Defending the Right to Live: Political Prints in Providence, 1971

05.13.2022

“Spring renews the struggle,” commands the poster, in olive drab script. Against a black night sky and over a ragged horizon, a crescent looms. “The moon of the grass arising”1 gathers power and ascends above an indigo pentagon. (Not just any pentagon, but The Pentagon.)

The poster called on passersby on campus, in the city, across the country, to overcome their fatigue after six years of antiwar activism, and keep on fighting. This striking image was one of at least eight screenprint posters churned out of a dorm basement by a group of radical white women at RISD in 1971. The undergraduate students behind these posters had come to College Hill for many reasons. Some were seeking “a place to hide” from the intense political struggles of the day. Others simply wanted more rigorous training in art techniques.

Just the year before, a student strike had incapacitated campuses across the U.S. “The movement,” as it was called, the dense patchwork of struggles against military aggression abroad and racist oppression at home, was at some kind of turning point. Some went underground, others became informants, some bought guns, left the country, burnt out, got arrested, sought normalcy…2 In this desperate juncture, these women found and bonded with each other in the intensive summer program for students transferring to RISD, cathecting their feelings of anxiety, urgency, and hope into poster making.

Although the process of designing, printing, and pasting these works was informal and collaborative, and nobody can quite agree on or even remember who did what when, the core collective included Marcia Ancier, Mary Patten, Jamie Horwitz, Ellen Tranes (all in the Painting Department), Judith Rothchild (in Printmaking), and Nancy Cheser (in Photography).

Like many activists, they turned to screen printing as “the medium of the revolution” because it was fast, cheap, and eye-catching. By designing with the negative space in mind, they could create a multi-colored image while minimizing the number of layers for printing. While today screen printers normally use a photo emulsion to create the matrix, the movement culture of the period preferred more DIY methods. Often, an activist artist might draw directly onto the screen using a water-soluble liquid that would harden, such as Le Page’s glue; when oil-based inks were squeegeed through the screen onto the page, they would not penetrate the glued areas, leaving the paper underneath blank. This was a cost-effective, gestural way to create handwritten text and line drawings in the negative. Larger areas could be blocked off using paper, which would cling to the inky screen. Torn edges added visual interest. As for creating a positive image, just lay down a layer beneath of a lighter color that would peek through. Alternatively, draw with a water-indissoluble material like a Crayola, a litho touche, or drawing gum, then cover the screen with varnish or glue, and either rub off the drawing with an eraser or rinse it off with a solvent. Stencils can make for harder edges or clean lettering.3

Defend the Right to Live ⁄ Works on Paper, Prints
1971
2003.118.1

A Fresh Wind Blows Against the Empire: Women's March to the Pentagon ⁄ Works on Paper, Prints
1971
2003.118.2

The poster above, originally printed to promote a Women’s March to the Pentagon, calling on viewers to “defend the right to live,” exhibits many of these techniques. The negative line drawing of a woman raising her arm to throw off her masks would have been completed with a direct application of glue to the screen; the larger white space below was blocked off with torn paper; and the red lettering below was likely drawn with a waxy crayon that was then dissolved into a negative on the screen. The casting off of the masks, perhaps the dramatic pair symbolizing comedy and tragedy, implies a liberatory experience of entering the movement, of shedding socially-imposed roles.

Another poster also combined classical references with political comment, overlaying the Jefferson Airplane lyric “a fresh wind blows against the empire” over dancing designs from Etruscan pottery. The event attracted 500 women, with a sizable contingent from New York and Boston (likely including some of the Providence artists), as the antiwar newspaper Movin’ Together reported, emphasizing their “demand the right to live,” and chanting “free Ericka, Liberate America.”4 They were “demanding the right to live,” the article argued, drawing again on a slogan popularized by the anti-war women’s movement based in Saigon (Nguyen). This phrase would later resonate with the feminist fight for reproductive justice as not just the right to free choice, but as freedom from the violence of the patriarchal state.

If the government won't stop the war, the people will stop the government. People's Peace Treaty, Washington ⁄ Works on Paper, Prints
1971
2003.118.4

The next suite of posters set sights on a much bigger event. The May Day march of 1971 called for a national strike and massive civil disobedience, promising that “if the government won’t stop the war, the people will stop the government.” The artists who joined the crush of youth that descended on the capital had already heard rumors of plans for a brutal crackdown, and they brought thick blankets in case of mustard gas attacks—while some of them entered the melee, others remained inside the van. In the terrifying, exhilarating chaos, 12,000 people were arrested, the most in one incident in all of US history, marking a further escalation of state efforts to suppress the antiwar movement.5

It's a Fresh Wind That Blows Against the Empire: Mayday ⁄ Works on Paper, Prints
1971
2003.118.5

New Morning, May Day: People's Peace Treaty, Washington ⁄ Works on Paper, Prints
1971
2003.118.6

object ⁄ Works on Paper, Prints
1971
2003.118.7

While the orange poster overlaying the days of action on the steps to the Capitol was programmatic and informative, others opted for a more concise approach, trying to create a mood rather than spread information. In one poster, the word “Washington” crumbles; in another, the tip of the Washington Monument shatters; and in a third, the background rips to reveal the sun. All three picture tears in the fabric of the status quo, promising that the eruptions of unrest of the last few years were signs of the inevitable collapse of authority and its symbols. An antidote, perhaps, to fear and exhaustion among activists.

These posters formed part of an international surge in activist graphics that one scholar has called  “social serigraphy.” The women in the collective were not unaware of the irreverent, militant visuals of May 1968 in France.6 They had also seen the bright tempera and gouache paintings of Huxian celebrating collectivized agriculture.7 And of course, American psychedelia was in the air. But the greatest influence was revolutionary Cuba, where a silkscreen idiom remarkable for its “inventiveness, youth, humor, and extravagance” had developed.8

Freedom is Choice: Repeal Abortion Laws, Washington, Nov. 20, 1971 ⁄ Works on Paper, Prints
1971
2003.118.8

All the members of the group were women, but it was only later that they would directly address one of the core demands of the women’s liberation movement: reproductive justice. At the time, abortion was only legal in some circumstances in a handful of states—a situation that will likely return with the leaked news of the likely overturning of the hard-fought 1973 judgment of Roe v. Wade. Here, the artist has re-gendered the Vitruvian Man with fluid brush-like marks; not only are the figure and text angled, the black frame is also tilted, as if misregistered, a kind of unsettling of the world. The foregrounding of the artist’s hand and the skewed composition embody second-wave feminism’s emphasis on a woman-centric politics where personal and political liberation coincided.

Although they never adopted a name or formal organization, this small group of 21-year olds paralleled other collectives that rejected patriarchy in society and in the movement, such as the the Boston Women’s Graphics Collective;9 the Chicago Women’s Graphics Collective, whose work has been documented and preserved in the Herstory Project; the graphic arts initiatives of the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles (Wolverton); and later on the Madame Binh Graphics Collective, a wing of one of the Weather Underground’s successors (Patten).

Few people encountering these posters at the time would have known they originated from a dorm basement on the corner of Prospect and Angell. Today, as youth activists confront a panorama of reactionary forces, from open fascism to hand-waving liberalism, the experience of an earlier generation of committed artists is valuable. Certain questions endure: in the interlinked struggles against sexism, imperialism, capitalism, and racism, what is the relationship between personal transformation, collective action, and social change? Between showing the struggle, and joining the struggle? Rather than looking at such posters with nostalgia or melancholy, I see them as a reminder that the struggle, when interrupted, renews.

This post is based on interviews with collective members Nancy Cheser, Jamie Horwitz, Mary Patten, Judith Rothchild, as well as with their peers Helen Frederick, Henry Ferreira, and Henry Horenstein. While some of these artists stayed until graduation from RISD, others transferred out not long after printing these posters. In the years that followed, Rothchild—always seen as the most technically proficient by the group—settled in Languedoc, France, where she continues to make work, especially in the medium of mezzotint. Patten went on to join the ultra-left organization May 19th, before completing an MFA and settling in Chicago. Horwitz pivoted towards architecture, design and sustainability, and recently retired from decades of teaching Iowa State University. Cheser pursued a career in fine arts and education, and wrote the musical Present Perfect with composer Jaime Lozano; she later later donated her collection of these posters to several institutions, including the RISD Museum.

 

Works Referenced

Bloom, Joshua, and Waldo E. Martin. Black against Empire. University of California Press, 2016.

Davis, Angela, ed. If they come in the morning...: Voices of resistance. Verso Books, 2016.

Kugelberg, Johan and Philippe Vermès, ed. Beauty is in the street: A visual record of the May'68 Paris uprising. Four corners books, 2011.

Jacobs, Ron. The way the wind blew: a history of the Weather Underground. Verso, 1997.

Nguyen, An Thuy. "The Vietnam Women's Movement for the Right to Live: a non-communist opposition movement to the American war in Vietnam." Critical Asian Studies 51.1 (2019): 75-102.

Patten, Mary. Revolution as an Eternal Dream: the Exemplary Failure of the Madame Binh Graphics Collective. Half Letter Press, 2011.

Roberts, Lawrence. Mayday 1971: A White House at War, a Revolt in the Streets, and the Untold History of America's Biggest Mass Arrest. Mariner Books, 2020.

Rohan, Marc. Paris' 68: graffiti, posters, newspapers and poems of the events of May 1968. Impact Books, 1988.

Rossman, Michael. “The Evolution of the Social Serigraphy Movement In the San Francisco Bay Area, 1966-1986,” MRossman, http://mrossman.org/posters/socialserigraphy/socialserigraphy.html Accessed 5/4/2022.

Stermer, Dugald, ed. The Art of Revolution: Castro’s Cuba 1959-1970. McGraw-Hill, 1970.

Wolverton, Terry. Insurgent muse: life and art at the Woman's Building. City Lights Books, 2002.

 

David Xu Borgonjon is a critic at RISD and a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University, and is the 2022-23 Faculty Research Fellow in the museum's department of prints, drawings, and photographs.

  • 1This term, like lunar names used in US almanacs, derives from the Algonquin calendar, and reflected a tendency in the New Left to appropriate from non-white cultures as part of the rejection of an older white America.
  • 2In the late 1960s one faction of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), later known as the “Weather Underground,” turned towards armed self-defense and resistance; their actions and analysis exerted a powerful influence over young leftists in the early 1970s (Jacobs).
  • 3This description is based on Henry Ferreira’s memories and the description in Kugelberg, 34-36
  • 4Ericka Huggins was a leader of the New Haven Black Panthers, then on trial for involvement in a murder in the organization likely instigated by the FBI (Bloom and Martin, Ch. 11). See also Davis.
  • 5See Roberts for a detailed account of this event.
  • 6Although these women were not in contact with other student or faculty activists on campus, it’s worth noting that in 1970, printmaking faculty Dadi Wirz organized a screen printing workshop where RISD students produced posters promoting the student strike, with mottos like “leave the fear of red to horned beasts” that derive from the Atelier Populaire of Paris ’68 (Kugelberg, 94).
  • 7See Tsao Quantang’s "Bumper Harvest of Wheat at the Mountainous Region," from 1978, in the RISD Museum collection.
  • 8The words are Susan Sontag’s, from “Posters: Advertisement, Art, Political Artifact, Commodity,” the introduction to The Art of Revolution, the bible of political screen printers at the time. This book, which included 96 posters, mostly from OSPAAAL and the Cuban Film Institute, was edited by Dugald Stermer, the art director of the influential left-wing journal Ramparts.
  • 9See Catherine Russo’s documentary A Moment in Her Story, available at www.catherinerussodocumentaries.com