Category: Obituaries


"Out of the glistening night... Trashman" - Spain Rodriquez. Original cover art for "The Collected Trashman" Vol. 1, No. 1. 1972. The tabloid was published by the Red Mountain Tribe, the same radical collective that produced and distributed the Berkeley Tribe underground paper in Berkeley, California.

"Out of the glistening night... Trashman" - Spain Rodriquez. Original cover art for "The Collected Trashman" Vol. 1, No. 1. 1972. The tabloid was published by the Red Mountain Tribe, the same radical collective that produced and distributed the Berkeley Tribe underground paper in Berkeley, California.

When Spain Rodriguez died on November 28, 2012, it was my friend and associate Lincoln Cushing who informed me by e-mail of the untimely passing.

I am certain a torrent of similar e-mails were exchanged around the nation as people shared their collective grief over the passing of a talented artist and illustrator who helped to shape the 1960s counterculture.

In the late 60s the cartoons of Spain loomed large in the eye-popping and vividly colorful pages of “underground” psychedelic publications. Zap Comix, that groundbreaking comic book magazine of the freak counterculture, published Spain’s cartoons in 1968, along with satirical works by Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Rick Griffin and other notables from the youth culture.

Members of my generation were liberated, or seriously warped – depending on who you talk to – by the material that appeared in Zap Comix. But is was Spain’s “Trashman” comic character, the one and only American superhero I would ever be a fan of, that left the deepest impression on me.

 "The Origin of Trashman" - Spain Rodriquez. 1970. Pen and ink. Page one from Subvert Comics #1.

"The Origin of Trashman" - Spain Rodriquez. 1970. Pen and ink. Page one from Subvert Comics #1.

Developed in 1968, the Trashman comic story takes place in a totalitarian American future, telling the tale of a working class fellow named Harry Barnes. When Barnes discovers state forces have murdered his wife, he goes underground to escape their clutches.

Barnes is soon recruited by a shadowy anarcho-Marxist underground organization called the Sixth International, which trains Barnes in the use of weaponry, but also instructs him to make use of the “para-sciences”. Once Barnes masters clairvoyance, shape shifting, and other super powers, he is reborn as Trashman to wreak havoc upon fascist police and military forces and their wealthy ruling class paymasters.

Panel from the Trashman comic as published in 1968 on the pages of New York's underground newspaper, the East Village Other.

Panel from Trashman as published in 1968 on the pages of New York's underground newspaper, the East Village Other.

Spain Rodriguez was a superlative draftsman, his pen and ink drawings done in black and white, whether sparsely or lavishly detailed, were always evocative.

I have an eternal appreciation for artworks created in black and white, a style of work not easily mastered, but Spain made it look easy; his unmistakable drawings were always a perfect balance of black and white.

Spain’s meticulous renderings of urban landscapes could be breathtaking in detail; his portraits of various characters revealed all of the decency or darkness of the human heart with just a few strokes of the pen. Unlike the works of other underground artists in his circle who were creating zany cartoons, Spain’s art possessed a certain seriousness – even when dealing with the improbable.

Spain’s Trashman antihero story became ubiquitous in certain counterculture circles in the late 1960s. The tale was no doubt an extension of Spain’s own world view and politics, but truth be told it was also a shared fantasy. Spain’s comic was born in a period of mass protest, government repression, and imperial war. Mind you, the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy were recent murders, and the May 4, 1970 National Guard fatal shootings of antiwar student protestors at Kent State University was on the horizon. It was easy for young readers to believe that the Trashman comic was a look into our collective future.

Berkeley Tribe cover art, Aug. 15, 1969 edition. The underground newspaper's radical editorial stance encouraged cultural and political dissidents to practice armed self-defense. To that effect the broadsheet's provocative headline appropriated the U.S. Army recruitment slogan of the day, "Join The New Action Army".

Berkeley Tribe cover art, Aug. 15, 1969. The underground paper's editorial stance encouraged cultural and political dissidents to practice armed self-defense. To that effect the provocative headline appropriated the U.S. Army recruitment slogan of the day, "Join The New Action Army".

Many underground papers of the day carried the art of Rodriquez, indeed, in 1972 I acquired The Collected Trashman as published by the Red Mountain Tribe, the same radical collective that was printing and distributing the Berkeley Tribe underground paper in Berkeley, California. It is funny to think that as a teenager I could find the Berkeley Tribe and other radical newspapers at a local news stand in my quiet southern California neighborhood. Today that news stand is long gone, so are the area bookstores, all replaced by yuppie cafés and boutiques in a wave of late 90s gentrification. The one bookstore in my locale, a corporate chain, carries Batman, Spiderman, Avengers, X-Men, Superman, and all the rest… but no Trashman. Big surprise, eh?

Lincoln Cushing conducted an interview with Spain Rodriguez on September 28, 2010. Wanting to document Spain’s “important contribution to movement art”, Cushing included the interview in his book, All Of Us Or None: Social Justice Posters of the San Francisco Bay Area. The book’s 300 or so 60’s posters came from the massive All Of Us Or None (AOUON) poster archive collected and maintained by the brilliant Michael Rossman (1939-2008). There are six of Spain’s posters in the archive, and I am honored to say, six of my own print creations reside there as well. In the wake of Rossman’s untimely death, Cushing administered the AOUON collection until helping to arrange its donation to the Oakland Museum of California. Cushing granted me permission to publish his AOUON interview with Spain, an edited version of which follows:

Lincoln Cushing: “Who among underground comics artists did you find a connection around politics?”

Spain Rodriguez: “I always drew, and I went to art school. Underground cartoonists tend to be either left or apolitical. Gilbert Shelton is one who had political insight, a worthy hero and a better artist than he realizes. Now he’s over in Paris. I kind of got this generally good reception. The underground comics movement has a certain sort of camaraderie that is not specifically political. Crumb also has a progressive political outlook, somewhat more so in those days than today. His recent Genesis has an enlightening aspect to it. What Crumb did with Zap was turn it into a collective. He might have had some regrets about that later on, but we – the artists – own Zap. And that’s a big step. It’s a collective form by the most uncollective guys you can imagine.

A lot of us came from New York, and we all knew each other from the East Village Other – Bill Griffith, Art Spiegelman – and Trina Robbins, too, though she regards us as ‘those obnoxious male cartoonists,’ which is good, that’s what we are.

I’ve been political from very early on. In Buffalo [N.Y.] as a kid I knew something was extremely fucked up. I remember seeing this picture of a Mexican mural, with all these bigwigs sitting at a table, and one guy had one of those scientific funnels on his head, they were all pontificating and eating their little cakes, and all around them were these Mexicans with crossed bandoliers fingering their weapons in the doorways, and it instantly hit me. Suddenly I understood things.  I drifted into the Socialist Labor Party. That was my early education. I had a philosophical inclination. When I read Marx that seemed to describe the world best.

Early on a guy named Ed Wolkenstein put out this little leaflet called ‘The Spirit and the Sword.‘ I did artwork for him, licked envelopes, did all that stuff to get it out. He took us out to the University of Buffalo, where I just assumed that people would tell us to never darken their doorway again, but we got this good reception. And of course this was the beginning of the antiwar movement. Me and Ed put up the first antiwar posters in Buffalo, 1965-1966. Maybe even 1964 – we did one on Goldwater’s election. I first came to the Bay Area in January of 1969, went back to Buffalo in March, then I came back in December.”

Lincoln Cushing: “Tell me about your view of 1950s culture”.

Spain Rodriguez: “It was certainly boredom, and the pressure to conform. I have my high school yearbook, and I’m the only one with sideburns. I went through a bunch of shit over that. I’ve always had a tendency to find the excitement, to find the cool thing. But that’s when rhythm and blues, and rock and roll started, so that certainly wasn’t boring. And in the neighborhood I lived in, there was a lot of stuff happening. There was pressure to conform, but there were also people that wouldn’t conform. With me it was always a struggle, being the nail that stuck out, getting pounded down.

There was also EC comics, which were real significant, and really hated and stabbed in the back by the whole comics code, which was one of the most repressive documents in history.

The Spaniards had this big empire, and then the Inquisition comes up. From a certain vantage point, the fact that they had the inquisition is a positive thing because they had something to ‘inquisit.’ The cultures they conquered didn’t have an inquisition, people readily accepted that if they didn’t go up and get their hearts cut out the sun would stop. No one said ‘Hey, let’s give it a try, don’t cut out my heart.’ In Spain you had this incredibly repressive thing, and you have to look at what prompted that.

EC comics had a social content. In fact my early thinking was shaped by that. The shock-suspense stories always had a social point, either the Ku Klux Klan or political corruption. They had a definitely liberal political angle. All these guys who came out of the Army and had G.I. Bill free college, a lot of them became artists, so there was this pool of great artists. Wallace Wood, Jack Davis, Severin, Elder. And the stuff sprang out for a few years, until ‘the hand’ crushed that.

Did you ever hear of the Resurgence Youth Movement? It was in the Lower East Side of NY, started by Jonathan Leek, who was in YPSL. When Kennedy was assassinated [11/22/1963] he issued a 12-page manifesto calling for all revolutionaries to go forth with pistol and dagger and put to death all public officials. Well, they booted his ass out. Then he got connected with the Wobblies, and they would put out this great stuff – ‘I dream of the days when motorcycles will roar down Park Avenue and the junkies will shoot up in your bathroom and the queens will prance on your lawn!’ – and all of that sort of came true.

You’d see him at antiwar demonstrations and there would be all the leftists on one side, and the Nazis on the other, and these guys would come in and attack the cops, and of course the cops would kick their ass. But I got to know those guys, and after smoking about nine joints they said ‘Yeah, we’ll kidnap Mayor Wagner’s son and we’ll try him according to people’s justice!’ and another guy would jump up and say ‘Yeah, then we’ll chop off his head with a guillotine!’ One guy was nuttier than the next.

All these historical things, they’re like some weird dice throw, and at some point it just comes to a boil. We’re living in interesting times. I’m not an anarchist, but I’m a libertarian – no one gets to run my personal life. I don’t believe the personal is political. I believe that the personal is nobody’s business. I’m not gay, but I support people’s right to live their own life as they see fit.”

While Trashman was unquestionably Spain’s most famous creation, it was certainly not his only one. Intensely interested in history, Spain created comic books about diverse historic figures from Marine Corps general Smedley Butler to Ernesto “Che” Guevara. He was a contributing artist to Wobblies!: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World, and the author of several original graphic novels. Really, his accomplishments are more than I can list.

The Burchfield Penny Art Center at Buffalo State College in Buffalo, New York is currently presenting the exhibit, Spain: Rock, Roll, Rumbles, Rebels, & Revolution. Beginning Sept. 14, 2012 and running until January 20, 2013, the exhibit features original drawings and reproductions from Spain’s complete body of work. Spain’s wife, Emmy-nominated filmmaker Susan Stern, produced a short film on Spain’s life and work for the Burchfield Penny Art Center exhibit; the insightful video can be viewed on YouTube. At the closing moment of Stern’s film, Spain made the following avowal, one that summed up his optimism: “I’ve seen many cool scenes, I have hope that cool scenes will keep on coming – I have faith in the revolution.”

Many an obituary will be written about Spain, most will focus on his being a mover and shaker in the world of comics, conveniently leaving aside his left-wing libertarian politics and thoughtful humanism. Paul Buhle, author and Senior Lecturer at Brown University, has possibly written the best published death notice on Spain for Dissent quarterly. Another insightful obit, Death of an American original, can be found on Salon.

What makes the Salon obituary so interesting is its ending, which presents two previously unpublished cartoon panels from Spain finished just prior to his death. The cartoons deal with the real-life story of cotton plantation slave James Roberts and his fellow slaves being enlisted by U.S. General Andrew Jackson to fight the British in the War of 1812. Though only eight panels long, the cartoon cuts like a knife. I must admit that I did not know the history revealed in Spain’s illustrated romp into the annals of America’s past, but that is the extraordinary thing about Spain Rodriguez; he continues to teach things to myself and others, even after moving on. Perhaps that is the best obituary I can offer.

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Robert Hughes: the last art critic

“Some think that so much of today’s art mirrors and thus criticizes decadence, not so – it’s just decadent, full stop. It has no critical function, it is part of the problem. The art world beautifully copies our money driven, celebrity obsessed, entertainment culture; same fixation on fame, same obedience to mass media that jostles for our attention with its noise and wow and flutter.” – Robert Hughes.

Robert Hughes died on August 6, 2012, at the age of 74. He passed away at a hospital in New York following a long unspecified illness. There are more than a few obituaries written for Mr. Hughes… you can ignore them all. Let Hughes’ sharp-witted writings and proclamations be his obituary; his lacerating words are enough to understand why he is still an indispensable force in today’s money besotted art world.

Photo of Robert Hughes by Australian photographer, Julian Kingma

Photo of Robert Hughes by Australian photographer, Julian Kingma

The quote that opens this remembrance of Mr. Hughes came from his 2008 documentary film for Britain’s Channel 4 television, The Mona Lisa Curse. The film explored, in the words of Hughes, how “the entanglement of big money with art has become a curse on how art is made, controlled, and above all – in the way that it’s experienced.”

The great majority of obituaries for Hughes rightfully mention his 1980 book and TV series, The Shock of the New, or his 1997 book and TV series American Visions, conversely, few if any mention his last major documentary, The Mona Lisa Curse. While many commentators laud Hughes for the vital contributions he made to the public’s understanding of art, they fall silent when it comes to The Mona Lisa Curse, a work that so upset the postmodern apple cart that it has been cast into oblivion.

Soon after its Sept. 18, 2008 broadcast on British TV, I found that The Mona Lisa Curse had received virtually no attention in the United States; the blackout affected the mainstream press (New York Times, Los Angeles Times, etc.), the art press, and the blogosphere. Mercifully, someone posted the entire documentary in twelve parts to YouTube in November of 2009, whereupon I immediately wrote a web log post about the documentary. My post provided a link to each of the twelve streaming video segments on YouTube, gave a summation of each part, and included pull quotes from Mr. Hughes.

Since my post was apparently the only article in existence that directly linked to The Mona Lisa Curse video on YouTube, I would like to think that thousands were exposed to Hughes’ masterwork due to my efforts.

As of this writing the U.S. press remains mute when it comes to The Mona Lisa Curse. The film is unavailable on and because it has not been released as a DVD by its producer C4/Oxford Film & Television. The company has provided no information on when the documentary might see the light of day. For all practical purposes Hughes’ most profound and deeply pertinent work continues to be unheard of; his polemics certainly did not win him any favors, but then, they were not meant to – his aim was to banish a curse.

In The Shock of the New TV series Hughes spoke of modern architecture and how its visual language serves the needs of state power; it was an analysis that foreshadowed the formidable critique to come later in The Mona Lisa Curse. Hughes’ survey included critical observations regarding the imperial architectural designs of fascist Italy and Germany from the 1930s, an aesthetic he recognized in the style of corporate architecture found in the 1980s. The concluding words of my short eulogy to Robert Hughes were uttered by the great man himself during his televised Shock of the New exposition on architecture:

“As far as today’s politics is concerned art aspires to the condition of muzak, it provides the background hum for power. If the Third Reich had lasted until today the young bloods in the party wouldn’t be interested in old fogies like Albert Speer or Arno Breker, they’d be queuing up to have their portraits done by Andy Warhol. It’s hard to think of any work of art of which one could say, ‘This made men more just to one another’, or ‘This saved the life of one Jew or one Vietnamese.’ Books perhaps, but as far as I know… no paintings or sculptures. The difference between us and the artists in the 20s, is that they thought that such a work of art could be made. Perhaps it was their naïveté that they could think so – but it’s our loss that we can’t.”

Ray Bradbury, Flame of Metaphor & Myth: R.I.P.

"Fahrenheit 451" - Joseph Mugnaini. Pen and ink. 9" x 5 3/4". Illustration for the 1961 edition of Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury.

"Fahrenheit 451" - Joseph Mugnaini. Pen and ink. 9" x 5 3/4". Illustration for the 1961 edition of Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury.

Ray Bradbury, the great writer of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery stories, died on June 5th, 2012 at the age of 91. Born in Waukegan, Illinois, Bradbury came to the City of Los Angeles with his parents in 1934, where he settled permanently to become one of the city’s illustrious adopted sons.

A favorite author of mine, Bradbury penned numerous short stories and novels, but it was his 1953 dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 that continues to haunt me.

Written in the year of my birth, Fahrenheit 451 tells the chilling tale of a future American society where the population is kept under control by the uninterrupted broadcasting of frivolous entertainment; in which endless trivial amusements and diversions are found on giant TV screens located in all public and private places.

Instead of extinguishing bonfires, the state’s well organized and omnipotent firemen ignite them; the firemen burn books, all of which have been banned. The libricide helps to cultivate the ignorance and anti-intellectualism that the government counts on to prevent dissent.

Yet, Bradbury always insisted that Fahrenheit 451 was not so much about government oppression as it was about the dangers television posed to the written word; that and how easily people embrace mind-numbing conformity. In 1966 director François Truffaut produced a compelling film based upon Bradbury’s prescient tale.

 "Baroque with Red Mama" - Joseph Mugnaini. Etching. 11" x 17". I received a copy of this print from Mugnaini when I was a student of his in the early 1970s.

"Baroque with Red Mama" - Joseph Mugnaini. Etching. 11" x 17". I received a copy of this print from Mugnaini when I was a student of his in the early 1970s.

I do not intend this article as an obituary for Mr. Bradbury, that can be found elsewhere; the L.A. Times published a notice of his passing, as did the L.A. Weekly and likely many others. Rather, this commentary will reveal one of the long forgotten episodes of Bradbury’s memorable career, his collaboration with artist Joseph Mugnaini (1912-1992), a fabulous L.A. artist that illustrated several of Bradbury’s books.

"Portrait of Bertrand Russell" - Joseph Mugnaini. Ink wash and conte crayon. 12.5" x 10.5" inches.

"Portrait of Bertrand Russell" - Joseph Mugnaini. Ink wash and conte crayon. 12.5" x 10.5" inches.

As fate would have it, I was a student of the irascible Mr. Mugnaini when he taught printmaking at L.A.’s Otis Art Institute in the early 1970s.

Brilliant and short-tempered, Mugnaini was an intimidating figure, but he was also a superlative and inspired printmaker that I learned a great deal from; an unforgettable character, he possessed a rugged face that is forever etched in my mind. One day in class Mugnaini gave me one of his etchings, Baroque with Red Mama. I still have the print in my collection.

Born in Italy, Joseph Mugnaini moved to the U.S. with his family when he was but an infant. He grew up in L.A. and attended Otis Art Institute in 1940-1942. After serving in the Army during WWII, he returned to L.A. and became an instructor at Otis, where he remained as a professor and head of the Drawing Department until he retired in 1976.

"Ulysses" - Joseph Mugnaini. Lithograph. 8.5" x 6 1/4" inches. From a 1963 edition of The Age Of Fable, by Thomas Bulfinch.

"Ulysses" - Joseph Mugnaini. Lithograph. 8.5" x 6 1/4" inches. From a 1963 edition of The Age Of Fable, by Thomas Bulfinch.

Mugnaini created the illustrations for Icarus, a 1962 animated film based on a story by Bradbury; the short film was nominated for an Academy Award (you can view the entire film on YouTube).

Aside from his collaborations with Bradbury, Mugnaini was a multifaceted artist that eschewed abstraction, favoring a loose and fanciful style of realism when creating his drawings, paintings and prints. His narrative works were filled with references both historical and literary.

Needless to say Mugnaini’s adherence to realism, however whimsical, put him at odds with the art establishment, at the time slavishly devoted to non-objective abstract expressionism, and later the lowbrow offerings of Pop art.

Mugnaini also wrote several textbooks on making art, including: Drawing: A Search for Form (1965); Oil Painting: Techniques and Materials (1969); and Hidden Elements of Drawing (1974). His works are found in the collections of the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution.

In this essay, Bradbury himself will have the last words on Joseph Mugnaini. Bradbury’s remarks were published as the foreword to the 1982 book, Joseph Mugnaini: Drawings and Graphics, a compendium of various artworks by Mugnaini. Four artworks from that book illustrate this article. Like a character in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, I have memorized passages found in Mugnaini’s books, reeling them off publicly as an act of resistance against a society so dumbed down that masses of people cannot survive without “tweeting” about the latest pop culture gossip. The words are now passed on to you. Bradbury’s praise of his artistic collaborator are as follows:

“The custom of artist-illustrator and mythologist (which is what a good writer should be) working together is as old as the Greeks, Romans, or name any other culture of some two-thousand-plus years ago. They are amiable cross-pollinations of one another. The history of literature and art is full of these fabulous speaking-writing-painting children. And indeed they are children, for if they are not that first, they cannot be the wild creatures that seize and freeze life, later. The sad thing about the cultures of the twentieth century is that often, perhaps because of Abstract Art lumbering on the scene and crushing Metaphor and Myth under its nihilistic rump, we have had little bedding of artists and tellers of tales. Our art galleries hence have been filled with sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Joe Mugnaini and I have tried to revive the ancient tradition. It all came about by accident, some twenty-nine years ago. Passing a gallery late at night, I saw a lithograph of an old house, the sort of place a beast like myself might want to live in. With what little money I had, I rushed to buy the print the next day, and saw, on the walls, yet further metaphors of ideas and stories much like those inside my head, but not yet put down on paper. Who is this genius, I asked myself, who clones my concepts, without ever having met me? The answer was: Joe Mugnaini, of course. I went to see him, bought his paintings, got him to paint the cover and do the interior illustrations for my next book, The Golden Apples of the Sun, and the rest is a damn jolly good history of friendship and collaboration.”

Elizabeth Catlett: dead at 96

A few words must be said concerning the passing of Elizabeth Catlett, one of the greatest African-American artists and printmakers in the history of the United States. When I received the news that Ms. Catlett died on April 2, 2012, I felt more than a pang of sadness. I discovered her art when I was a teenager embroiled in the civil rights and antiwar movements in the late 1960s. During those years I became familiar with a number of social realist artists of Catlett’s stature, including Charles White, who was briefly married to Catlett in the early 1940s. I have long credited White “as a major influence in my life as an artist“, and it is fitting that I also credit Ms. Catlett as a personal inspiration as well.

In today’s context it is difficult to describe the impact Catlett’s prints had upon many of us in the late 1960s. She had of course been creating her style of social criticism since 1946, when she moved to Mexico City and began producing amazing lithographs, wood and linoleum cut prints with El Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP – The Popular Graphic Arts Workshop). Activists in the 1960s discovered Catlett’s older works, and since her graphic narratives were as relevant to the 60s as they were in the 1940s, they were given life and meaning by a new generation.

However, Elizabeth Catlett was not one to rest on her laurels; she met the challenges of the late 1960s with uncommon artistic ferocity and political clarity, producing images of unparalleled beauty and compassion. I was 16 in 1969 when I first saw Ms. Catlett’s linoleum cut print Malcolm X Speaks for Us; the work was certainly a reflection of the times, but it also was a lightning rod that led many to discover Catlett’s wider body of work. Her focus was on the African-American experience, though Catlett’s voice was universal. She addressed the hopes, dreams, and problems of her adopted country of Mexico with a good deal of empathy, nonetheless, Ms. Catlett’s works exemplify a clear and profound love for all of humanity.

"Harriet" - Elizabeth Catlett, Linoleum cut print, 1975. 12 x 9 3/4 inches

"Harriet" - Elizabeth Catlett, Linoleum cut print, 1975. 12 x 9 3/4 inches

The provocative nature of Catlett’s overtly political works is embodied in her masterful 1975 linoleum cut simply titled Harriet, a tribute to Harriet Tubman, the heroic African-American abolitionist. For eight years Tubman led an “Underground Railroad” network that liberated hundreds of blacks from slavery states in the South, helping them to escape to freedom in the North. The print was a reworking of an earlier linoleum cut by Catlett from 1946 titled, In Harriet Tubman I helped hundreds to freedom, which was part of the artist’s I am the Negro Woman series of prints from that period.

Catlett’s updated 1975 print was aesthetically superior to her original linoleum cut; she applied impressive skills in holding delicate lines in Harriet while giving an elegant appearance of form in Tubman’s dress. Catlett worked amazing textures into the newer print, from coarsely gouged to finer engraved-like lines. But politically, the changes made by Catlett were more important – and volatile – than the artistic ones. She portrayed the leader of the underground railroad as an armed freedom fighter carrying a rifle, a brazen act given the political atmosphere in the early 1970s.

Historic illustrations from the late 1800s usually pictured Harriet Tubman with a rifle, and though it is hard to be certain, that long gun was most likely an 1803 Harpers Ferry rifle chambered in .54 caliber. Tubman is also known to have been armed with a large revolver, in all probability the six-shot .36 caliber 1851 Colt Navy Revolver. When Tubman ran her underground network, Blacks were forbidden by law from owning or carrying firearms, it was even illegal for Whites to furnish guns or knives to Blacks that had been freed from slavery.

Elizabeth Catlett portrayed Harriet Tubman as a great hero and defender of human liberty, an indisputably accurate depiction. Tubman in fact became known as “Moses” to her people for having rescued hundreds of slaves from inhuman bondage. Even so, Tubman’s daring and courageous acts could not have been possible without the use of firearms; with rifle and pistol she defended her people against the unspeakable cruelty of slave masters, bounty hunters, and all others who profited from human bondage. Tubman worked with the Union Army to defeat the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War, and actually became the first woman in U.S. military history to prepare and help command an armed military assault, the Raid at Combahee Ferry in South Carolina; the military operation freed more than 750 slaves.

By emphasizing Tubman carrying a rifle in the cause of freedom, Catlett was directly addressing millions of African-Americans over the question of armed self-defense vs. non-violent action. Of course, most of Catlett’s art was not as confrontational as Harriet, the largest part of her oeuvre was given to tender and compassionate observation of humanity. Catlett’s works spoke of, not just oppression and injustice, but the capacity of people to create a better world. When searching for an artist with a deep-rooted commitment to social justice and equality, one need not look any further than the immortal Elizabeth Catlett.