The Alcorn Studio & Gallery


Frederick Douglass And His Times

Illustrator’s Note

Frederick Douglass: In His Own Words
Edited by Milton Meltzer; Illustrated by Stephen Alcorn
Published by Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995
ISBN 0-15-245437-3

In creating the art for this volume of Frederick Douglass’s writings, I felt compelled to conceive of a series of images that, rather than literally illustrate specific passages of text, aim to provide the reader with a dynamic visual backdrop against which the epic tale of Frederick Douglass’s life - as well as the trials and tribulations of generations of African-Americans - may unfold.

A visionary intent on raising the conscience of nineteenth century America, Frederick Douglass possessed an extraordinary ability to transcend the constraints of his time. The breadth of his vision and imagination, which guided him on his long, arduous flight to freedom, enabled him to find the strength to lift the heavy burden thrust upon him at birth by that peculiar institution known as slavery.

Like Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass was a man of his times, and like all great individuals, he did not develop in a vacuum. To emphasize just how much Frederick Douglass was shaped and affected by the forces surrounding him, I have included several portraits of Frederick Douglass’s contemporaries.

Of the multitude of legendary anecdotes that the name Frederick Douglass brings to mind, one in particular came back, again and again, to haunt me as I prepared to work on this book. It relates to a time when, as a very young man, Frederick Douglass was forced to endure the unspeakable as his master made a brutal attempt to break his spirit. One can only imagine how the young Frederick Douglass, like countless others who suffered such atrocities, must have felt that fateful day as a dark, ominous cloud suddenly loomed over his world. That he should have survived such an ordeal with his spirit intact is extraordinary; that he went on to tell the world of his trials and triumphs with such eloquence offers one of the greatest legacies of the entire nineteenth century.

The irrepressible, dynamic thrust of the chain of events following that horrific experience made me realize that the images I was to create should be essentially rhythmic in nature. From the beginning I envisioned imagery that was both hypnotic and mysterious, imbued with textures and patterns bursting with energy, as if unwilling to conform to the boundaries of the very blocks I was to cut them on. This resulted in a cacophony of graphic invention kindred in spirit to that of a nineteenth-century crazy quilt.

Like a medieval scribe gone mad with design, I commenced to work on this cycle of prints, in search of a visual equivalent to that elusive, indomitable spirit that could not be broken.

— Stephen Alcorn

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