I <3 (The Visual Voice of) Paula Scher

My colleague Doris Berger, Skirball curator, explained that she chose the Ruby Gallery as the exhibition space for Voices & Visions in part because “this gallery is a communicative space that is open to all the visitors free of charge. It is a space that is being walked through by staff and visitors alike and literally invites you to stop for a moment.”

My colleague Doris Berger, Skirball curator, explained that she chose the Ruby Gallery as the exhibition space for Voices & Visions in part because “this gallery is a communicative space that is open to all the visitors free of charge. It is a space that is being walked through by staff and visitors alike and literally invites you to stop for a moment.”

When I first learned about the exhibition Voices & Visions and took a look at some of the names involved in the project, I geeked out a little bit. Just as there are celebrity architects like Moshe Safdie (who designed the Skirball) and Frank Gehry, there are celebrity graphic designers like Milton Glaser (of the famed I <3 NY logo), Ivan Chermayeff—perhaps best known for designing, together with Tom Geismar, television network logos like the current iteration of the NBC peacock—and Pentagram Partner Paula Scher. All of them have poster designs on display in the exhibition. Scher designed, among other things, the identity for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, where I worked as an intern and assistant on web projects before I joined the Skirball. Because of this connection, I was especially interested to see her Voices & Visions poster design.

Paula Scher, Master's Series 2012. Quote by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Harold Grinspoon Foundation, West Springfield, MA.

Paula Scher, Master's Series 2012. Quote by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Harold Grinspoon Foundation, West Springfield, MA.

For Voices & Visions, the creative brief was straightforward: The Harold Grinspoon Foundation sought out contemporary Jewish artists to visually interpret the words of great Jewish thinkers. Each artist was to create a thought-provoking poster based on the Jewish text for a universal audience. As Doris Berger put it, the series “highlights humanistic values that are rooted in Judaism.” They are values and ideas we can all relate to, whether we are Jewish or not. The creative director of the project, ad-man and designer Arnold Schwartzman, was the Foundation’s connection to all of these amazing graphic designers.

The thinker for Scher’s poster? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. One of the few in his family to narrowly escape the Nazi invasion of Poland, he was a great philosopher and writer who stood up for spiritual freedom, civil rights, and an end to war. In his book The Prophets, Heschel describes prophets not simply as individuals who can foresee the future, but as “the men whose image is our refuge in distress, and whose voice and vision sustain our faith.” Heschel could have easily used this definition not only to describe himself, but to describe the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. During the Civil Rights Movement, Heschel courageously supported King and marched by his side to Selma in 1965. [Audrey’s Museum Store at the Skirball carries a great children’s book about Heschel and King’s common purpose, entitled As Good As Anybody.]

The quotable quote? The words quoted on Scher’s poster comes from an interview with Heschel on his participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Recalling the historic act of protest, Heschel described, “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was both protest and prayer. Legs are not lips, and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

The poster? Scher’s design is simple yet striking—bold text, a silhouetted photo, and lots of white space. The crop on Heschel’s legs is a fresh, modern take at the now-iconic image of Heschel walking arm-in-arm with King and fellow activists. How do you take an old photo and make it more visually interesting? Scher’s crop is like the two-dimensional equivalent of the Ken Burns effect—a pan-and-zoom to add movement to still photos, a technique we’ve become familiar with in Burns’ documentaries. Scher’s offsetting of the Heschel image in the different color passes of the printing process (that is, cyan-magenta-yellow-black) gives his legs the illusion of motion—they look almost like they’re vibrating—which to me connotes the spiritual: his march is worship, his legs are praying. The design communicates Heschel’s words in a visual way.

What I really love about Voices & Visions is that it gets to the heart of good design and communication. While in school and working at Jazz at Lincoln Center, I learned—and have ever since operated lived and worked by—the philosophy that good design is always about both form and function, never sacrificing the one for the other.

With every poster design in Voices & Visions, you have an “audible voice” and a “visual voice” that work together in harmony. Paula Scher touches on this in a 2008 TED Talk, relating her identity work for The Public Theater in New York to the Paul Newman movie The Verdict. I am particularly struck by Scher’s observation that it is when we are fully able to express ourselves and be “the voice” that we are able to grow as an individual or, even, as a people.

The Voices & Visions posters both express and invite expression, just as the protest posters in Decades of Dissent did during the 1960s and 1970s. For me, Voices and Visions together with Decades of Dissent and Free to be U.S. have really gotten me thinking about our own voices and visions and how we use them, whether it be through visual art, the written word, or otherwise.

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