By Jennifer McClain
Tree-lined, long flat roads with large grassy areas greet you on the way into the town of Norfolk. It is a sparsely populated town with a centrally located library. This is exactly the kind of place where Stephen Lewis wants to mount an exhibit from his expansive poster collection, even though he is a long-time Malden resident.
Lewis, a former union organizer and poster collector, believes his mission is to bring these posters to those who live in suburban and rural areas where interaction with this type of art is less likely. He also likes the serendipity involved in showcasing in libraries or colleges; it allows viewers to stumble into this work without spending money or planning a visit.
Lewis has been collecting posters for the past 22 years at both union and activist conferences and has now accumulated more than 7,000 posters. He stages about three exhibits a month, usually each centered on a theme. He has shown his Cuban posters in Worcester, revolutionary posters in Pepperell, and “Stop Violence Against Women” posters in Kingston. Earlier this year, he held shows in libraries in Beverly, Danvers and Byfield that reflected themes ranging from women’s equality to immigration to ant-fascism to censorship. In 2013, he staged a “Poster Exhibit on Diversity” in Malden in the Mayor’s office conference room at City Hall.
“I didn’t intend to start doing exhibits,” said Lewis. the former treasurer of the Service Employees International Union. But “I realized they were piling up and no one was looking at them.” He doesn’t remember his first poster. However, each poster he has collected “meant something personal to” him and he wants to share them with the public.
“I learned more on the streets than in the classroom,” said Lewis when discussing the importance of displaying his exhibits in places that everyone can access. Thus, he is making a conscious effort to present and preserve, in poster form, the history of people and events less recognized and to offer those images to those who seldom see them.
When we sat down for an interview, Stephen was very measured and soft spoken in his responses; he has been interviewed several times before. He said this is another reason he appreciates exhibiting in suburban settings because he is “usually guaranteed press.” He considers Malden, strangely enough, almost too urban for his shows.
Although Lewis’ collection may seem disparate to some, he can define his choices based on three criteria. The posters, he said, must have “a message, be an attractive graphical representation, and be a documentation of history.” Some have obvious messages. In others, the message is subtle like the perspective of an MC Escher sketch. For example, the “peace dove poster,” pictured above. The dove is smiling and at the same time protecting children and then you see the children are smiling too, all huddled close together. Then you recognize that the children represent different ethnic groups.
The peace dove poster was part of an exhibit at the Norfolk Public Library exhibit; it runs through May 4. Every poster features a peace dove. In one provocative poster, which came from Cuba, a dove is excreting on the head of Uncle Sam. The variety is astounding, revealing how a dove image can be used in a range of contexts, sometimes as an outline on a hand or the drawing coming out of a pen. Many of these posters were from different years of International Peace Day, which started in 1981.
Censorship is not only one of the themes of Lewis’s exhibits but something he has experienced. Ironically, the exhibit that was censored most recently was about censorship itself. Last fall in Foxboro, “a publicly funded poster exhibit extolling press freedom has been removed from the Boyden Public Library following complaints over what some regarded as ‘graphic’ and ‘inappropriate” content,’ ” according to the Sun Chronicle from September 21, 2017. Another time a patron requested a poster be removed, citing it as “pro-Palestinian.”
Lewis hangs each exhibit by himself and each library has its own daunting physical limitations. Sometimes tools are necessary, even those not specified for this type of job. It helps that Stephen is tall, thin and spry, and lays out each piece with tenderness and grace. Each poster is matched with a placard. It is helpful to know several languages because Stephen’s collection is in German, Russian, Greek and Polish among others.
His personal travel and travel for posters specifically has become intertwined and memories can be triggered by the images. One trip brought him to Turkey where “a man in fatigues” with a “cigar in his hand which he wasn’t smoking just held in his hand,” provided him with several posters in a union DISC (Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey) office. Eight years later he was at a conference in Berlin for poster aficionados and met the same man he had met in Turkey. It is his hope that same serendipity will happen to anyone who visits his exhibits. Often viewers’ memories are triggered by posters or have a memory of a relative that was in the union represented in that poster.
That is the beauty of these exhibitions, not only do they chronicle the past but the images still seem prescient today. As Lewis wrote in a post for the National Council for Public History, “My exhibits are more about working people, labor unions, people who do not have power but challenge it, and so the ability to commemorate and present these events and issues is much more limited. I think historians need to be conscious about whose history they are presenting, and be prepared to take risks by sometimes challenging the dominant thinking.”
Lewis told me the art of the political poster is being lost as “print posters are being put online and sent out digitally due to space and the cost of storing.” In addition, “governments have tended to crack down more on posters” because they didn’t like the message. But many activists persist in creating posters so he doesn’t believe the art form will go away anytime soon.
This month, Lewis is staging exhibits that celebrate International Labor Day or May Day. May Day or May 1 has become a worldwide celebration of labor and workers, inspired in part by the Haymarket affair in Chicago on May 4, 1886, which protesting workers demanding an eight-hour day were shot by police after a bomb was thrown. Northborough, Southborough and Westborough public libraries all will be exhibiting May Day posters from Lewis’ collection from May 1 to 30.
It may be a long drive for us in Malden but it is definitely worth it.