Last year the New Internationalist magazine used a famous art image of a big fish and little fishes on its cover. In a later issue the editor apologized for not crediting the artist. So he phoned Ken Sprague and talked to him, the artist said it was the first time anyone had asked permission to use the image. Sprague died weeks later. Fortunately the magazine noted a book about Sprague and after many months I tracked it down. (The fish image was Franco and the Canary Island banana pickers.)
Sprague was indeed a people’s artist, for over 50 years he produced a steady stream of cartoons, paintings, poster and block prints. Green has written an excellent biography of this artist, full of artistic evaluation, personal stories and major political events of the 20th Century. Many of Sprague’s works are illustrated in colour and black & white. His work is powerful, easily understood, technically superb and always relevant.
The artist was a communist and committed to the ideals of his beliefs – even though he sometimes ran afoul of party bureaucracy. His work, as Green writes, “cannot be fully appreciated or understood without reference to the wider context. His social role and political stance are inseparable from his art.” His work and activism spanned all the great causes of his lifetime: peace, union rights, human rights, international solidarity, homelessness, indeed the whole fabric of political activism.
He admired the women of Greenham Common. He was on a BBC panel and another speaker, quoting Jerusalem by Blake, made a slip of the tongue and said: England’s green ham pleasant land. – This inspired Sprague to make a series of posters on this quote for the peace campers.
He was willing to teach art and share his knowledge, like many others, he believed that evry person is a special kind of artist: we all have creative force. Sprague donated hours of work and works to many organizations and causes. Not long before his death, he went to Yugoslavia to record his horror of the use of depleted uranium in the war there- in spite of being on crutches and suffering the results of cancer. His was a full and passionate life; I wish I could have met him. But as Margaret Atwood says, creativity is an act of defying death. Sprague like other creative activists is always PRESENTE.