The Daily Heller: Who Wouldn’t Want the Equal Rights Amendment to Pass?

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On Tuesday, International Women’s Day, VoteEquality will launch of Artists 4 ERA, a partnership with 28 prominent artists to release limited-edition signed prints that benefit nonpartisan grassroots efforts for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The artists include Amanda Lynn, Amir Khadar, Claw Money, Dave Young Kim, Deedee Cheriel, Erin Yoshi, Ferris Plock, Forest Stearns, Gabe Gault, Gilda Posada, Hannah Rothstein, Jennifer White-Johnson, Jodie Herrera, Kate Deciccio, Katty Huertas, Kelly Tunstall, Lee Queza, Miles Toland, Natalie White, Nicole LaRue, Peregrine Honig, Shannon Taylor, Shepard Fairey, Sophia Pineda, Steve Lambert, Tara McPherson, Tracie Ching, Tracey Murrell and Chuck Sperry.

VoteEqualityUS is a grassroots project from the 501(c)(3) Center for Common Ground promoting equal rights for all Americans. VoteEquality’s vision is to ensure that the fully ratified 28th Amendment (Equal Rights) is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

The full collection of artwork will make its debut at the launch event on March 19 in Oakland, CA, at Oakstop’s Broadway Gallery. From there, the collection will tour the country at events organized by VoteEquality, partner organizations and artists advocating for gender equality. 

Artist and printmaker Chuck Sperry recently released 250 of his ERA-inspired prints to his followers, and he has reserved an additional 50 prints to be sold at the kick-off event in Oakland alongside the other works in the touring collection. 

Sperry’s silkscreen poster, showcased here, was printed at his Hangar 18 print studio in West Oakland. The studio is an industrial, high-ceilinged, 5000-square-foot space with a street-level loading dock.

I’ve long admired Sperry’s work, so the release of this poster in support of the ERA’s overdue ratification gave me an opportunity to discuss his art and activism.

First, tell me about the work you do at Hanger 18.
I’ve been a screenprinter since 1994. I’ve owned my own printing business and press, and have created concert posters, art prints and political posters for nearly 30 years. I mostly, if not always, print my own work. In other words, I do not do production printing. I have printed the work of fellow artists out of admiration and friendship. But in the main, I print my own work. By printing, I mean I physically print. Often people say “I printed,” but they mean, “paid someone else to print.”

You are best known for your concert posters.
I art directed a series of concert posters from 2008–2014 for Goldenvoice in San Francisco for two renowned San Francisco venues: The Warfield and The Regency Ballroom. (The Warfield was called “the crown jewel” by Bill Graham, and The Regency was formerly The Avalon, home of Chet Helm’s Family Dog concert series in the 1960s.) I’ve [also] worked for AEG, Live Nation, Virgin, Random House, Harvard University Press, Conde Nast and more. Hard not to be proud. More importantly: The work must speak for itself, as well as its client or social referent. With each client, either out of luck or design, I’ve had almost complete freedom to communicate as I like. I’m trusted. But I also bring an audience, and have a brand, though I avoid the notion as applied to my work. Luckily or by constant work, after 40 years of creating, my audience can “smell” my progressivism in my design work without my making overt statements or messaging. It’s baked in.

And you’ve produced books, too?
I have self-published three art books under the Hangar 18 moniker: Color x Color: The Sperry Poster Archive 1980–2020; Helikon: The Muses of Chuck Sperry; and Chthoneon, The Art of Chuck Sperry. My poster book Color x Color is in its third printing.

Have you always committed your work to political and social concerns?
I have always used my art to communicate progressive positions of conscience. I’m in a unique position as a concert poster artist and art printmaker with popular appeal. I’ve built up an extremely strong following through my print art over a few decades of work, so I can bring that fanatic energy to contribute to causes, thankfully.

I look across any of a year’s work and there’s a rhythm of overt political messaging in a counterpoint to playful, attractive design. I like to play cat and mouse with the audience. I like to imagine that the element of surprise helps my audience to feel free to follow my suggestions. There’s no hard sell. I embrace both the beautiful and the direct appeal. I create a lot, and always in front of an audience, so at times I entertain, and at other times I appeal to conscience or action. It leaves my audience free to choose.

My concert poster designs used to financially carry my printing business, but since 2010, I can support my studio through art prints as well. I have the audience who can carry me to a gallery, a museum, or Miami Art Week, or Art On Paper. That lends me the freedom to speak my mind. I have always had the freedom, of course, just to pick up a pen, but there are realities like rent and supplies. An audience helps me keep the doors open while I help causes. I’m forever grateful to my supporters.

Right now, as you noted, I’m working with Artists 4 ERA, a branch of Vote Equality, to raise money to support a national campaign to raise the awareness for the Equal Rights Amendment which still needs to be officially ratified by Congress and added to the Constitution.

Recently, I created Women’s March posters in 2017, 2018 and 2019, and March for Science Posters in 2017. All the posters were passed out for free at the marches. Then they have a second life: I merchandise the Women’s March posters through The Outrage activist hub in Washington, D.C., and 100% of sales have gone straight to the Women’s March and Planned Parenthood, directly benefiting causes. 

I started as a political cartoonist at the student newspaper while studying journalism at the University of Missouri in 1980. I worked on World War 3 Illustrated when I moved to New York City in 1985. World War 3 Illustrated is America’s longest running political comic book. I’m still in contact and involved with my artist friends at WW3. In New York I was doing spot illustrations for The Progressive, In These Times, Screw, and I even did some illustrations for The Yipster Times. My political design and illustration work goes way back, and I still take progressive positions of conscience to this day.

How did you get involved in Artists 4 ERA and what role do you play?
I was contacted by Dabney Lawless of Artists 4 ERA in February of 2021. I believe I was one of the first artists contacted, and I was asked for any suggestions for additional artists to contact. I immediately shot an email to Shepard Fairey, and he responded in under five minutes. In short order, I invited Tara McPherson and Tracie Ching. All three are incredible artists with wide appeal. In 24 hours we were sort of off and running with Artists 4 ERA. The organizers are wonderful, and sent me an enormous bouquet in gratitude, which eclipsed my kitchen table in my Edwardian style apartment near Haight Street. 

I enlisted the support of The Outrage, the Washington, D.C., activist store, activist hub and meeting room, to distribute our ERA posters to its extensive audience and through its store, online and in social media to help amplify our messaging. 

I’m sure that all the artists involved with Artists 4 ERA did the same sort of work, spreading the word and networking for the cause. Everyone involved is passionate about passing the ERA. We’ll be gathering when we have our first opening at Oakstop in Oakland on March 19. I’m looking forward to joining all the artists and the supporters committed to the campaign to pass ERA. After the first event, the art show will start traveling. First stop: Los Angeles.

Your poster for the ERA is strikingly beautiful. What is the symbolism?
I created my ERA poster to intentionally refer to an earlier art print I made in 2019, called “Clio,” the muse of history, daughter of memory. With my design, I would like to suggest we remember where we came from, how we got here, who we are and where we are going. History is not only a collection of objective facts; history is also a story. How we organize those objective facts says a lot about who we are, or who we want to be.

Am I right in assuming you’re also paying homage to Gustav Klimt as well as Art Nouveau with Clio? What are your influences?
You’re correct. I reference a lot of poster history in my contemporary art prints and concert posters. I’m influenced by Alphonse Mucha and Gustav Klimt, by their figurative art, use of metallic pigments and subject matter. I am also influenced by William Morris and Walter Crane, as much for their ideas as their style. Morris’ commitment to accessible and affordable art, with his motto “Art For All,” finds a deep resonance with me.

My mother was an advertising executive for Federated Department Stores in the late 1960s, through the 1970s. She had worked her way up through the design department. My first reckoning with the women’s movement was in hearing about her struggles in the male-dominated world of advertising of the ’60s and ’70s.

Mom brought home Graphis and Print magazines from work, which I poured through as a kid. That graphic environment has worked its way into my art until today. I hope the freshness, elegance and simplicity of that influence comes through. In short, my childhood was immersed in the Push Pin School. When it’s said of my work that it shares equally of art nouveau and ’60s and ’70s psychedelia, I believe it’s the rock posters of Victor Moscoso, Wes Wilson, Stanley Mouse, Rick Griffin, as well as Milton Glaser and Peter Max’s influence, which was in the air I breathed as a child.

How are these—yours and the other 27 artists’—posters going to help push the passage of the ERA?
Vote Equality is going to move their campaign onto the road this spring, summer and fall with a fleet of vehicles: a campaign bus, a box van, and two runner vans. We 27 artists are supplying designs for posters that will be printed in offset to be passed out, held up, posted and spread out in legislative meetings and rallies organized across America. 

Do you believe that posters have the strength to move people off their butts and take action?
I have been known to get people off their butts with a poster. Haha. (My concert poster fans who line up early—sometimes a day early—for shows to get a poster are with me here.)

In all seriousness, I do believe that. I’ve participated in quite a few movements over the years and posters still have a motivating impact. In 2011 I passed out about 1000+ posters emblazoned with “This Is Our City And We Can Shut It Down” and joined the march that moved from downtown Oakland to the Port of Oakland—no small distance—and closed the port. If the poster wasn’t the prime motivation, then at least it supported, sustained and buoyed the spirit of the action. Marchers love to show a message, hold up a poster.  

All 27 artists participating in this movement are doing just the same. Supporting action and motivating it with art.

This is not the only poster you’ve done for equal rights. Do you feel that you’ve made inroads?
I like to hope so. Each generation is getting a little bit better at it getting along. There’s a concomitant reactionary backlash. The progressives represent the future, and the reactionaries represent a return to the past. The country, the world, is clearly in a struggle to move into the future and toward equality and universal human rights.

Additionally, my concert poster work intersects with a mainstream audience, and bringing progressive ideas into that space has an opportunity to speak to a lot of people. By degrees these messages accumulate. 

These posters will be for sale. What is the money going to be used for?
50% of my proceeds from the sale of the poster will go directly to Vote Equality.

The money raised by all the artists will be spent organizing rallies across the country, supporting staff so they can pressure legislative sessions in Congress to ratify the ERA until it passes, traveling from town to town in one nightliner bus, a box van, and two runner vans meeting and rallying with state legislators and ERA supporters nationwide.

The box van has been dubbed the “Notorious RVG” in homage to Ruth Bader Ginsberg. 

Also, the money raised will be used to produce offset versions of all 27 artists’ pieces. The offset prints will be available through ERA rallies, and also be available online through The Outrage. 100% of proceeds from their sale will go to Vote Equality.

Vote Equality’s dedicated in-house press has been turning out pocket-sized “corrected” Constitutions for months now, and distributing them to Congress, state legislatures, and to the public by the thousands. The corrected Constitution has the 28th Amendment already in it and says: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

In today’s political circus, do you think ERA stands a chance?
I do think the ERA stands a chance of passing, even in this political climate. Other amendments to the Constitution have passed with a lower bar. In 2020 Virginia became the 38th and final state needed to ratify the ERA thanks to the determination of Kati Hornung, founder of Vote Equality. We just need Congress to adopt the measure. Vote Equality will apply the pressure.

The idea is to get this in front of people, in poster form, in the news, online, in public, at rallies, all the time and everywhere. Especially now, democracy is being put to a test. Passing the ERA and bringing Constitutional gender equality to American democracy would speak volumes about the greatness of our system of government.