Film Illustrates Printmaker’s Passion for Letterpress Art

Isabel Klein

For 40-year-old Amos Paul Kennedy Jr., watching someone work an old-fashioned letterpress in Colonial Williamsburg was inspiration enough to trade in his business suit and high-paying corporate position for overalls and a salary of $7,000 per year. Since opening his own printing company, Kennedy has been making exquisite posters printed with pithy and thought-provoking phrases, which he sells for only $15–20 to increase their accessibility. Director, producer and editor Laura Zinger and her team followed Kennedy for 18 months to film a documentary about his life, Proceed and Be Bold!, which was screened at the Allen Memorial Art Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, followed by a question and answer session with Kennedy.

The film reveals Kennedy’s eccentric sense of humor and his artistic knowledge. Kennedy is both an old man and a youthful soul enclosed inside one body. In one scene, Kennedy skips around Wesleyan University awaiting an interview with an esteemed professor. In the next scene, he shares thought-provoking opinions.

His prints are not only beautiful, but send strong and sometimes controversial messages. Many depict humorous phrases or imaginings that he picks up from his friends or family. His prints span from the sarcastically aggressive, “Fuck you! I’ll fuck myself,” to the racial allusion, “Coffee Makes You Black.” While some phrases, like “Everything is OK,” may be more cliché, the unique imagery he pairs with the phrases made them feel new.

Proceed and Be Bold! originated when Zinger asked a librarian at her university to show her the most interesting book in her collection. The librarian led her to Kennedy’s “artists’ books:” a snake necklace and a whipping stick crafted from pages of significant texts. The whipping stick is formed from shredded pages of the Bible, while the snake necklace is crafted from a collection of sayings intended to be worn around the neck. Zinger was fascinated by the pieces and eventually met Kennedy in person. “I just thought that Amos was so interesting and fun, and I wanted to make a short documentary to get more practice,” Zinger said.

Although the short documentary grew into a longer film, Zinger openly expressed the struggles she faced in bringing the film together. “As a female filmmaker trying to financially make my own films, I have faced everything from sexual harassment to not being taken seriously enough as a filmmaker to warrant film funding,” Zinger said.

At the same time, Zinger finds filmmaking rewarding. “The most rewarding part is when you are sitting alone in a room in the dark with all of your footage crammed onto the computer in front of you, and you are starting to put your vision into actuality during the editing process.”

Proceed and Be Bold! depicts the concentration and love Kennedy uses to approach his craft and reflects his passions for engaging many different communities through his art. Kennedy gave words of advice to students who attended the film screening. “This is the last place, this university or college setting, where you will have such diversity in information and knowledge,” Kennedy said. “This is why I tell students at colleges and universities, ‘Take itall.’”

College senior Matt Simon took Kennedy’s words to heart. “I think he has a lot of good advice,” said Simon. “He seems like a very practical person and very unpretentious, which is really nice to see coming from a pretty successful artist.”

Kennedy also had much to say on the subjects of race and class. In the film, he self-identified as “Colored by birth, Negro by education and Black by choice.” He also refers to himself as a “humble Negro printer,” which some people have criticized, but the epithet reflects Kennedy’s modest disposition.

Kennedy has been criticized several times because of his controversial views and art. When he taught at Indiana University in the 1980s, he spoke out against anti-affirmative action sentiment. He also sent members of the administration “NappyRams,” which were postcards decorated with a minstrel figure and catchphrases that criticized college practices. Kennedy continues to question their practices to this day.

Zinger recalled conversations that occurred after film screenings at different colleges and universities that also highlighted race relations in the U.S. “I remember distinctly Amos standing on stage at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater during the question and answer and saying, ‘If race didn’t exist, America wouldn’t exist,’” Zinger said. “Amos talks just as much about race as he does about being your own person, your own artist, and he is always encouraging people to go and be the artists that they wish to be.”

In Oberlin, Kennedy shared what he thinks it takes to follow your dreams, saying, “All you have to do is declare yourself as crazy and do what you want!” He also spoke on the nature of failure. Kennedy said, “You do not fail, but you have experiences. And what you do is that you learn from those experiences. You may not learn what you wanted to learn, but you learn something.”

Toward the end of his talk, Kennedy pulled out a bright green poster with the words, “LIFE You’re not gonna get rich, So you might as well get HAPPY.” The quote on the poster seemed to reflect Kennedy’s values and the life path he has pursued.