I cannot applaud the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies enough for displaying March ON! an exhibition showing the life of John Lewis through the March graphic novel series produced with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. March ON! includes hand-inked drawings from the March graphic novel series alongside historical printed matter, photographs, and artworks that document the civil rights movement in the sixties.
The exhibition, curated by Rebecca Giordano, is on view at Christian-Green Gallery which sits on the second floor of Jester Dormitory on the UT Austin campus — purposefully situated in the heart of student activity. The path to Christian-Green gallery is edged with students in gym clothes, the scent of fried food, the glare of fluorescent lights and lots of backpacks and brown brick. For some students who had a K-12 experience similar to mine, which had no civil rights lessons, this exhibition may be the first time they have been directly taught about the civil rights movement.
Opposite “J2,” the dormitory’s buffet style dining hall, passing students can see through the gallery’s glass walls and into the space. The doors open to a front desk and light is ingeniously diffused by a screen material that makes the ceiling expansive, convincingly adding infinite space to the one-story gallery.
The exhibition intersperses archival materials like pamphlets and newsletters from the Congress of Racial Equality, Bloody Sunday photographs by James “Spider” Martin, and art by Charles White, Emory Douglas, and Ricky Yanas with original drawings from March. March ON! teaches viewers about a history of using graphic novels to instruct and shows us a method and a fight that continues today. While the story is John Lewis’ experience, he tells his story on behalf of Americans.
Nate Powell’s illustrations — single frames presented alone, but more often in groups of three or four — capture the energy and anger of the times in his lines and ink washes. By the time I visited the galleries, I had read two of the three March volumes. I raced through the pages completely entranced by the play between imagery and text, negative space, and the ability to convey so many thoughts at once: through an ellipses, the look on a person’s face, the despair of the black wash of an entire page.
Seeing the original drawings does not supersede the experience of viewing the printed frames of the books. The drawings present the process of creating a graphic novel, e.g. the cut out text paste on top of a sheet covering whatever may have originally been written in an earlier draft. They exist, but were never meant to be singular objects. Like March ON!, the drawings exist within a system that must be told with as much of the whole story as possible.
In addition to celebrating the graphic novel through the exhibition, the Warfield Center has been extending its reach by sending the series to public schools and libraries. This action, this exhibition, the location of the gallery itself are all ways that the Warfield Center continues the legacy of its founder, John L. Warfield.
Representative Lewis speaks at the university later this week. I am in awe of his work and his energy as he speaks out again, as we continue to fight. The last frame we are left with in the exhibition depicts a pen being exchanged between Martin Luther King and President Lyndon B. Johnson as the latter signs the Voting Rights Act. Lewis speaks, “It was the last day of the movement as I knew it.”
March 23, 5:30-7pm, Christian-Green Gallery
Gallery Reception and conversation with Curator Rebecca Giordano and Illustrator Nate Powell
March 24, 11AM, Hogg Auditorium
Public Conversation with Rep. Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
All images courtesy of the Christian-Green Gallery.