Power of the Press

Tacoma artist Jessica Spring and Chandler O’Leary just released number 27 in their series of Dead Feminist broadsides. Entitled “Seeding the Vote,” the letterpress print features the legacy of voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. Image courtesy of Jessica Spring and Chandler O’Leary

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977) was one of 20 children born to a family of poor sharecroppers in Sunflower County, Miss. As a voting rights activist and an advocate for community agriculture, she survived assassination attempts and a near fatal police beating. She ran for congress in 1964, saying, “I’m showing the people that a Negro can run for office.” She worked to integrate the Mississippi Democratic Party. 

Hamer’s catchphrase, “nobody’s free until everybody’s free,” emblazons the latest Dead Feminist broadside – number 27 in the ongoing series of letterpress homages to feminist heroes that are created by the team of Tacoma artists Chandler O’Leary and Jessica Spring. The new broadside, “Seeding the Vote,” was released May 7.

Broadsides – poster-like one-sided print products – go all the way back to the beginning of the printing press. Broadsides are distinguished from posters in that the former have a more typographical and literary leaning. They have historically been used to convey political messages and spread ideas to a mass audience.  O’Leary and Spring started the Dead Feminist broadside series in 2008 as a fun and interesting way to make commentary on current political and social issues while at the same time celebrating the lives of extraordinary women of the past. First and foremost, however, each of the broadsides is a work of art, carefully planned out, designed by hand and printed with high quality craftsmanship.

Image courtesy of Jessica Spring and Chandler O’Leary

In the beginning, O’Leary and Spring laid out some ground rules for the project. Each broadside had to feature a quote by a feminist. The feminist must be deceased. The quote had to be related to a current sociocultural issue or event. The whole piece, with the exception of the colophon (the detailed informational portion of the broadside, which tells the story of each particular feminist), has to be hand-drawn.

Via the medium of these broadsides, the two artists have been able to highlight issues like detentions of migrant laborers, religious violence, offshore drilling, body image and urban homesteading. They have featured women like Annie Oakley, Tacoma’s own Thea Foss, the Hawaiian Queen Lili’uokalani, golf star Babe Didrikson Zaharias and the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. The edition size of each broadside varies somewhat, the edition number being a significant feature of each piece. With the newest printing, for example, the edition size of 165 prints commemorates the Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law in 1965.

A portion of the proceeds from each of the broadsides goes to the Dead Feminists Fund, which distributes funds to charity organizations or causes related to each broadside. Thus, a portion of the proceeds from “Seeding the Vote,” will go to Spread the Vote, a nonprofit that helps obtain government-issued photo identification cards to help counter the suppressive voter ID laws that many state legislatures have used to keep minority citizens from voting.

“Seeding the Vote” was inspired by the upcoming congressional midterm elections and the need to get out the vote as the most effective way to turn the tide of government sanctioned intolerance, inequality and violence.

The broadside’s prominent sunflower motif plays upon Hamer’s place of origin, Sunflower County. The stalks are used to form jail bars, a reference to Hamer’s incarceration for her voting rights activities. Hamer’s full name is placed on the sides of a trio of yellow busses, as a reference to buses that Hamer used in her voter registration drives. They also hearken to the prominent role of the bus in the civil rights struggle. The word “free” is bracketed by a pair of sunflowers, one of which contains a portrait of Hamer. The colophon at the bottom of the broadside gives a biography of Hamer and her work.

The Dead Feminist broadsides can be purchased at www.deadfeminists.com. “Seeding the Vote” sells for $40. They sell out rather rapidly, but there are also post card (5 x 8-inches), unlimited versions of each, which can be purchased. In 2016, O’Leary and Spring released a book, “Dead Feminists, Historic Heroines in Living Color,” which featured the broadsides and historical information about each feminist in the series. It covers the first several years of the Dead Feminist broadsides. 

Spring and O’Leary each run their own letterpress printing shop and have numerous irons in the fire at any given time. The Dead Feminist broadsides are just one of many projects that these busy and talented artists do. Spring is the proprietor of Springtide Press (see springtidepress.com). She has an MFA from Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper. O’Leary is an illustrator and lettering artist who has a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. She is the proprietor of Anagram Press. Her charming sketchbook drawings from her travels “Drawn the Road Again,” have been exhibited locally (see drawntheroadagain.com). 

Many of the Dead Feminist broadsides are in the collections of universities and libraries all over the U.S. The University of Washington, Seattle and the University of Puget Sound both have collections of the entire series to date.

While they are first and foremost examples of the best of letterpress art, the Dead Feminist broadsides are also brilliant social commentaries, reflective of our time. By bringing historic movers and shakers to light, they educate us about the great deeds done by women in the past in order to inspire us to undertake similar deeds in our own time. Tacoma is fortunate to count O’Leary and Spring amongst those citizens who contribute so much to the cultural life of our City of Destiny.

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