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Posters to knock walls down and raise activists' spirits up.

MINNEAPOLIS -- The boldly colored silk-screen poster beside him proclaims the words of Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist."

Ricardo Levins Morales, the artist, is manager and cofounder of the 14-year-old Northland Poster Collective, one of the country's nerve centers for art dedicated to social justice. Malcolm X, Anne Frank, Mother Jones, Woody Guthrie, Sojourner Truth: These are just some of the faces that appear on Northland T-shirts, postcards, bumper stickers and buttons.

"What is of concern to us is that we reflect the basic values of inclusivity, empowerment, helping people feel good about themselves and alliance building, "said Levins Morales. For some people, empowerment and alliance building can come from a religious foundation; for others, from a political foundation. Once we get to core values, we discover they cut across a lot of spiritual alliances."

Each year tens of thousands of posters are distributed from this scruffy Lake Street store. Labor themes are prominent in the 25,000 Northland catalogs distributed each quarter. In fact, Northland has become "the place to go in the United States for labor art work," Levins Morales said.

New labor art includes Northland's popular "Organize" motif (see illustration) and a design that proclaims, "Rodney King discovered America." Other new designs advise "Don't whine, organize" or "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything."

Northland works directly with about 15 contemporary artists and distributes posters produced by unions and other organizations.

The collective also carries reproductions of labor art from earlier eras, such as Diego Rivera posters (a Mexican muralist and communist) and T-shirts featuring World War II's Rosie the Riveter.

Levins Morales founded the collective with a group of friends, all of whom had connections to one or another social struggle and wanted to express their concerns artistically.

Levins Morales' social awareness has roots in a rural area of Puerto Rico, where he was born into a Jewish-Puerto Rican family. His father's people came from the Ukraine, where many Jews were involved in labor struggles and social issues, Levins Morales said, and his family was active in the Puerto Rican independence movement.

He said his artistic influences range from poster art of the Russian revolution to posters produced in workshops by minority groups and war protesters during the 1960s.

Silk-screen poster art became popular in the United States during the Depression, under Roosevelt's WPA program, Levins Morales said. Artists, many of them left-leaning, were hired to make posters for government agencies -- a skill many would bring to political causes, including labor. Until then, silk-screen printing -- which uses silk or a synthetic material stretched on a wood frame -- had been used for industrial purposes in the United States.

Levins Morales said Northland's philosophy differs from distributors who operate under a "conscious consumerism" philosophy, which says change occurs when people spend money on businesses that treat employees well or on environmentally sound products. Instead, Northland believes that "the real motor force of change is people organizing," Levins Morales said.

As a result, Northland distributes posters that not merely reflect issues but help people "to feel their own power and ability," he said.

"Even during the height of the Cold War, we turned down posters that we felt left people feeling hopeless" -- mushroom cloud images, for instance -- "even if they dealt with an aspect that wasn't being dealt with elsewhere."

When Northland produced a poster on Martin Luther King for schools, it avoided what Levins Morales said was the lone heroic image that everyone had seen of him. "We wanted to make a poster that would allow children to feel that whatever this person did, they could do," he said.

So the poster portrays King resting under some trees with fellow freedom marchers. Its accompanying text, Levins Morales said, emphasizes "that this was a man with strong values, with some nuts-and-bolts organizing skills," whose strengths grew out of an active community.

Increasingly, Northland has been producing art to meet the needs of schools, public and private. Many school districts are mandated to reflect cultural diversity at the same time their budgets are being sliced, he said.

One poster, for example, commemorates the 50th anniversary of Japanese-American citizens' internament by the U.S. government. Others portray such historical leaders as Lakota statesman Sitting Bull; W.E.B. Du Bois, founder of the NAACP; and abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.

Another mainstay of the Northland portfolio is art with an African-American content, "both because of the eagerness of that community to buy and the availability of artists and images from the community," Levins Morales said.

For the future, Northland plans a series of posters that reflect Asian-American and Native American experiences as well as those of people with disabilities.

A fair number of images of Native Americans exist, Levins Morales said, but they tend to focus on people who have been dead 80 to 100 years. Northland would emphasize current community life.

"People will buy an effective, beautiful poster about something they don't know that much about," said Levins Morales. "That's one of our challenges as artists: to get issues or ways of thinking or quotes that people wouldn't necessarily think about and make it something they can do."
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Title Annotation:Northland Poster Collective
Author:Gibeau, Dawn
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jun 18, 1993
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