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Movement artist Frank Cieciorka passes away November 24, 2008

I never met Frank in person, but ran across his name while researching an essay for a 2006 exhibit on the origins of social movement logos. I tracked him down through local contacts and friends, and found him to be most gracious in sharing what he knew. Although I never got to interview him as I'd hoped, through our correspondence over those two years he passed along many nuggets that helped to define his role as a key creative graphic talent in the movements for social change of the "long 1960s."

When I asked him how he was inspired to do the woodcut of the fist in 1965 ("Hand" image, below; original size 5x4"), here's what he said:

"Moving leftward from my infatuation with Ayn Rand as a freshman I became active in the peace movement around 1959. When the House Committee on Un-American Activities held their hearings in San Francisco in May 1960 I joined the 5,000 strong demonstration in front of City Hall motivated mostly by civil liberties & free speech. There was a sizable group of Communists, Trotskyists, Anarchists, & other assorted reds off to one side thrusting fists into the air & chanting radical slogans. I remember feeling somewhat uncomfortable being associated with this group who seemed to be much more radical than I & I moved to another part of the crowd. I didn't attend the next day, May 13, because I had an important art history mid-term that I didn't want to miss. That night watching the news on TV I was outraged at seeing my friends washed down the City Hall steps with fire hoses. The next day I joined the demonstration & this time positioned myself in the midst of the reds & had my fist in the air with the rest of them. Thus I can pinpoint my radicalization to Friday, May 13, 1960. Shortly after that I joined the Socialist Party &, having turned 21 that year, voted for Norman Thomas in the November election. It wasn't all that long before I was voting for Archie Brown & Gus Hall. From that time the fist was one of my fave icons & I used it in cartoons & posters whenever I could. When I got back from Mississippi in '65 the fist was a natural for the first woodcut in a series of cheap prints. It wasn't until we made it into a button & tossed thousands of them into crowds at rallies & demonstrations that it really became popular. When I visited the lefty button maker in Berkeley who made them he showed me his wall of all the buttons he'd ever made. Literally dozens of organization had either incorporated the woodcut into their logos or used it in some fashion to promote some cause or issue."

His life and his work were deeply infused with the spirit of a better society. He will be missed.

Lincoln Cushing, Docs Populi

Images: Hand (woodcut) 1965; Stop the Draft Week, 1967; They try us - We try them, 1968; Delano boycott march, 1966; Negroes in American History [book cover], 1965. Posters from the Docs Populi archive.
The UFW poster appears in Agitate! Educate! Organize! American labor posters, Cornell University Press, 2009.

As with all great imagery, it is subject to being exploited. In July of 2009 I ran across this fist at right on Fotolia, an international graphic clip-art business, crediting this image to "Eugene Ivanov." I advised them that it was an unauthorized copy of Frank's work, and with some grumbling they took it down.

Obituaries in New York Times, 11/28/2008, San Francisco Chronicle 11/29/2008; Note that the Chronicle obit made an error in attributing the Black Panther Party logo to Frank, see article on origins of this important logo.

Obituary notice as provided by friends and family:

Frank Cieciorka, 69, Artist and Activist

Frank Cieciorka, a nationally recognized watercolor painter, political artist, activist, and author who created many of the iconic images of the 1960s, including the clenched fist and the black panther, died on November 24, 2008 at his home in Alderpoint, California. The cause was emphysema.

Born April 26, 1939, Frank grew up in the upstate New York factory town of Johnson City where his father worked at a grocery store. Frank began work at the age of 14 as a bowling alley pin-boy and then on the assembly line at the local shoe factory. Recognized since childhood for his artistic talent, he enrolled in the fine arts program at San Jose State College in 1957, where he became an anti-war activist, protesting military interventions in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic.

On graduating in 1964, Frank volunteered for Freedom Summer in Mississippi and later was hired as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He helped organize African-Americans to register to vote and assisted in organizing the racially integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the all-white official Democratic Party. Frank also wrote and illustrated Negroes in American HistoryA Freedom Primer, taught in Freedom Schools throughout the south. The book is still used as a resource text.

Frank continued his political activism in San Francisco, where he became artistic director of The Movement, a national newspaper of community, anti-war, and civil rights organizing. His art also appeared in many other publications, posters, and underground papers, including The Realist. Among the powerful images he created for The Movement were full-size front-page portraits of Nat Turner and John Brown. His political artistry there and at People’s Press inspired a generation of activist artists.

At the end of the Sixties, tired of city life, Frank became an avid backpacker. In 1972 he purchased a half-acre plot in rural Alderpoint, where he designed and built his own home and studio, and turned to watercolor painting. His works celebrate the southern Humboldt County countryside, the beauty of the female figure in natural settings, and ordinary people doing what they do.

He is survived by his wife, the painter Karen Horn, with whom he enjoyed over 25 years of love and artistic dialogue. He is also survived by his step-daughter, Zena Goldman Hunt and her family, and by his brother, James Cieciorka, and his wife, Jean. Family and friends rejoice in having shared Frank's life: a testimony to political and artistic passion.

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