Movable type: Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. gathers community voices with his letterpress

Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. is in town for the month of March as the inaugural Frank Riccio Artist-in-Residence. He will conduct many printmaking events and host a public talk on March 24 during the Virginia Festival of the Book. Image: Pat Jarrett/Virginia Humanities Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. is in town for the month of March as the inaugural Frank Riccio Artist-in-Residence. He will conduct many printmaking events and host a public talk on March 24 during the Virginia Festival of the Book. Image: Pat Jarrett/Virginia Humanities

It was freezing cold, slick, and raining sideways the fall night that letterpress printer Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. spoke about his work at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.

It was a small crowd, maybe due to the weather, says Maggie Guggenheimer, director of external relations for Virginia Humanities, who helped bring Kennedy to town. But those who attended experienced firsthand what Guggenheimer calls Kennedy’s “radical generosity.”

At the end of the talk, Kennedy, wearing his signature uniform of denim overalls and a pink button-down shirt, looked around the room and paused. “Wait,” he said. “I think I have enough posters with me that I can give one to everyone here.”

Kennedy hurried through the rain to his nearby hotel room, and returned 10 minutes later with his suitcase; then he handed a brightly colored letterpress poster to each person in the room.

Kennedy is the first recipient of a one-month artist residency sponsored by the Virginia Center for the Book. Last week, he packed his van full of printed posters inspired by the folks he met here in November, and drove from his Detroit workshop to Charlottesville.

Throughout the month of March, he’ll lead free printmaking workshops, talks, and poster installations throughout the area, while getting to know the community, and getting the community to know itself, through the power of words.

Kennedy got into letterpress printing about 30 years ago when, on a trip to Colonial Williamsburg with his sons, he saw a print shop demonstration. “I was fascinated by it,” says Kennedy, who’d been interested in calligraphy for a number of years. When he got back to Chicago (where his family was living at the time), Kennedy found a place that taught letterpress printing.

“I took two courses that altered my whole life,” says Kennedy, who worked a corporate job at the time. Printing became his hobby, a visible accomplishment that he shared with others by handing poems and broadsides out to strangers he passed on the street. People enjoyed the gesture, which made Kennedy happy.

He now makes his living selling hand-printed posters for $25 apiece (though he gives plenty of them away, too). That’s how much he could afford to pay for one, he says, “and if I can’t afford my stuff, who can? Rich people got folk making art for them all the time,” but it’s rare that the average person has access to an affordable, original piece of art.

Through printing, Kennedy, now 70, discovered more about himself (such as the fact that money and material possessions do not make him happy), and along the way, he’s learned quite a bit about how this work helps build community.

Kennedy uses wood type—big, stylized letters—and bold, bright colors to press aphorisms, proverbs, maxims, and short quotes onto paper; the effect is eye-catching. And when he holds community workshops, he lets the attendees—the barbers, the students, the teachers, everyone who’s in the room, regardless of their perceived social status or standing—print the words that matter to them.

When people see the printed words, they start talking, says Kennedy. “They chuckle. They become reflective,” they open up to each other, to themselves.

“Overall in this civilization, the idea of community has fallen; we do not look upon community in the way we once did,” says Kennedy. “It’s time for us to bring back the idea of community. And to have a community, it has to be created and maintained. You don’t inherit it.” Community will fall apart if not properly tended, he adds. And that tending can look like a lot of things, from attending City Council meetings to going to a concert, or hanging a poster of your neighbor’s favorite saying.

In his Charlottesville residency, Kennedy is working with a number of community groups, including public schools, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Virginia, the Getting Word: African American Families of Monticello oral history project, public libraries, and local galleries New City Arts Initiative and Second Street, both of which will hold printmaking events that are open to everyone.

Posters will appear in Charlottesville and Albemarle high schools, Reid’s Super-Save Market, the downtown Mudhouse, Monticello Visitors Center, and local storefronts, to name a few. Some of the chosen phrases are funny (“Life is short. Smile while you still have teeth,” reads one currently on view at the Mudhouse), while others are encouraging (“Don’t be pushed around by the fears in your mind”), and instructive (“Virginians: Know Your History”).

“It’s all about words, the power of words,” says Guggenheimer, who met Kennedy during his 2018 residency at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Institute for Contemporary Art, where he worked with Richmond-area barbershop and salon owners to create posters for their shops.

“With the various wounds and questions our community will be considering for a long time,” says Guggenheimer, it’s imperative to engage the entire community in meaningful conversation through “accessible, welcoming opportunities,” and Kennedy’s workshops are just that.

“Creativity is a universal trait of humanity. It is special, but it is not special exclusive; it’s special because it’s inclusive,” he says. And in facilitating just one simple act that many people can do together, Kennedy encourages recognition of the creativity within ourselves so that we can recognize it in others.

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