – and have no Affirmative Action at the kindergarten or daycare or elementary level. It has to flow all the way through. You cannot expect to have a pool of blacks that can fill professorships if you don’t cultivate that from day one. Our society does not immerse minorities in things other than sports. If you don’t offer it (art) to them, how are they going to get interested in it? It may take 20 years to change the culture.”
‘Everything you do is activism’
After three years at Indiana University, Kennedy left the job and its frustrations behind. Thankfully, he continued making his art and honing his talent for stirring things up.
I asked him if he considers himself an activist. He responds, “Everything you do is activism. It’s the degree of activism. Mine was at 40-percent activism. Most people operate at 4 to 10 percent activism. Everything you do has a degree of activism.”
Another subject Kennedy speaks passionately about is art as a business, as well as what defines art and artists in the first place. I ask him to share his thoughts about his own work.
“There are people who use art to make money, and there are people who use money to make art. I am one of the people who use money to make art. Making art is the most important thing for me.”
When questioned about whether he acknowledges that money is necessary in our society, he replies, “Money is absolutely necessary. One of my problems with art schools is that they don’t – they’re starting to – but they don’t teach students that art is a business and you have to have money to make your art, and no, you’re not going to be the next superstar artist. You may at some point, but not as soon as you graduate.”
He goes on to say, “I want to teach that you can have what you dream. You can have the life you want, once you have figured out the life you want. The problem is that there are so many external forces that have you thinking that the life you want includes a new car, cable TV, a 46-inch flat-screen television, a vacation on a cruise liner. All this stuff is thrown at you as what will make you happy, but no, maybe what will make you happy is the act of creating and making things. If that brings you the happiness, you have to ask how you can support the happiness.”
Kennedy continues with his thoughts about the way our society’s art world works, “In this civilization, art is supposed to be the domain of the wealthy, not the working citizen. I want to bring that (art) back to the people, and that’s one of the things I want to tell people. You can make a good $20 product that everybody can afford and still live comfortably on that and still have time to make the grand things you want to make.”
Kennedy puts his money where his mouth is and sells his own letterpress art posters for $20 to $25.
Finally, I ask what’s next for Amos Kennedy.
“What I want to do now is, say a middle school is having a little craft fair at Christmastime or something. I want to go there because that is moving myself down the ladder of people who have contact with art. When people go to a big craft fair, they have already established art in their life. I want to keep moving it down. My market is the person who doesn’t really buy art. It gets them to buy art so that next time they will go to the big craft fair that they probably have never gone to. I want them to say, ‘Hey! I saw this and maybe there’s more stuff like it there!’”
It’s a fitting end to a conversation with a man who, in my book, lives life registering at way more than 40 percent on the activist meter. My conclusion? For better or worse, Amos Kennedy is one of the most charming aggravators I’ve encountered.
To view Amos Kennedy’s work or for purchasing information, go to http://www.kennedyprints.com/index.html.
To learn more about Amos Kennedy, watch his documentary, “Proceed and Be Bold” (embedded below).