On a Mission

"On a Mission" letterpress broadside by Chandler O'Leary and Jessica Spring

As autumn approaches and the inevitable rainy season knocks at our doors, Jessica and I are dreaming of the sunny skies of Arizona—where the not-so-sunny SB 1070, the state’s contentious new immigration reform bill, was signed into law earlier this year. At every turn, controversy pricks underfoot and looms overhead—with no easy, clear-cut answers in sight. So for our newest broadside, we decided to challenge the controversy face-to-face-to-hand-to-heart with the words of Tejana activist Adina De Zavala:

There was nothing else for me to do but hold the fort. So I did.

In complete contrast with our last broadside, we had a short n’ sweet quote to work with this time—which gave me every reason and all kinds of room to go completely nuts with the imagery. I think my subconscious had a hand in steering us toward Adina and her quote, because I suddenly had the chance to explore a whole slew of filed-away themes and images that I had never been able to work into a piece before. My brain was swimming with ideas, and I found myself cackling out loud at the prospect of finally getting the chance to put so many of my favorite things into one crazy illustration. Green skies! Monument Valley! Mexican blackletter! Milagros! Cactus-spine fractal geometry! Mwa ha ha!

Ahem. I should probably back up the train a bit and give you the whole nerdy spiel.

Detail of "On a Mission" letterpress broadside by Chandler O'Leary and Jessica Spring

On a Mission teems with icons of both the American Southwest and Mexican folk culture. A desert landscape—framed with metallic scrollwork and crazy-lace agate cabochons— stretches to the horizon, while saguaro sentinels tower over a tangled mess of prickly pears and barrel cacti. That was the easy part—thorny issue? Check.

The hard part was putting in all of our nebulous and conflicted feelings about the Alamo (represented here as an absence of imagery; a silhouette of negative space) and the topic at hand. So for answers I looked to Mexican folk art—so prominent on both sides of the Border, and so beautifully expressive, layered in history and meaning.

Detail of "On a Mission" letterpress broadside by Chandler O'Leary and Jessica Spring

The text itself helped us get right to the point about that. The typography is influenced both by the American Old West and modern-day Mexico—particularly the latter. Mexico’s strong tradition of hand-lettering survives today, particularly in the form of hand-painted signs and advertisements. Inspiration ranged from the fluid folksiness of drop-shadowed cursive script—

Detail of "On a Mission" letterpress broadside by Chandler O'Leary and Jessica Spring

—to the proud refinement of blackletter, a hold-out of the early Spanish colonial printers that has evolved to attain near-sacred importance in Mexican and Mexican-American popular culture. As we were conscious of our desire to “reclaim” some of the connotations behind the Alamo, blackletter provided the perfect weight and cultural twist to the phrase “Hold the fort.”

Milagros photo by Chandler O'Leary

And then there’s my favorite part of the whole project: strewn all over the lower half of the illustration is a collection of milagros. Literally translated to “miracles,” milagros are small, stamped-metal votives that are typically hung in the shrines and churches of many Catholic countries—offered up in thanks for prayers answered and blessings received.

Milagros photo by Chandler O'Leary

On my lifetime list of all-around Best Things Ever, milagros are very near the top—as evidenced by the growing collection in my studio. When I lived in Rome (where they are called ex votos), I used to pick them up on Sunday-mornings at the Porta Portese flea market for next to nothing. Ever since then, they’ve popped up in my work every now and then.

Well, now they get to be the stars of the show. If the Alamo were still the mission I picture in my head, the walls would be covered, floor to ceiling, with milagros. And since Adina herself has become a bit of a legend for her place in the Alamo’s history, illustrated devotionals adorn her name and portrait like pinned hopes.

Detail of "On a Mission" letterpress broadside by Chandler O'Leary and Jessica Spring

It may seem strange to get so giddily excited about illustrating such a serious topic, but somewhere along the way I realized that it’s that excitement over the positive that has given me perspective on the issue at hand. That what we think of as the “American” Southwest is so iconic and so dear to us because of the peoples with whom we share it. That the Southwest wouldn’t be what it is without its link to hundreds of years of both native and newcomer culture—just as America wouldn’t be America without immigration and cultural diversity. That keeping our multicultural vibrance alive is what makes us whole.

So in that spirit, a portion of the proceeds from On a Mission will be donated to the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting justice and legal rights for immigrants and refugees from more than 100 countries around the world.

I don’t know if any of this stuff crossed Adina De Zavala’s mind while she camped out inside the Alamo. She was just an individual who fought to keep an old, rotting building standing—and the place was a controversial symbol, even then (it certainly still is today). But she knew that the controversy was part of the legend of the place, and part of our heritage. And she knew the value of preserving that heritage for everyone’s benefit, without exception—so she held the fort. I think she deserves a few milagros on our wall for that.

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On a Mission: No. 9 in the Dead Feminists series
Edition size: 175
Poster size: 10 x 18 inches

Printed on an antique Vandercook Universal One press, on archival, 100% rag paper. Each piece is signed by both artists.

Colophon reads:
As a young Tejana teacher, Adina Emilia De Zavala (1861 – 1955) shared her love of Texas history and legends in her classroom, and spent time outside of school soliciting building supplies to repair San Antonio’s missions. In honor of her Mexican grandfather, the Republic’s first Vice President, she founded the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) in order to preserve the Mission San Antonio de Valero. The compound was built in 1718 by the Spanish to evangelize local Native Americans, then later—as the Alamo—housed the Mexican Army. De Zavala was especially focused on restoring the long barracks, which she believed was the site of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo. In 1905, days before the Alamo lease would expire and rumors spread of imminent conversion to a hotel, De Zavala locked herself in the rat-infested structure without food, demanding that the entire compound be preserved. “If people—especially children—can actually see the door through which some noble man or woman passed,” she said, “they’ll be impressed; they’ll remember.” After three days, De Zavala was released as the Governor took possession, then returned control to the DRT. Thanks to De Zavala’s persistence and the DRT’s ongoing stewardship, the legendary Alamo is preserved as a museum and National Historic Landmark, open to all people.

Illustrated by Chandler O’Leary and printed by Jessica Spring, as thorny issues arise and tear at our shared history and heritage: a multicultural miracle that demands tolerance even in the most trying times. 175 copies were printed by hand, with heart, at Springtide Press in Tacoma. August 2010

UPDATE: poster is sold out. Reproduction postcards available in the shop!

Detail of "On a Mission" letterpress broadside by Chandler O'Leary and Jessica Spring