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President Barak Obama, Joan Baez and Jeff Scher come together in their hearts and minds. When President Obama delivered remarks on the shooting by Dylann Roof at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church that killed nine people, he ended by singing “Amazing Grace”. To commemorate that act of compassion, Joan Baez told The Atlantic, “I was driving when I heard [the song] ‘The President Sang Amazing Grace,’ and I had to pull over to make sure I heard whose song it was because I knew I had to sing it.” The 77-year-old folk legend included the song in her final album, Whistle Down The Wind, released in early March. Originally written and performed by Zoe Mulford following the 2015 mass shooting in a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, Baez’s rendition of “The President Sang Amazing Grace” has been animated in a powerful new video by Jeff Scher. See it here and feel it all over and throughout your body and soul. I weep each time I see and hear it. Scher talks about his work below.
What prompted your interpretation of this beautiful Joan Baez rendition?The song felt important, historical, immediate and urgent. The song is so beautiful, moving and articulate it needed a sense of reverence and respect in every image. An example is the shot of the church steeple under a salmon and cerulean blue sky while the song describes the murders inside. It lets the words take that part of the story and gently amplifies them by the contrast of how beautiful the image is. We need to remember what it’s like to have an empathetic president. I added the portraits of the victims, who are only described as a group in the song, because I felt they needed to be there as real life (well, watercolor and pastel portraits) individuals. I’ve been corresponding with Zoe Mulford who wrote the song and she was very pleased to see them there. It was something that pictures did powerfully and would have required thousands of words for the song.
I worked in watercolor and pastel to keep the visuals rich, but simple and organic. The transparency of watercolor makes everything a little reverently luminous. The flower shot was kind of a literal metaphor for the blossoming of sympathy. The Church was also lined with flowers in the days after the shooting, They were painted on to a single sheet of paper under the camera, the dissolves were added while editing. I think the dissolve make the flowers feel like they are blooming out of the screen.
Did Baez have anything to do with its conception?
I was pretty much left to my own to figure it out. Which is great. I met with the producer, Rick Litvin and told him more or less how I’d make it. He said great and I went and made it. It’s the best way for me to work.
What were you thinking and feeling as you made the paintings?
I researched the events pretty thoroughly so the context of every image was very real to me. It felt great to be doing something to help remember the victims and how good it was to have a president capable of genuine empathy. The best way to deal with sadness and outrage is to do something to fight back for the cause of humanity. I felt honored to find myself in the position of making something that could be seen and felt by lots of people.
While I was painting I listened and half watched a lot of MSNBC (I can tell you the side effects of dozens of geriatric medications) and the news only confirmed the urgency of the task.
Have you ever done anything as poignant as this?
Definitely not. I’ve never had a Joan Baez song to animate.
About Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →