Passion in Printing: Amos Kennedy’s Letterpress

            Amos Kennedy Jr. is a printer who prints with passion and soul, embodying all that letterpress is and can be and especially highlighting its intrinsic paradoxes that underlie its character and charm.

Although letterpress was slowly extinguished as a commercial endeavor during the 1980s, it emerged again in the 1990s from the ashes as an art form. Modern letterpress celebrates those elements of printing that were considered “bad practice” in the early parts of the twentieth century, often through exaggeration, which now typifies the letterpress. The now-classic letterpress punches in paper were initially considered mistakes but today characterize letterpress. Such indentations are innately human and underscore the individuality behind letterpress. Kennedy’s devotion to his passions, which arose from a reenactment in Williamsburg, Virginia, cement him as a quintessential – and even “master” – letterpress printer. Indeed, he radiates with the joy of creation.

One of Kennedy’s posters contains the quote that “life is short, but as long as you got it, make something of it.” This quote is the thread that runs through all of Kennedy’s life in the printing sphere. It is the rare person that would forsake a seemingly perfect life in corporate America for the scarcity of an artist’s life, but that is exactly what Kennedy did. Almost like a traveling salesman, Kennedy is interested in putting art into as many hands as possible and in creating engagement with uncomfortable racial realities through images and provocation. His “nappy-grams,” for example, landed him in trouble with university police – a situation that reflects exactly how little people are comfortable with his work that demands engagement with the racial issues that plague America. His artist’s books are about encountering the world as an African American man, and he uses color and font in his art to hook people into his agenda of active political engagement and consistent dismantling of racial injustices.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Kennedy, his work, and letterpress in general is how they escape precise description and thrive on paradox. Although a printer’s studio is often cluttered and chaotic – like Kennedy’s is to an organizational mind – the printer must nevertheless be conscientious and detail-oriented in order to succeed in the world of letterpress. Each piece of material in the studio plays a role in the creation of the final print. Kennedy’s prints themselves are often multi-layered and blend together five or six layers of color and font. Such prints combat easy characterization and instead foster engagement and resistance, in line with Kennedy’s own artistic, literary, and political goals. Moreover, his website is also unique and accordingly exemplifies the qualities of his works. His enthusiasm spills through the exclamation point; his website is entitled “Kennedy Prints!” and not “Kennedy Prints,” and that exclamation point conveys much of his personality that also shines through the documentary.

[Image Description: one of Amos Kennedy’s prints that is featured in the gallery section of his website. There are many layers of font and type interacting with each other, but the most prominent layer is laid out in black ink and varying fonts and reads “wear the old coat and buy the new book.” This is a quote from Austin Phelps. The poster’s color scheme includes greens, yellows, browns, and blacks.]

This print is indicative of much of the interest in Kennedy’s work and letterpress itself. It blends the old with the new and intimates that the process of creation is one that is always ongoing, always leading to new books and artwork. Yet, the antique also holds a privileged place. An old coat teems with humanity, character, and history. Traces of the “old coat” run throughout all letterpress prints as they, too, emphasize these characteristics and celebrate the simultaneous harmony of flaws and detail within any one work. The power of letterpress, and printers such as Amos Kennedy, is how they blur conventional boundaries between new and old, valued and un-valued, and product and process.

Works Cited

Kennedy, Amos Jr. Kennedy Prints!, http://www.kennedyprints.com/posters2.html. Accessed 14 October 2021.

Kennedy Prints!, http://www.kennedyprints.com/posters2.html. Accessed 14 October 2021.

1 thought on “Passion in Printing: Amos Kennedy’s Letterpress”

  1. I find it interesting that you mentioned that the “mistakes” that people made in letterpress in the past are now what others look for when buying or making their own prints; it really shows the humanity behind each and every piece of work, and how technology has taken over when making art such as this! I took a look at Kennedy’s website, and his prints are super interesting! They’re so simple and yet they can convey so much.

    Like

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