Arts & Culture

Dead feminists come to artistic life in a new Tacoma letterpress book

Illustrator Chandler O’Leary, left, and letterpress artist Jessica Spring in Spring’s Tacoma studio. The two will launch their new book “Dead Feminists” Oct. 11.
Illustrator Chandler O’Leary, left, and letterpress artist Jessica Spring in Spring’s Tacoma studio. The two will launch their new book “Dead Feminists” Oct. 11. rponnekanti@thenewstribune.com

Feminism isn’t dead — but its trailblazing women are back in full artistic color, thanks to a new book by Tacoma artists Chandler O’Leary and Jessica Spring.

Collecting eight years of their hand-illustrated and letterpressed broadsides celebrating heroic women, “Dead Feminists” isn’t just a pretty coffee-table book. It’s also a deep dive into what made these women tick and into the Tacoma duo’s own artistic process. The book and a new broadside launch Tuesday at King’s Books, with a slew of events following in Tacoma, Seattle, Portland and beyond.

For fans of the broadsides — contemporary versions of the 19th-century poster — “Dead Feminists: Historic Heroines in Living Color” (Sasquatch, 2016) is a hardback treasury of the visual stories that sell out in print and get repinned on Pinterest.

For O’Leary and Spring, the book is an affirmation of two things they passionately believe in: old-school printing and the power of women.

“When we started the series we had to explain to people that it was hand-drawn,” says O’Leary. “Now we see rip-offs of our work. Everybody’s doing it.”

“But the more, the merrier,” adds Spring. “People appreciate the quality of lettering and printing now.”

“And the vast majority of letterpress artists now are women,” points out O’Leary. “It used to be an old men’s world. Now it’s full of women entrepreneurs.”

When O’Leary and Spring first met and collaborated, they too were entrepreneurs.

O’Leary moved to Tacoma from Minneapolis in 2008, with five years of professional illustration behind her and her own imprint, Anagram Press. Drawing exquisite watercolor sketches with a vaguely retro feel, she had also hand-drawn letters since she was a child.

Spring, originally from Chicago, had meanwhile been operating Springtide Press in Tacoma since 1999, working on an original 19th-century Vandercook press.

The two became friends and neighbors, and — inspired by the groundbreaking 2008 election — decided to collaborate on a broadside poster of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a suffragist whose admonishment to “wipe the dew off your spectacles and see the world is moving” seemed highly appropriate. The response was enthusiastic, and now the pair have created 23 broadsides, with the 24th launching Tuesday along with the book.

Each poster is different, but all follow a pattern: a quote from a dead feminist in O’Leary’s innovative, period-evocative script; surrounding illustration (such as a desert scene for Adina de Zavala, who saved the Alamo from demolition in 1905); a portrait; letterpress design elements (like railroad tracks for Harriet Tubman); and a colophon, or text paragraph, briefly telling the woman’s story. Most posters are one or two colors, often subtly referencing the subject (1940s lime and brown for Eleanor Roosevelt’s garden). All are visually captivating, holding a wealth of detail in a single image. Spring and O’Leary add pages of both well-researched biography and visual clues to the symbols in the artwork.

The feminists go back as far as the ancient Greek poet Sappho and as recent as Sadako Sasaki, who died in 1955 from leukemia following Hiroshima’s atomic bombing and whose paper cranes have inspired peace ever since. The broadsides are organized by theme, though there’s a helpful timeline as well as numerous backstories about the artists and process.

In other words, “Dead Feminists” is a feminist history told by two creative women through an offbeat medium.

“This book is a profound and super-smart look at feminist craft, creation and collaboration,” reviewed best-selling author Kate Schatz.

And over the years of the Dead Feminist broadsides, plenty of other people have agreed.

“Almost every day we get someone who’s buying for their teen daughter or a teacher using it for the classroom,” says O’Leary. “We’ve had pregnant women buying the whole series to decorate the nursery for their baby girl.”

The series has even been popular with the newest generation of feminists as students buy the posters. O’Leary and Spring were featured in the former Kiki magazine, aimed at girls aged 8-14.

“It’s the whole girl-power thing,” says O’Leary, “but we’re quoting poet laureates or Nobel Prize winners, so there’s more depth to be had.”

“Every single person seems to read the colophon and says they love the story,” adds Spring.

The book launches Tuesday with a signing and party at King’s Books in Tacoma, with folks encouraged to come as their favorite dead feminist. There’ll be hands-on keepsake printing, mini-prints and books for sale. (You can also preorder or buy directly from the artists at upcoming events.) Then the “Dead Feminists” tour begins: studio tours and artist talks in Tacoma, an exhibit of all the broadsides at Seattle’s School of Visual Concepts, talks and shows in Portland, Idaho, Arizona and Washington, D.C.; and even a show of the duo’s nautical-themed artwork at Port Townsend’s Maritime Center next March.

And the series is continuing. The 24th broadside is actually the last in the book. It depicts Queen Lili’uokalani, the final monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii, set in a multicolor swirl of tropical birds, hibiscus and the quote “Be steadfast in the seeking of knowledge” drawn in both English and Hawaiian. For the Port Townsend exhibition, the poster will celebrate female lightkeepers, often doing dangerous duties while their husbands were fishing at sea.

“We try not to repeat ourselves (with designs),” says O’Leary. But, she says, it can be challenging to find the right feminist to honor. Either they don’t have an appropriate quote (“I’d love to do Frida Kahlo but all her quotes are like, ‘Ow, my leg!’ ” says O’Leary), or had obnoxious views about race or religion. And the duo is proactive in finding feminists of color — such as Fatima al-Fihri, the fourth daughter of the Prophet Muhammad who founded a university, or Sarojini Naidu, a 19th-century poet known as the Nightingale of India.

Spring and O’Leary learned a lot while compiling “Dead Feminists”: about book design versus posters, about their own collaboration, about the feminists themselves. They’ve also discovered, via Google, that O’Leary’s illustrations have been the only one of some of their subjects. And they’ve just begun the Dead Feminists Fund, a component fund of the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation seeded with a big percentage of the book’s advance that will support nonprofits that empower girls and women to create change.

But they see the book’s value going beyond feminist history, past or future.

“I think people love that tactile quality (of letterpress art),” says O’Leary. “I firmly believe that physical books will never go away.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

If you go

Dead Feminists book launch

What: Book signing and costume party with Chandler O’Leary and Jessica Spring.

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Where: King’s Books, 218 St. Helens Ave., Tacoma.

Book price: $24.95.

Information: 253-272-8801, kingsbookstore.com, deadfeminists.com.

Artist Studio Tours

When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Oct. 15-16.

Where: 2911 N. 27th St. (O’Leary), 818 N. Yakima Ave. (Spring).

Cost: Free.

Information: tacomaartsmonth.com.

Artist talk and book signing

When: 7 p.m. Oct. 18.

Where: Tacoma Public Library main branch, 1102 Tacoma Ave. N., Tacoma.

Cost: Free.

Information: 253-292-2001, tacomapubliclibrary.org.

“Dead Feminists” broadside exhibit

When: Reception, signing and costume party, 4-7 p.m. Oct. 29; then through Dec. 9, 9 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday.

Where: School of Visual Concepts, 2300 Seventh Ave. B, Seattle.

Cost: Free.

Information: 206-623-1560, svcseattle.com.

Artist talk

When: 3-4 p.m. Nov. 8.

Where: Collins library, second floor, University of Puget Sound, 1500 N. Warner St., Tacoma.

Cost: Free.

Information: pugetsound.edu.

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