Stephen Lewis has a weakness for posters and shows them. You could say he is the star child of poster exhibitions – a poster master.
And when it comes to his exhibits, Lewis explains, it’s not so much that he adapts them to the news of the day. On the contrary, he says, “The news fits my posters.”
Either way, her current exhibit, “The Struggle for Women’s Equality”, remains relevant amid the #MeToo movement and a pandemic that has resulted in greater loss of jobs and responsibilities. increased care for women. And that does not mean once again that this is a time when a country, Afghanistan, is ruled by a group, the Taliban, which prohibits women from working and girls from going to school.
The Lewis Show runs through September 26 at the Lawrence Heritage State Park Visitor Center. The retired union organizer recovered 63 of the 9,200 posters from his attic archives to put the exhibit together.
The 63 posters, gathered around the world, protest against sexual harassment and inequalities, while promoting equal opportunities and pay, as well as maternity benefits.
The show was originally scheduled for 2020 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, but has been postponed due to the pandemic.
A week ago, as he hung picture frames in the visitor center’s third-floor gallery, Lewis spoke of his 30 years of collecting posters, this exhibition and the hundreds more he brought together on behalf of progressive causes.
“This next poster is from the United States,” Lewis said on a short visit to the show. “I just think it’s very creative.”
An upside down hammer – topped with a tube of red lipstick – forms the “L” in front of the word “work”. The poster, created in 1989, is one of the show’s five posters that support women entering the building trades.
On the nearby wall is a Belgian poster depicting a woman with blond hair and a thick black mustache. The words, in Dutch, translate into English as: “How far should you go to earn as much as a man?”
And on the opposite wall is a French poster with an illustration of a woman and a child. Her words refer to the perpetual race that women run to attend to their work and care for children.
What makes a poster powerful for Lewis are three things: the art, the message, and the story. The trio’s brilliance remains the measure of a poster regardless of the theme of the show.
Lewis has presented exhibitions in dozens of venues in Massachusetts over the past 20 years. Themes included worker safety, labor history and rights, green policy and press freedom, among others.
One of the posters from his collection was hung in the offices of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in 2015 when two French Muslim brothers entered with guns, killed 12 people and injured 11 others.
In 2017, Lewis’ freedom of the press exhibit at Foxborough’s Boyden Library was removed in response to complaints about the content and graphics of two of the posters, Lewis said.
One was a black-and-white poster of a photographer lying in the street, a broken camera nearby. The photographer seemed dead. The other poster showed the former Iranian president making an obscene arm gesture.
The show was later restored and Lewis continues to host exhibits at this library, he said.
A career of causes
Posters remain vital in the digital age because of their power to grab attention and push people to action, say those who study the medium.
Jim Lapides, owner of the International Poster Gallery in Boston and a great collector and dealer for almost 30 years, says Lewis has an incredible collection.
Posters have survived as an art form for 120 years and remain a very effective way to capture people’s attention. They are time capsules, touchpoints and reflection on art, advertising and history, said Lapides, who majored in art history at the university.
“They call it the power of the poster,” he said. “They always amaze me.”
Angelina Lippert, curator of the Poster House Museum in New York City, says the posters are immediately visible in public for anyone to see and, when successful, they are understood in less than a second.
“They are the perfect blend of design and communication, art and idea,” she said. And she thinks the medium will be relevant as long as there are empty walls and dough in the world.
Lewis presented one of his first poster displays at the Lawrence Heritage State Park Visitor Center over a decade ago, and it has become a frequent venue for his exhibits.
Jim Beauchesne, supervisor of the center from 1998 until about a week ago, when he retired, said Lewis’s poster design, photography, art and colors impressed viewers.
“A lot of them are very striking,” he said.
Lewis, who lives outside of Boston, has never studied art, nor formally collected it.
He was born in Rockland, Maine, and graduated in 1971 with a business degree from Northeastern University in Boston.
In his first job out of college, in a medical records post at Boston Rehabilitation Hospital, he refused to cross a picket line. In fact, he joined the line of striking licensed practical nurses, service workers and maintenance workers.
His boss fired him on site and gave him 15 minutes to clear his office. He provided Lewis with a tangible lesson in the history of work.
“It was no longer theory,” Lewis said. “It was training.”
As his career progressed, Lewis landed a job with the Boston Bridge Over Troubled Waters organization, helping the homeless and runaways find food and shelter, and become self-reliant.
He also volunteered for a hotline and advocated for sex workers, seeking the decriminalization of prostitution through a group he founded in 1974 called PUMA, acronym for Prostitutes. Union of Massachusetts Association.
In 1980 Lewis was hired by the state as a mental health coordinator. He then joined Local 509 of the Service Employees International Union, where he eventually became treasurer.
He went to conferences and other union events through his union work and on his own.
Build the collection
Lewis got his first poster in 1990 at a trade union conference in Moscow in the former Soviet Union.
He obtained posters from friends, at conventions, during visits to union headquarters and on the Internet.
During his visits to labor organizations, he has visited mail rooms where they usually store posters and are often more than willing to part with duplicates in order to save space.
His posters come from six continents (all except Antarctica). He owns several that were made over 100 years ago.
Lewis gleefully talks about a time when he was in Paris to visit one of the country’s largest unions, the CGT, and a prolific poster producer.
“Twice now I’ve been able to walk in and spend an hour or two browsing through piles of posters, taking one of each that I didn’t have,” he says.
He retired from the state and the union in 2012 and has since stepped up his poster business.
His collection numbered around 3,000 in 2011. It has grown to 7,000 in 2017, 8,000 in 2018 and he is now aiming for the 10,000 mark.
A slew of posters awaits him in Manchester, England and Scandinavia.
“I have a roll of posters waiting for me in Stockholm (Sweden) at the Labor Archives,” he says.
Who knows, maybe some of these posters will end up in future exhibitions.
Lewis often shows his posters in libraries, supported by small grants such as the $ 55 he received for the Lawrence show provided by the Lawrence Cultural Council.
IF YOU ARE GOING TO
What: “The Struggle for Women’s Equality”, poster exhibition.
Or: Lawrence Heritage State Park Visitors Center, third floor, 1 Jackson St., Lawrence.
When: Until September 26; open every day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
How much: To free.
More information: (978) 794-1655.