Firebrands: Portraits from the Americas by Just Seeds Artists’ Cooperative

Published in 2010, Firebrands: Portraits from the Americas, is a collection of 100 plus portraits and short biographies of people who fought for freedom and equality in North, South, and Central America. A historical record and an inspirational primer, this collection, reads the introduction, “is for anyone who has sat, trembling with frustration and disappointment, in a history class that was neither stimulating nor inclusive.”

Of the 78 people profiled in the book many readers will likely be familiar with some of the more modern figures—Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, Studs Terkel, Nina Simone, Woody Guthrie, and Audre Lorde for example—while others, leaders like Po’pay, a Tewa spiritual leader who lead the Pueblo Revolt in 1680, and Nanny of the Maroons [1680s-1730s]of the African Gold Coast who’s story is preserved in oral tradition, are less often discussed in contemporary circles and history classes. This long-ranging take on social and political radicals gives the reader a deeper sense of history then we tend to find in more current discussions.

The portraits, created by a group of 20 illustrators and print makers, merge text and portraiture, some artists opting for direct representation of faces while other rely heavily on symbolism or objects that represent  the influence and life’s work of each individual. Erik Ruin’s near mystical portrait of Rachel Carson with a microscope, Nicolas Lampert’s straightforward and subtle portrait of Ida B. Wells, and Melanie Cervantes gorgeous image of Rigoberta Menchu with a mountain in the distance, all help to ground the stories found in the short biographies (many of which were written by the artists), reminding the reader that despite their brave actions, radical thinking, and willingness to go against a system, these firebrands were (and still are) contradictory, complicated, and complex humans, perhaps not all that different from the rest of us. Yet they were, as Taylor Sparrow writes in the forward, “People who lead incredible lives: They tried harder. They took more risks. They were less afraid. They put overwhelming value in joy and love. They felt pulled to try to end the suffering of fellow human beings. They refused to just “get by” and demanded to dream of new and more beautiful ways of life. It’s for these reasons—and not wealth, power, or status—that people should be honored and remembered.”

From Just Seeds

One of the biggest strengths of this book is the artists’ and authors’ willingness to put forth the complications and contradictions present in the lives of each of these people as they strove to live out an existence true to their convictions. “We realize that all humans, our admired characters collected here,” reads the introduction, come with a fair amount of contradiction.”  A few sentences later, Taylor reminds us,”passing on knowledge of where we have been is perhaps the only honest way to illuminate where we go from here.”

Featuring everyone from radical peacemakers like Muhammad Ali to creative agitator Tooker Gomberg, this book is a great primer for learning more about some of the America’s bravest freedom fighters.  The book concludes with an excellent resource list with information about everyone featured in the book, and it’s small size makes it easily portable—perfect for carrying around in your bag or purse for spare time reading.

Artists whose work is featured in the collection include Alec “Icky” Dunn, Mary Tremonte, Colin Matthes, Chris Stain, Melanie Cervantes, Josh MacPhee, Meredith Stern, Kevin Caplicki, Kristine Virsis, Roger Peet, Molly Fair, Erik Ruin, Favianna Rodriguez, Jesus Barraza, Nicolas Lampert, Fernando Marti, Jesse Purcell,Dylan Miner, Pete Yahnke Railand,Shaun Slifer, and Bec Young.

The Just Seeds Artists’ Cooperative is a network of 24 artists working from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, “Justseeds operates both as a unified collaboration of similarly minded print makers and as a loose collection of creative individuals with unique viewpoints and working methods. We believe in the transformative power of personal expression in concert with collective action.”  To order the book (it’s only 10 dollars!) and learn more about the work of Just Seeds go here.