Why he left a comfortable middle-class life to become a “humble negro printer” and pursue a different kind of American dream working with his hands and using his art to challenge racial injustices.
At age 40, Amos Kennedy Jr. walked into a printing demonstration while on vacation in Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and fell in love with a letterpress. Within five minutes, he decided to quit his job as a Chicago-based systems analyst for AT&T and become a printer.
He studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and eventually moved from the Midwest to Alabama and settled for a far less lucrative income—to the tune of $7,000 a year—but what he felt was a more satisfying vocation and lifestyle. Now in his 60s, Kennedy has made a name for himself as a first-rate printer and artist, although he dislikes the word artist and instead says he’s someone who “makes stuff.” But his talent—along with his distinctive uniform of overalls and a pink dress shirt—has made him a leader in his field who can’t be ignored. In 2012, filmmaker Laura Zinger made a documentary, Proceed and Be Bold!, capturing Kennedy’s artistry, activism, and irreverence, as well as serving as a window into the life of an artisan in modern-day America.
Kennedy’s greatest contribution, however, might be his insistence on living a life of his choosing, one with low overhead that enables a healthy balance of work and play. He subscribes to the idea that all humans should do what they can to be happy, and that the “pursuit of happiness” is not an American luxury but a must for humanity. “Following your bliss and being happy is a human trait,” Kennedy says. “I think it being corrupted is a trait of advanced civilization because you have to corrupt it in order for people to submit to advanced civilization—what we call an advanced civilization.” 99U spoke with Kennedy about his dramatic midlife career change, how the issue of race significantly impacts his work, and what it’s like being a craftsman working by hand today.
Proceed and Be Bold! is an excellent title for your documentary. Do you suppose you would have inspired a film had you stayed at AT&T?
I would have inspired a performance of Death of a Salesman.
Or Death of a Systems Analyst! Your decision to dedicate yourself to printing is a kind of variation on the American dream—chuck everything, financial security be damned, and do what you love. Was there any fear in that decision or did you feel you had no choice?
I actually think it is the American dream, because the people who originally colonized the United States, they dropped everything and took off someplace where they didn’t know where they were going to live or survive.
Five minutes with a letterpress changed everything, but you could have just as easily found your calling that day in blacksmithing or apothecary. What was it about printing?
I had studied calligraphy for a very long time, about 10 years, but I wasn’t good at it. The letterpress appealed to me because I was attracted to books. I love letters; I love books. It was a way of working with letters, making books, and also the fact that you can make multiple copies.
Can you describe the conversation in your head during those five minutes?
What I was thinking was, I got to find a place in Chicago where I can learn this.
I love what you said at the end of the documentary, that all you have to do to have your life is “declare yourself crazy, and do what you want to do.” Why do you suppose that’s so hard for people?
Because we have been taught all our lives that we have to work for somebody else. We have to have security. Again, I think it was my generation, and even now, we have this model of working forever for somebody and then retiring and going off to play golf. And that’s the good life. We aren’t taught to be independent and free, although we scream that we’re an independent and free nation. We talk about personal responsibility, but personal responsibility is first for your happiness. That happiness comes from finding that internal peace, and I think a lot of people don’t find that. That’s how come you have these substitutions that are accepted by larger society, such as consumerism or the sports fanatic. These sort of things. The people are trying to find a good substitute, but that freedom that we so long for is, basically, an ability to express ourselves and just be happy.
You have—and have had—many admirers and apprentices. Your son Adric prints, too. What are you teaching them besides printing?
I think I’m just showing them that there’s an alternative lifestyle, that pursuing what makes you happy will do exactly that. With that comes a lifestyle that you can be comfortable with. I will never own a Mercedes-Benz, but that’s okay. I don’t need a Mercedes-Benz. I have something else. Because I think a lot in this nation and civilization… a lot of consumerism, it’s like what they say about a heroin junkie. You get that high. It goes away. You can function for a little bit, but then you got to go get that high again. But each high is just a little less high than the last one. I really think consumerism functions at that level in this society.
I read the paper by Andrew Steeves, “Print! Amos Kennedy, Jr. & the Fine Art of Rabblerousery.” He wrote that “at first your work appears to be chaotic and accidental.” Can you describe what you’re doing?
What I am doing is actually mimicking my world vision. The vision of what I think is the world. It can be very easily summed up in the snowflake. No two snowflakes are the same. No two of my posters are really the same. It speaks to the individuality of each person; the uniqueness. They are unique on their own when you take time to look at just one, but if you look at them collectively, they are equally as beautiful.
Your former professor, Walter Hamady at the University of Wisconsin, he’s known for many things, including his book series The Interminable Gabberjabbs, and his use of satire and poking fun. It seems you found in him a kindred spirit.
I did. He is a master craftsperson. He pays great attention to detail, and his work is very intentional. This is one of the things that I’ve learned, and he is a very irreverent person. And that’s part of his talent … people either love him or hate him.
Gabberjabbs influenced your NappygRams [negroes in art collection], right?
They did in one respect, but he just questioned things. He questioned and he explored. The NappygRams started out purely as a political statement, as a manifestation of a frustration I was experiencing [while teaching] at Indiana University. The first NappygRam was “Affirmative Action is a Joke.” I was just tired of it. I was just tired of what we think about affirmative action; the critics of affirmative action. The fact that if it was really working then we wouldn’t be having this discussion 20 years later.
Which brings me to the fact that you don’t shy away from politics in your work. It’s a major part of what you do. Would you say activism was always part of your life, or really only since you started “making stuff”?
I tell people, I’m always a person who will disagree with everybody. Sometimes for fun, but a lot of times because I just saw that there was an injustice somewhere. I would challenge teachers when the normal people would not. Or the way that they would challenge them would be in some rough, traditional way. I would just challenge them on the point.
You play a lot with race, identity, and perception in your work and in yourself, i.e. calling yourself a “humble negro printer,” being “Mr. Overalls” and using racially charged images like Sambo and Aunt Jemima. Are you successful as a provocateur, and what are you hoping to accomplish?
I think I am successful to a point, and what I’m hoping to accomplish is to change people’s perceptions of these things. The racially charged images are actually paying homage to the fact that these were images that were used. We cannot whitewash our history, OK? We have to look at it, and say, “Wow, this is what happened.” One of the most racially charged, hatefully charged images is the swastika, but you see it all the time. But the sun sign is what the swastika was based upon… People say, “Oh I can’t put that up because it’s the swastika.” There was once a saying that if you want to sell a book, put the swastika on the cover and you would sell another 10,000.
You go to India, you see it everywhere. It means something entirely different.
Right, right. How is it that one political party can take a sign for less than 50 years and turn it into, we don’t even want to see this anymore. That sign that has been around for millennia. But the swastika we see all the time. This is in one way a racist act. In one way we’re praising the Nazis but damning the Indians who had the sign, and that sign is universal. It’s a very primitive sign. You find it in African cultures. You find it in European cultures. It was everywhere in the United States before WWII.
And you feel you’re making your point?
Yes, it is being made and it’s being made slowly… it’s reclaiming. It is very much like the word black. In the ’50s, people who were descendants of African slaves did not really want to be called black. But in the ’60s, we reclaimed that word and turned it into something beautiful. “Black is beautiful.” “Black Power.” That is similar to what I’m doing. That’s one reason why I use the term negro, because it is offensive to people. I use the term “ni***r,” and I tell people that’s not my problem that they labeled it that. This is a word, and so I claim it. Right now I say that I am a negro, but technically I am a descendant of the enslaved peoples of this civilization because I want to reclaim my heritage of being enslaved. So when you look at me, you remember that this nation was built on the labor of enslaved people. Honor my ancestors and the sacrifice that they made that you can live in the wealth that you think you have.
And on the flip slide, you’ve eschewed the wealth you could have had in that civilization to go do the work you do.
Your family left the Deep South for Michigan when you were still a kid. When you started printing, you moved to Alabama for a while, and a few years ago you settled in Detroit. Why did you leave the South once again for the Midwest?
I needed an airport. I do a lot of traveling, and so I needed to be close to an airport because my traveling was requiring me get up at two o’clock in the morning, drive 90 miles to the airport, and then take the early flight. Air travel was taking the entire day.
You couldn’t have moved near Atlanta?
Well, Detroit was the only city that I could live in at the lifestyle I had. I could move to Atlanta, but I would have to work harder, and I think that would ruin my relationship with the work that I do. I tell students if what you want to do is print, you find the place where you can afford to print more.
You raised beyond $30,000 to meet your mark for the Detroit Printing Plant, the print shop, the book bindery, and the handmade paper mill that you have wanted to have built in Detroit. What is the status? Is this fully operational at this point?
No. Unfortunately Detroit, I tell people, believe the hype but don’t believe the hype. I thought I could roll in there, three months later have a building and boom—six months it would be up and running. It didn’t work that way. The status now is that we have secured a building. We changed the name of the project to simply the Printing Plant, the Printery of the Americas. We’re a 501(c)(3). We’ve also secured a house for people to live in, and a plot of vacant land for a garden. And now I’m on phase two. Those funds have been depleted, but we are going forward because I found a new source of some funds to allow for the occupation of the building.
Would the occupants be apprentices?
I would not call them apprentices. There will be people who want to explore their relationship with letterpress printing. To have an apprentice means I would have to make money, and I am at the point now where I want to make as little money as possible. I will have to earn money for the renovation of the building. That means I’m going to have to work much harder. That’s a cause I want to do. I don’t want to say, “Janice is dependent upon me paying her $2,400 this month so she can have her rent and she can live her life.” I’m willing to make a big capital investment, but the ongoing maintenance should go to the building.
You have said you print because you’re good at it. You have also said that your goal was to be a master printer. Are you there yet?
No. I still have a long way to go. There’s a lot to learn, and I have seen people who move with great fluidity through the print shop, through the whole process. It is almost an effortless motion. It’s like water going down a creek, very slowly, very gently. Like watching a leaf float down the river.
And that’s how you’ll know? How does anyone know when they are that and when they’ve mastered something? Can they see it in themselves?
I believe that they can. I am hoping that I will be able to say, I am now at the point where I can really learn. And let me just add that at this point in my career, I do not believe that I am mastering the craft so much as I am allowing the craft to explain the workings of the universe—the workings of the universe and the connections that make the universe flow.