Story and photos by Timothy Cahill ‘16 M.A.R.
When broadside artist John Vincent was a senior in high school, he came to a fork on the road to his future. His choice: to enter an Episcopal seminary and pursue ordination, as he had long imagined, or to train for a career as a police officer?
Priest or cop? On the face of it, these may seem contrary paths. They certainly might have in the late 1960s, when Vincent was making his decision. Then, radical priests and helmeted officers were frequently on opposite sides of volatile protest lines. But the two vocations were not at all opposed for Vincent. In his idealistic mind, they were both helping professions that operated according to the same principles.
One principle, above all.
“As an officer, I treated people the way I wanted to be treated,” says Vincent, invoking the Golden Rule’s ageless wisdom. “I made a decision that that was the way I was going to work. I watched how other officers treated some people, and I wondered, do they regret it later? How do they live with themselves?”
Vincent’s broadside artworks are currently on display in the exhibition, John Vincent: A Revolutionary Press, through November in the Sarah Smith Gallery at Yale Divinity School. A brief biography accompanying the exhibit mentions the artist’s police career in passing, suggesting a youthful stage that ended with an “awakening.” But the seeds of the passionate, provocative posters now at YDS were planted while Vincent still wore a badge. The streets radicalized him. There, he witnessed the stark distance between the ideal of justice and the reality of barriers that withhold justice from so many. Just what, he asked himself, was he sworn to uphold?
“Maybe what I was doing was perpetuating lies I was being told,” he recalled last month in a telephone interview from his studio in Vermont. “I was just enforcing the status quo… and I began to think it was the status quo that needed to be changed.”
His response first was to evangelize for environmental, justice, and peace causes and sell progressive t-shirts out of his squad car. Later, inspired—or goaded—by his ethical rebirth, Vincent “ratted out” (his words) the misconduct of fellow officers. He had broken the “code of silence” that binds all uniformed fraternities. His captain suggested Vincent consider retirement, remarking that his temperament was more suited to social work than police work. Vincent had crossed a Rubicon and knew it. His life in law enforcement was over.
Fast-forward more than three decades. Last year, YDS received a donation in honor of William Sloane Coffin Jr., the legendary chaplain at Yale from 1958 to 1975. Coffin ‘56 B.D. was a leading peace and justice activist while at the university. Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, a Yale College grad, used Coffin as the basis for the comic strip’s crusading Rev. Scott Sloan.
The William Sloane Coffin, Jr. Scholarship Fund, begun by former Coffin students in honor of the churchman’s Yale ministry, provides annual scholarships to exemplary YDS students. The donors stipulated that YDS work with Coffin’s son, David, in promoting his father’s legacy.
To coordinate those efforts, David Coffin came to New Haven in January to meet with Jim Hackney ’79 M.A.R., YDS Senior Director of Development. Coffin arrived bearing a gift, a brightly colored, letterpress-printed broadside bearing a quotation by his father: The world is too dangerous for anything but Truth, and too small for anything but Love.
Hackney, an art aficionado, was smitten. The piece, of course, was Vincent’s work—now a centerpiece of the YDS show. Hackney contacted the artist who, as it happens, also lives in a New Haven, this one in Vermont’s remote Champlain Valley. Preparations were begun to organize an exhibit.
A broadside is a printed poster used for centuries as a form of mass communication. Everything from revolutionary manifestos to military victories, traveling circuses to dry-goods sales, were announced via broadsides displayed on courthouses, post offices, storefronts, or saloons—anywhere the public gathered. In the 1960s and ’70s, the broadside—now as mass-produced poster art—was revived as a voice of the counterculture. Then, it was the rare college dorm that did not proclaim its occupant’s convictions about politics, social issues, rock ‘n’ roll, or recreational drug use with one or more posters.
Hackney sees Vincent’s broadsides as a bridge between the Coffin era and our own.
“With the conversations going on on campus,” Hackney said, around racial justice, gender identity, global warming, etc., “and in this political year, it seemed timely to bring back the spirit not just of Bill Coffin but of that time” of questioning and activism.
Vincent’s work also reflects the broadside’s fine-art tradition of eloquently conceived and executed printed objects. At the root of Vincent’s art is the craft of letterpress printing, extending back to Gutenberg. Vincent uses small bits of metal type, much of it a century or more old, to set text one letter at a time. The text is then incorporated with Vincent’s own illustrations and other graphic elements.
The broadsides’ alchemy of typeface, type size, composition, and color is easily overlooked for the content of their message, quotations by spiritual, political, and literary heroes. But it is hardly possible to separate the dancer from the dance in Vincent’s work. The complex visual elements communicate as powerfully as the text, though wordlessly, by turns physical, psychological, declarative, and performative.
This was a lesson the artist learned for himself. The broadsides were begun, “strictly through the experience of teaching myself to set type,” he explained. “I was just going to put words on a page, [but] it didn’t go very far. People weren’t drawn to it. I found out pretty quickly that if I had something important I wanted to offer, it had to be presented in a visual way.”
That “something important” begins with content. The array of speakers represented in the exhibit constitutes a reading list of social conscience. It ranges across religious writers like Thomas Merton and C.S. Lewis; to historical leaders like Franklin, Jefferson, Martin Luther King, and Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress; to authors and poets including Arundhati Roy, John Berger, Robert Lax, Langston Hughes, and E.B. White.
Beneath these august voices lies a deeper agenda—to espouse engagement that is curious, questioning, and ever-seeking.
In his artist’s statement, Vincent quotes the sixth-century Chinese poet Seng Ts’an: “If you want to realize the truth, don’t be for or against.” While the artist concedes that his broadsides bend consistently toward progressive ideals, he insists his final aim is to encourage others to “raise a question.”
“We always think we have [the] answer, where we should be coming up with more questions.”
It’s not for nothing that Vincent calls his printing house, “A Revolutionary Press,” but it is worth noting that at the bottom of certain broadsides he modifies that into “An Evolutionary Press.”
Change can happen slowly. So too, at times, the fulfillment of a calling.
“This work comes from my true self,” the artist said. “I’m called to do this. I don’t like to use the word ‘preach’ in my work, but I guess I am in a way preaching.”
Through his broadside art, Vincent has become, if not quite a priest, a man with a mission and a ministry. The path he followed at 19 led him back to the road not taken. He takes no profits from his broadsides, supporting himself and his work on the income from his police pension.
John Vincent’s letterpress broadsides and cards are for sale in the YDS Student Book Supply. All proceeds go to the William Sloane Coffin, Jr. Scholarship Fund. The artist will be present at a public reception on Wednesday, October 19, from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. in the Sarah Smith Gallery.
Timothy Cahill ‘16 M.A.R. is a writer specializing in religion and the arts.