Have you ever looked down at your hands and simply marveled at them? How amazing is it that our Creator gave us the ability to hold, touch, and create! With the rise of computers, cell phones, and the digital life, not only has our ability to communicate with others fallen from a physical conversation to a string of emojis, but our ability to create has also moved away from dexterity. Now everything is visual, synthesized, “in the cloud”… in other words, fake. The things we make are done through a computer by clicking this and pressing that; to create, then, we’re chained to media beyond our comprehension, so that, when it fails us, we’re helpless to repair it.
My first experience working with Letterpress at Meshworks Press–located in Wilkinsburg, PA–helped me to understand what we miss when we merely tap out a class paper on a computer keyboard. Our fingers don’t get sticky with black ink, they can’t feel the cool metal letters and weigh them in comparison to the buoyantly light wooden type, and they fail to rummage through drawers of fonts desperate to find exactly the right style. At Meshworks, I loved listening to the relaxing hum of the printing press while it clicked and whirred, producing beautiful student projects. Fishing through open trays of type designs brought a new level of creativity to words and turned them to poetic art: my group selected a decorative cross for the “t” at the end of our phrase, “Be A Light”. I’d never have thought to do that on my laptop (and Times New Roman doesn’t exactly offer that as a function).
One of the lessons that most impressed me, though, is excellently summarized by author Araïs Nin: “You pit your faculties against concrete problems” (Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3). Hayley Ebersole, founder of Meshworks, stated something similar during our workshop when talking about her platen press. Unlike digital printers that magically consume ink or computer software that stubbornly refuses to function unless it’s updated for the sixth, seventh, and eighth time..and style mysteriously crashes directly afterwards, printing presses and the process of typesetting have tangible, visible, comprehensible problems that are often easily fixed by something as simple as slipping a piece of packing paper behind a letter to give it a deeper impression in the final copy.
Certainly, the difficulties are still frustrating. Our group originally began with letters of a variety of fonts and sizes, and quickly realized that we didn’t have enough furniture of the right sizes to space it firmly enough. Even after we managed to change the font to a consistent size and tighten everything (in an excited frenzy since we realized our classmates had long finished), we found that one of the furniture bars was placed incorrectly and nothing could print! So we manually undid everything, rearranged it, and fixed it in the press to ink—only to discover that the cross wouldn’t print! Haylee solved it with a bit of paper and an ink roller, inking the stamp separately. Our finished product is now hanging by my bed as a beautiful reminder, and I relish tracing over the deep imprints of the letters, knowing I made that, with my hands.