As many in the city prepare in 2013 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of 1963’s critical Civil Rights events, artist Debra Riffe is making her contribution through her art.
Riffe, a graphic designer by trade, spends nights and weekends creating prints, including a series depicting the activists who played pivotal roles in making the Civil Rights Movement happen.
She calls that 32-print series Holding the Line. “To me, the act itself of holding the line, everyone holding shoulders locked in, represents the nonviolent tenets of the Civil Rights Movement,” Riffe explained. “If you find someone who has the same spirit, same morals, the same willingness to put their life on line for something they believe in, you lock arms, hold their hands and move forward.”
Thirty-one of the 12×8 prints are portraits of figures such as Fred Shuttlesworth, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King. One print is of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church sign, to honor the lives lost at the church bombing. A limited edition set, Riffe plans to make 50 sets of the images to display and sell.
The portraits also include ten images of “foot soldiers” to represent the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement. “All of the Civil Rights activists were foot soldiers, but then you had a certain segment of people who were not very well off, mostly poor, mostly black,” Riffe says. “But they were in the streets of Birmingham making sure Bull Connor knew that they weren’t going anywhere.”
In the foot soldiers’ portraits, Riffe includes a quote of what she imagines them saying or thinking during this time period. “The foot soldiers have text on the blocks,” Riffe explains. “I put myself in their place and wondered how they might have felt, wondered what they might have said.” In the future, Riffe hopes to create a portfolio dedicated entirely to the foot soldiers.
Holding the Line is a project that arises not just from Riffe’s desire to commemorate 1963, but from a combination of factors that gave important focus to her art.
Although she’s been in Birmingham since 1996, Riffe was born in Tupelo, Mississippi. She spent her childhood between the South and the North in the Washington D.C. area. After graduating from the Howard University College of Fine Arts, Riffe moved to Barranquilla, Colombia and La Guajira Peninsula in South America for five years. During her time in Colombia, Debra noticed similarities between the Colombian lifestyle and the Southern lifestyle. “People lived off the land,” Riffe recalled. “Most were farmers and people who worked on fruit plantations, but just the mannerisms and laid back style reminded me a lot of the South where everyone says please and thank you.”
Riffe became an artist working with needlework, an area which she felt lacked the influence of African-American culture. She set about to rectify that, creating needlework featuring black subjects placed in the rural South. “Every artist needs to sketch or stitch or paint what they know and I know my culture,” she explained.
But then, wanting a faster way to create her artwork, she turned to linoleum printing. “Linoleum was easy for me; I understood it after taking a class in college,” Riffe says. “It was easy to transition from using my images for needlepoint to linoleum blocks.” Still, the prints are, like the needlework that preceded them, often inspired by her memories or stories of the past. “When people see my work the images and sense of community are something they identify with very easily,” Riff said. “People have memories of days gone by and recollections of an easier time.”
Riffe creates her prints through a methodical process in much the same way printmakers have worked for generations. She uses her own hand-drawn sketches, which she then transfers to linoleum blocks. The images must first be transferred to a carbon sheet and applied backwards to the block so that the print comes out correctly. After tracing the sketch to the block, Riffe etches out the parts of the print that will appear white, without ink. When the block is carved, she applies ink to the block, places a sheet of paper of the block, and rolls the block through a press to transfer the ink to the paper.
Holding the Line
Creating prints, particularly in an ongoing series like Holding the Line, requires a lot of ink. Riffe partnered with her ink supplier, Victory Ink Company, to make the civil rights series possible.
Selecting subjects was a careful process; it was impossible to include everyone who participated in the Civil Rights Movement. Beyond Shuttlesworth and King, leaders of the movement, Riffe wanted to make sure that “my thirty-two images are a fair representation of activists and foot soldiers,” she said.
“All of these people have a story to tell and their stories should be told, which has fueled me to complete this project,” she said. “That’s how these legends live on: you continue to talk about them and remember them. There were some pretty hard times and you don’t have to dwell on that, but you certainly don’t want to forget it either.”
Riffe also plans to self-publish a book about the print series, also entitled Holding the Line. On February 2, 2013, Riffe will be a part of Birmingham Public Library’s Authors Tour, an event where artists discuss and sell their work. “The book is my way of honoring those individuals who held the line,” Debra says. “It’s my way of saying thank you to them.”
Specifically, the book is dedicated to the late Colonel Stone Johnson, a foot soldier who, at times, served as a bodyguard to movement leaders like Shuttlesworth. Talking to him for hours, she came to know many of his lifetime experiences during the Civil Rights Movement. “He was such an inspiration for this project. Part of this has been fueled by him,” she said. “I want to do this in his memory, because he really inspired and encouraged me as I began to work on the project.”
Riffe currently is searching for a sponsor to host an exhibition of her work, as well as publishing the book, which she hopes to put “in every school library in Birmingham and beyond,” she said. “I would also love to partner with an organization or corporation who can assist in moving the pieces throughout state and region so people and school children are able to see the images and talk.”
More of Debra’s artwork inspired by the Civil Rights Movement can be seen in Road to Equality- The 1961 Freedom Rides at the Freedom Rides Museum in Montgomery. To contact Riffe about her exhibit or artwork, email her at email@example.com or call (205) 601-1013.