Stephen Lewis has a thing for posters and showing them. You could say he is the poster child for poster exhibits — a poster meister.

And when it comes to his exhibits, Lewis explains, it isn't so much that he tailors them to the news of the day. Rather, he says, "The news tailors itself to my posters."

Either way, his current exhibit, "The Struggle For Women's Equality," remains timely amid the #MeToo movement, and a pandemic that has resulted in greater job losses and increased care responsibilities for women. And that's not to mention once again it's a time when a country, Afghanistan, is being ruled by a group, the Taliban, that has forbidden women from working and girls from going to school.

Lewis' show runs through Sept. 26 at the Lawrence Heritage State Park Visitor Center. The retired labor union organizer plucked 63 posters from the 9,200 in his attic archive to assemble the exhibit.

The 63 posters, gathered from around the world, protest sexual harassment and inequities, while promoting equal opportunity and pay, and maternity benefits. 

The show was originally slated for 2020 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage, but was postponed due to the pandemic.

A week ago, while hanging frames in the visitor center's third-floor gallery, Lewis talked about his 30 years of collecting posters, this exhibit, and the hundreds of others he has assembled on behalf of progressive causes.

"This next poster is from the U.S.," Lewis said on a short tour of the show. "I just think it's very creative."

In it an upside down hammer  — topped by a tube of red lipstick — forms the "L" at the front of the word "labor." The poster, created in 1989, is one of five in the show that support women entering the building trades.

On the nearby wall is a Belgian poster of a woman with blond hair and a thick black mustache. The words, in Dutch, translate in English to, "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 child. Its words refer to the perpetual race women run to keep up with their jobs and caring for children.

What makes a poster powerful to Lewis are three things: art, message and history. The trio's brio remain the measure of a poster regardless of the show's theme. 

Lewis has presented exhibits at dozens of venues in Massachusetts over the past 20 years. The themes have included worker safety, labor history and rights, green politics and freedom of the press, among others.

One of the posters in his collection hung in the office of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in 2015 when two French Muslim brothers entered with rifles, killed 12 people and wounded 11 more. 

In 2017, Lewis' Freedom of the Press exhibit at The Boyden Library in Foxborough was removed in response to complaints about the content and graphics in two of the posters, Lewis said.

One was a black-and-white poster of a photographer lying on the street, a broken camera nearby. The photographer appeared to be dead. The other poster showed the former president of Iran making an obscene arm gesture.

The show was later restored and Lewis continues to host exhibits at that library, he said.

A career of causes

Posters remain vital in the digital age because of their power to capture attention and move people to action, say those who study the medium.

Jim Lapides, owner of the International Poster Gallery in Boston and a major collector and dealer for almost 30 years, says Lewis has an amazing collection.

Posters have survived as an art form for 120 years and remain a very successful way to capture people's attention. They are time capsules, touchpoints, and reflect on art, advertising and history, said Lapides, who majored in art history in college.

"They call it the power of the poster," he said. "They still astound me."

Angelina Lippert, curator of the Poster House Museum in New York City, says posters are right out in public to be seen by all and when successful are understood in less than a second.

"They're the perfect blend of design and communication, of art and an idea," she said. And she believes the medium will be relevant as long as there are empty walls and wheat paste in the world.

Lewis presented one of his first poster shows at the Lawrence Heritage State Park's visitor center more than a decade ago, and it has become a frequent venue for his exhibits.

Jim Beauchesne, supervisor at the center from 1998 until about a week ago when he retired, said the design, photography, art and colors in Lewis' posters have made an impression on viewers.

"Many of these are very striking," he said.

Lewis, who lives outside Boston, has never studied art, nor formally collected it.

He was born in Rockland, Maine, and graduated with a business degree in 1971 from Northeastern University in Boston.

On his first job out of college, in a medical records position at Boston Rehabilitation Hospital, he refused to cross a picket line. He actually joined the line of striking licensed practical nurses, service workers and maintenance employees.

His boss fired him on the spot and gave him 15 minutes to clear out his desk. It provided Lewis a tangible lesson in labor history.

"It was no longer theory," Lewis said. "It was practice."

As his career progressed, Lewis landed a job with the Boston organization Bridge Over Troubled Waters, helping homeless people and runaways get food and shelter, and become self sufficient.

He also volunteered for a crisis hotline and advocated for sex workers, seeking the decriminalization of prostitution through a group he founded in 1974, called PUMA, an acronym for the Prostitutes Union of Massachusetts Association. 

In 1980, Lewis was hired by the state as a mental health coordinator. He then joined the Service Employees International Union Local 509, for which he eventually became treasurer.

He traveled to conferences and other labor events through his union job and on his own.

Building the collection

Lewis obtained his first poster in 1990 at a trade union conference in Moscow in the former Soviet Union.

He has acquired posters from friends, at conventions, on visits to labor union headquarters and through the Internet.

On visits to labor organizations he has meandered to mail rooms where they typically store posters and often are more than willing to part with duplicates in order to save space.

His posters hail from six continents (all but Antarctica). He owns several that were made more than 100 years ago.

Lewis talks with glee about a time he was in Paris visiting one of the country's largest trade unions, CGT, and a prolific producer of posters.

"Twice now I've been able to just go in there and spend an hour or two going through stacks of posters, taking one of each one I didn't have," he says.

He retired from the state and union in 2012, and since has stepped up his poster activities.

His collection numbered about 3,000 in 2011. It grew to 7,000 in 2017, to 8,000 in 2018 and now he's aiming for the 10,000 mark. 

A slew of posters await him in Manchester, England, and in Scandinavia.

"I have a roll of posters waiting for me in Stockholm (Sweden) at the labor archives," he says.

Who knows, maybe some of those poster will find their way into future exhibits.

Lewis often shows his posters in libraries, supported by small grants such as the $55 one he received for the Lawrence show provided by the Lawrence Cultural Council.

 

IF YOU GO

What: "The Struggle For Women's Equality," exhibit of posters.

Where: Lawrence Heritage State Park Visitors Center, third floor, 1 Jackson St., Lawrence. 

When: Through Sept. 26; open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

How much: Free.

More information: (978) 794-1655.

 

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