Proceed and Be Bold: Director Laura Zinger and Subject Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. on Art, Life, and Independent Filmmaking
by Jessica Mosby
- USA -
Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. is living the dream. After discovering his love of letterpress, Kennedy left his comfortable corporate job and devoted his life to his art. Today the self-described “humble negro printer” lives in rural Alabama and sells his socially relevant and politically charged letterpress posters for $15 each.
Zinger interviews friends, colleagues, apprentices, customers, and Kennedy’s own family to create an absorbing portrait of a complex man that lives life on his own terms. No one interviewed is at a loss for words or enthusiasm when it comes to Kennedy and his letterpress. It helps that Kennedy is quite the character with a talent for creating posters that combine his unique style of saturated color with resonating text. A popular poster created for Tee’s Lounge reads, “Ladies, No Fighting in the Bathroom.” The poster did, reportedly, curb the fighting at what Kennedy describes as “a Grown Folks establishment.”
Kennedy is an apt documentary subject; he is funny, articulate, and unafraid of controversy. During onscreen interviews, Kennedy, clad in his trademark overalls, frankly discusses the events and choices that led him to his current life and profession. Completely transforming one’s life and redefining one’s own American Dream is much easier when considered in theoretical terms, but Kennedy makes the romantic notion of an artist living for his art concrete and comfortingly accessible.
Proceed and Be Bold is very polished and well-edited, especially considering the film’s limited budget of $18,000. Editor Stacy Simcik moves the documentary along at the perfect pace. She assumes nothing regarding the viewers’ knowledge of letterpress, and smoothly explains its history with vintage vocational promotional videos that tout letterpress’s appeal and stability as a career choice in a pre-computer and digital printing era. Footage of a modern-day Kennedy is woven into some of the film’s public domain promotional videos.
The documentary is a testament to the independent spirit, as it brings Kennedy, an independent artist, together with Zinger, an independent filmmaker. When Kennedy, Zinger, and Simcik were in San Francisco for the film’s screening at the San Francisco Documentary Festival, I sat down with them to discuss Proceed and Be Bold, their collaboration, and their commitment to artistic pursuits.
Listen to Jessica's interview with Laura Zinger and Amos Paul Kennedy Jr.
by clicking the play button below! - Ed.
Amos, how do you feel about the documentary?
Kennedy: I’m very proud of the documentary. And I’m proud of it not necessarily because it’s about me. It’s more about three young people who wanted to pursue their dream and I was able to facilitate it in some way by being the subject. Because many times people postpone their dreams because they think that they’re unattainable because they cannot live off of it.
I have come to the conclusion that if you actually pursue you passion, your passion will take care of you. You will be able to live comfortably with what comes from that passion. So, this allowed me to assist them in the pursuit of their passion and dream. So I’m very pleased to be a part of it.
How did you become interested in letterpress?
Kennedy: I’ve always been interested in letters. During my youth I practiced calligraphy, but I wasn’t that good at it. Then one summer I took my sons to Williamsburg and we saw letterpress there. And I just became fascinated by it. When I went back to Chicago I learned how to print using letterpress.
Then a series of events happened that dictated this is what I was supposed to do. One, someone gave me a printing press. Then an older printer gave me his entire collection of type. These are two remarkable things and acts of generosity. Based on that, I started printing more. And everyone kept telling me that’s what I do really good, I print really good. As I tell people, because my father comes from a Christian background, if God gives you a talent and you don’t use it and go and do something else, and you live a good life as a Christian, then if you die and you go to heaven thinking you’re going to go there, [but then God] says, “I’m going to send you to hell because I gave you a talent and you didn’t believe.” I had to justify that to some Christian friends of mine.
But I think that everyone has a talent and that they should actually pursue that because in the pursuit of the talent will come the happiness and the security that they want. There is no security, really, in working for someone else, unless it’s in a very small environment. In large corporations, if you don’t know the CEO, the CEO doesn’t know you – so you don’t care.
How did you make the film for $18,000? That’s an incredibly small amount [to make a full length documentary].
Zinger: To me that sounds like a lot! I’m actually doing a new production company called 20K films that, again, I borrowed the idea from the same architecture school that I borrowed Proceed and Be Bold from. Basically every film or documentary for $20,000 or less. That’s because we feel like $20,000 is such an attainable number. And that you can. And it forces you to be more creative and to actually think of where you put every penny and every dime, and that you’re not just wasting things.
It’s so well edited and so polished.
Zinger: Stacy, how old were you when you edited that?
Simcik: I was 23 [years old].
Zinger: It’s interesting because I was supposed to edit [the film], but then Stacy was like, “You’re a really sucky editor.” She said it much nicer…so I did the rough cut. And Stacy said, “I think we need to make this a little bit prettier.”
Simcik: It was very long, too. Very long.
Zinger: So, Stacy helped me narrow the story down and refine it. And Stacy is very good with visuals. She is also very precise. Without Stacy, it wouldn’t really have been as logical as it was. She really helps me put things where they need to be. Her opinion is so important because she can visually make things make sense.
Simcik: We had about a month deadline before [the documentary’s premiere in Chicago]…it was four weeks before, [Zinger] was narrowing the rough cut down and asked me to come over and look at it. And, I’m looking at it, and I’m like, “Wow, it’s really long. It’s very dragged out…There’s no way Laura is going to get this done in four weeks.” So, I think I took that on. We [actually] edited that documentary in three weeks.
Zinger: Stacy is incredibly talented at this, and I just didn’t realize. (Turning to Simcik), You were going to do cinematography?
Simcik: Yeah, I wasn’t in film school then. I was actually going to go back to school…we finished the documentary three weeks before I even started. It’s kind of weird how everything all came about. My concentration was going to be cinematography. After I did this, I was like, “Wow, totally going to change that right away. Let’s just do editing – that’s probably my thing.”
Have you seen the documentary Handmade Nation?
Kennedy, Zinger, and Simcik in unison: Yes!
It’s kind of this return to the domestic arts, so to speak. An emphasis on things that are handmade. You can meet the artist. And letterpress – I really see as a big part of that.
Zinger: People want to own art. And it’s so expensive that you have to choose between your food, rent or art – what do you think is going to get chosen?
Kennedy: How are people going to buy art if everything they see is $300, $400? A $10 piece, you’re like, “Oh, I can get that”…Maybe after you do this two or three years you’re saying, “Well you know, I really like that print over there for $250. I really, really like that, I think I’m gonna go out and spend that $250.” And gradually you’re spending maybe $1,000 or $2,000 per year out of your income – because people have that disposable income.
I like that people can meet me and talk to me – and come around to my shop and hang out with me, if they want to. I enjoy what I’m doing and I think everyone should experience happiness in what they do.
If you’re not happy, go find something to make you happy because life is too short to be miserable. It really is.
- Audio by Jacob Winik. Photographs courtesy of the filmmakers.
About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Oakland, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.