Forman’s Flag Still Flies


In 1977, Jimmy Carter was president, and it cost $12 to bring your car on the ferry. “Star Wars” pushed out “Jaws” as the highest-grossing film in Hollywood history, Elvis Presley died, Donald Trump married Ivana, and a graduate student named Fran Forman designed the image for the Vineyard secession movement’s now iconic flag.

Fran Forman was a graphic design graduate student at Boston University’s School for the Arts that year; she’d been spending time on the Vineyard, and was sympathetic to the burgeoning secession movement. During a recent phone conversation, she recalled that right after learning about the move toward secession, the idea for the design came to her: “An idea popped into my head, and I sketched it out on a paper napkin. To be honest, I might have been a little stoned.” Over the following few days, Forman finalized a striking and evocative graphic of a seagull, from negative space, flying through a reddish-orange circle set against a turquoise-blue background.

Forman’s sister-in-law, Yvonne Forman, a quiltmaker at the time, took Forman’s image and sewed it into flags. They gave a flag to John Alley, one of the organizers of the secession movement, and started to distribute them on the Island. Soon, orders for the flags started coming in. Forman also designed a bumper sticker that read “Nothing succeeds like Secession,” and Chilmark resident Sally French and William Drake designed a secession poster. These eye-catching images helped propel the secession movement forward. During a ceremony at the Statehouse Hall of Flags in March 1977, Forman explained the image “represents not only the proud and independent spirit of the islanders, but also the Island’s rich resources — wildlife, air, and water — which are being increasingly endangered by human pollution.”

Forman’s was not the first flag design to aid the cause. The national media had picked up the secession story; on Feb. 18, 1977, NBC News offered up a flag of its own. Anchorman David Brinkley told viewers, “We’ve designed what we thought would be a nice flag for the Vineyard should it decide to become an independent nation — one star, one stripe, and one seagull. If they decide to become a monarchy, they could add a crown.”

As we know, Martha’s Vineyard remained part of Massachusetts. The secession movement has become part of the Island’s storied past, but Forman’s design remains a very visible part of our present — found on T shirts and baseball caps; a pickup truck uses it as a front plate. Slip77, a clothing store in Oak Bluffs that opened seven years ago, incorporated the design into much of its merchandise, and appropriated it for its marketing material. The company’s tagline is, “Retelling the Island’s revolution, one shirt at a time.”

“Our intention wasn’t necessarily to capitalize on the image, but to create a brand that retells the story and celebrates this part of Island history,” explained Christina Izzo, one of Slip77’s owners. Izzo admits to being surprised when she realized how many people hadn’t heard about the secession movement. “I’m telling the story to people all the time,” Izzo said, “and in the past few years, I’m seeing the imagery around more and more.”

About the ongoing popularity of the image, Averil Clarke, a sociologist with ties to the Vineyard, explained that it is not unusual for political images to be co-opted into the marketplace: T shirts sport Che Guevara’s face, and various incarnations of Shepard Fairey’s “Obey” are heavily merchandised. “People commodify culture all the time, and tourist industries specialize in this,” said Clarke. Clarke suggested that the secession image’s current popularity might stem from “a need to reconnect to the cultural past of Martha’s Vineyard during this particular time.” She added, “Our current political economy might reflect an urgency and powerlessness that led to the first movement.”

As for Fran Forman, she is a New England–based fine artist, whose work can be found in the permanent collections of numerous esteemed collections, including the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. When informed that the image she had designed for the flag in 1977 could be seen across the chests of today’s Vineyarders and visitors, she sounded surprised — and delighted, exclaiming, “I love the idea that it’s still available.”


Kate Feiffer is a children’s book author and the event producer for “Islanders Write.”

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