Dan Wood, Emanuel 9 (2017)
- Letterpress from wood and metal type, 19 x 25 inches. Edition of 75. Printed and published by the artist at DWRI Letterpress, Providence, RI. Available through AS220 Project Space, Providence and DWRI Letterpress. $225.
Grace. Change. It was the power of those words in the letterpress print Emanuel 9 that enthralled me. Words like these—spoken or printed—inform, instruct and inspire. Before I learned the identity of the artist or the speaker, I knew they must have originated with a gifted orator who cared deeply about people and thus took care in word choices and phrasing so their meaning would be healing, inclusive and hopeful during a difficult time. The title and the printed caption, “MOTHER EMANUEL Charleston, South Carolina,” disclosed the source.
On 26 June 2015, President Barack Obama gave the eulogy at the funeral of Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney, murdered in a hate crime along with eight others as they engaged in a Bible study and prayer session at Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston. The speech was, the New York Times reported, one of the president’s “most impassioned reflections on race,” and placed these killings in the broader context of violence against African Americans. Most importantly, however, the president called on the nation “to emulate the grace that [Pinckney] displayed in his work,” and closed the speech by singing the opening refrain of “Amazing Grace.”1
Dan Wood was among the countless listeners moved by the address:
The days following the shooting had been marked more than anything else (beyond the horror of the event and murders) by the astounding and almost inhuman grace shown by the survivors and the families and loved ones of the victims. The recognition of that grace in Obama’s words, of finding some overarching truth in that inward searching for meaning and peace was so striking…As an artist, I felt it important to recognize this event, [and] that this is the time we are living in now…when a man would walk into a church and shoot these people, with no other intent except to inflame racial hatred.2
The stark simplicity of the words and the bold letterpress presentation appear to be a perfect solution found effortlessly, yet the artist wrestled with the piece for two years. Wood, who founded DWRI Letterpress in Providence in 2004 and who has taught letterpress printing at the Rhode Island School of Design since 2009, knew he wanted to use large Gothic wood type (Hamilton Unit Gothic 720), but to do so required paring the president’s eloquence down to a handful of words. The excerpts below illustrate the difficulty of the task:
We are here today to remember a man of God who lived by faith, a man who believed in things not seen, a man who believed there were better days ahead off in the distance, a man of service…
And then to lose him at 41, slain in his sanctuary with eight wonderful members of his flock…Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson…
To the families of the fallen, the nation shares in your grief. Our pain cuts that much deeper because it happened in a church. The church is and always has been the center of African-American life…A place to call our own in a too-often hostile world, a sanctuary from so many hardships…
According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God…Grace. As a nation out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind…If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything can change. Amazing grace.3
Eventually, Wood chose to join the first part of one sentence to the last clause of the next, producing a succinct phrase that says it all. He toyed with various strategies for including the names of the victims on the sheet before abandoning the idea in favor of words alone.
His type collection lacked several of the necessary Unit Gothic 720 letters, so he worked with Larry Zagorsky at AS220 Fab Lab to recreate them with a CNC router. He then cast the text at the lower left in 10-point Linotype Kenntonian and printed the final image on two different presses.
For me, as a curator and art historian, it was important and intriguing that the print’s techniques hark all the way back to the mid-15th century. Contemporary artists have a plethora of options for creating prints, books, posters and all kinds of ephemera, so it is encouraging to know that letterpress expertise is still being practiced and taught by printers across the country. Wood, who has worked in letterpress for 25 years, still marvels at the process, “watching pristine sheets of clean paper come into the chaos of the studio, travel through crazy machines covered in grease at high speed, and end up in nice, clean piles with ink and fingerprints only where they should be (generally speaking).” He regularly takes students to view fine historical prints, books and ephemera in Providence museum and library collections, his favorite being the Daniel Berkeley Updike Printing Collection at the Providence Public Library. A long-time admirer of the incunabula of William Caxton, the lithographs of Honoré Daumier and anything by Amos Paul Kennedy Jr., Wood is also fascinated with “not so fine” printing examples, such as four-color postcards from the early 20th century and the mass-produced effluvia papering our daily lives.
For Wood, it was significant that the type, designed at Hamilton Wood Type in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, in 1908, and in production through the 1930s, was of an age with the Jim Crow era in the South: speaking personally, he says, “that visual reference is still there, whether consciously acknowledged by the viewer or not.” Cognizant of the role of letterpress in social history, Wood regards it as the ideal medium for his own work.
During the two years of the print’s production, the world changed. Emanuel 9 was begun during the Obama presidency and finished under Trump. It is now strange, Wood observes,
to have created a piece that has an intent of much deeper reflection and pause, in a time when pause is the last thing on anyone’s mind. When the time for the true transformative thinking that I wanted to articulate in the piece is even harder to find, as more immediate (DACA, Transphobia, TREASON) tensions and emergencies arise every moment.
One would do well to read the full text of Obama’s eulogy, which remains painfully relevant. But something of its power is captured in Wood’s installation of the prints in three rows of three—a grid of nine, one for each of the people who died in Emanuel African Methodist Church. It is an ennobling memorial tribute that emphasizes, as the artist hoped, “the unrelenting importance of the words.”
- Sack, Kevin and Gardiner Harris, “President Obama Eulogizes Charleston Pastor as One Who Understood Grace,” New York Times, 26 June 2015.
- All quotes from Dan Wood are from the author’s email exchanges with him from 6–16 September 2017 and a telephone conversation on 11 September 2017.
- These excerpts are from the full transcript of President Obama’s eulogy, which can be found at https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/06/26/remarks-president-eulogy-honorable-reverend-clementa-pinckney.