Stories of freedom: Meet the illustrator behind “1776 — Breaking News: Independence”

A soft red and turquoise glow cast by illustrated panels illuminates the dark space, as comedian Lewis Black narrates from the film that plays in the middle of the gallery. Stretching across the floor, “Join, or Die” — Benjamin Franklin’s famous political cartoon of a divided snake — beckons you to step inside for a closer look at the new exhibit. To the right, a rare July 6, 1776, edition of The Pennsylvania Evening Post — the first newspaper to publish the newly adopted Declaration of Independence — is housed in a thick glass case and flanked by two interactive screens.

“1776 — Breaking News: Independence,” which opened on July 1, tells the story of how America declared independence. Or rather, it shows you. Unfolding over six chapters, the walls are spanned by graphic-novel style illustrations that trace history from the Stamp Act to the Declaration of Independence, with an emphasis on the role played by the era’s partisan press.

Born in Poland during the Cold War, Tom Kaczynski, the illustrator who created the exhibit’s panels and the drawings that appear in the film, has his own unique story of freedom, which the Newseum’s exhibits department learned as they collaborated with Kaczynski over a period of several months.

Sarah Thompson, clearance manager for video and interactive of the Newseum, traveled to Kaczynski’s studio in Minneapolis, Minn. to capture his creative process and his story for a video, which was produced by Doug Yuan, director of production and executive producer at the Newseum.

“1776 — Breaking News: Independence”

“1776 — Breaking News: Independence”

In the video, Kaczynski describes growing up in Poland and his father’s involvement in the Solidarity movement, a party that emerged in opposition to the communist government. In 1985, his family fled to Germany, where his family lived in a single-room apartment, before moving to Minnesota the following year.

“America was definitely a country that loomed large in the imagination,” says Kaczynski. “Ronald Reagan was the president at that time, and he made all kinds of statements about bringing down the evil empire Soviet Union… and inside Poland, inside Eastern Europe, that message resonated.”

Kaczynski’s interest in comics started when he was eight. He studied architecture in college, but eventually decided to focus on comics full-time, through illustration, teaching and publishing.

“It’s the first time, really, that my work is on the wall. It’s a very different experience,” he said about “1776 — Breaking News: Independence.”

His collaboration with the Newseum began in December 2015 and lasted several months. First, the team storyboarded the script. Jeannine Lockwood, director of exhibit development, describes the creative process for the panels. Kaczynski first drew rough pencil sketches and sent them to the exhibits team for feedback that included comments on the accuracy of weapons as well as the era’s fashion. Resulting exchanges would lead to a second pencil sketch, followed by an ink version, then the addition of color, shading, and finessing before arriving at a final version.

In addition to the exhibit panels, Kaczynski worked with an animator in the Newseum’s visual and interactive productions team to produce the illustrations for the film that plays in the center of the gallery.

“When you think about all of the museums and great artists, there are so many parallels between the exhibit and his personal story,” said Thompson. “Going through pictures, he was realizing, ‘In some ways, I’ve been preparing for this my entire life.’”

“1776 — Breaking News: Independence” was made possible with generous support from David M. Rubenstein.

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