On Tour: It’s Hard to Make a Living as a Letterpress Printer

10 Apr

Where it all began for Amos Paul Kennedy Jr.!

I knew nothing about Colonial Willamsburg other than that it was a historical village where Amos Paul Kennedy Jr., the subject of my documentary, Proceed and Be Bold!, saw the press that changed his life.

 Re-enactors printing in the press room at Colonial Williamsburg, VA.

I didn’t realize I was supposed to buy a ticket to enter the press room, and just got out of the car and ran to go find the room, because I had to be in Norfolk in 2 hours for the screening. I got to the press room, and was told by the re-enactor that I had made a documentary about a man who quit his job once he saw the printing press there and could I please just run down and take a photo? She was amazing and let me. I ran down the stairs and into the press room which was full of people and kids watching the two re-enactors in the room showing how a Gutenberg press is used. Gutenberg presses are really cool because they were modeled after winepresses. You can see this in the photo below.The paper is laid on top of the inked moveable type and a large wooden platform is pulled down on top of the paper to make the paper press into the moveable type and then when the paper is pulled out, it has been printed on! Substitute grapes where the moveable type and paper are in this photo and you’ve got a wine press!

I told the re-enactors and the rest of the people in the room that I had made a documentary about a man who had seen this press and had quit his job at AT&T at 40 years old and became a letterpress printer. They were all amazed. The male re-enactor told us all that he knew that people were using letterpresses to print wedding invitations and other work, but that “it’s hard to make a living as a letterpress printer.” I told him that I had seen that firsthand with Amos, the subject of my documentary, but that he has managed to make a living. The re-enactor was impressed and I gave him my card and said I would mail him a free copy of the film if he sent me his mailing address.

Then I told them I was showing the film in 6 different cities as part of a screening tour for the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundations’ On Screen/ In Person grant, and had to run to another screening and then quite literally ran back to my car so that I wouldn’t be late for Norfolk screening.

I got to the screening at the Chrysler Museum with 30 minutes to spare, checked the film to make sure it was projecting correctly, then was invited to walk around the 30 Americans exhibit at the Chrysler Museum where the documentary screening was.  (Here’s a great video of the exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery.) The exhibit was made up of the work of 30 African Americans but the museum didn’t want to identify the artists just by the color of their skin and chose to call the exhibit 30 Americans which I thought was excellent and that name alone challenged the viewers of the gallery show, because of the experiences and perspectives of these 30 Americans which included Kara Walker and Kerry James Marshall. This exhibit was one of the most incredible art experiences I’ve ever had, and I was thrilled to be able to walk around and experience it during the screening of Proceed and Be Bold! at the museum.

An art instructor invited her class to the screening, because her class focused on art made after the year 2000, and she said that she felt that the messages of Kennedy’s posters fit into the 30 Americans Exhibit that the Chrysler Museum currently had at the museum. She said she could see his posters fitting into the graphic text portion of the exhibit, and having just walked around the exhibit during the screening, I agreed with her completely. In fact, the paintings with quotes on them were the ones that stopped me.

There were also direct quotes from the artists themselves painted on the walls of the exhibit, and I think this one fits perfectly with what I think is one of Kennedy’s main messages in his printing.

A filmmaking student in the audience also asked a great question about why I chose to not show or discuss the religious nature of Kennedy’s work as well. The student noted that I focused mainly on the discussion of race in the documentary. The student was right. I, personally, am more interested in issues of identity and what it is that makes us each who we individually are, and to that extent, I did not shine a very large light on the religious issues that Kennedy has delved into in his work. I also did not interview anyone during the production of the documentary who could speak about Kennedy’s religious focused work: his whipping stick and the burned bible churches. There just wasn’t enough content available to weave into the story more, unfortunately, but that’s the first time anyone has brought up that issue.

I also answered a lot of excellent questions about the construction of the documentary by the same filmmaking student in the audience who was in the middle of making a documentary about an event called Slutwalk in Canada.

After the screening, I didn’t have any Kennedy posters to sell having completely sold out by the Charleston, WV screening, but the audience members came up to me to talk to me more about the film. One woman told me that she had lived through four identities in her lifetime: Negro, Colored, Black, and African-American, and she hopes that that’s it and that there isn’t another name change that she’ll have to get used to again. She also great up in New York City and was told “coffee makes you black” too, and told me that to this day her sister won’t drink coffee.

During my viewing of the 30 Americans exhibit, I saw something that cemented for me why the On Screen/ In Person grant was an amazing experience for me as an independent filmmaker, and why I think it is one of the most incredible artist support programs I have ever heard about.

At the end of the exhibit, the museum left post-it notes and some pens where anyone who had seen the exhibit could write their thoughts and feelings about the exhibit and stick it to the wall.

This was, for me, the most perfect example of the power of artistic creation and how much it can communicate to an audience. I loved this grant, because I got to show Proceed and Be Bold! to 6 different audiences, and I got to directly communicate with them to find out what their thoughts and feelings were after seeing this documentary, and how it had changed their perspectives about race or art in America today.  It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, being able to see and hear first hand how this film and Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. had affected the hearts and minds of others.

When I was reading the post-it notes at the end of the 30 Americans exhibit, I saw how much the images in the exhibit affected their audience, and I wish that the artists behind these images could read all of these post-it notes to see the difference that their art made on so many lives.

One of the reasons I am glad to have made this documentary, one that I have discovered only after making this documentary was that Kennedy shows that yes, art is a struggle, art includes plenty of sacrifices, but the rewards of art, the communication and expression and sheer love of art makes every last minute of being an artist so incredibly worth it. Like his brother, Alan, said in the documentary so succinctly, “If you have to walk on coals to get there, then that’s sacrifice. But if you like to walk on coals, then hey, you’re having a good time.”

I think the most important message that I have seen audiences gather from the film during this screening is to just do what you love. Whether that’s art or cooking or running. Just do what you love. This is certainly the most important message that Kennedy and this documentary have taught me.

Post by Laura Zinger, OSIP touring filmmaker. Thank you for sharing all of your experiences with us, Laura!


One Response to “On Tour: It’s Hard to Make a Living as a Letterpress Printer”


  1. On Tour: It’s Hard to Make a Living as a Letterpress Printer (Screening in Norfolk, VA) | 20K Films - April 10, 2012

    […] and Be Bold! continues on its screening tour in Norfolk, VA! Read the blog post here  about Laura Z’s experiences with screening the film in […]

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