“Hot & Spicy” Compromises: A Visit to Meshwork Press

                My first impulse upon stepping into Haylee Ebersole’s print shop, Meshwork Press in Wilkinsburg, was to run my hands along the printed cards and feel the depth of the printing done by the letterpress. I cannot say that this was a unique impulse—I run my hands over almost everything I want to work with, from a new laptop, to just flipping through all the pages of a notebook before I even begin to write. And, for many people, this ability to physically touch the pressed letters is what is so attractive about letterpress work.

                However, for me, the most exciting part of this excursion at Meshwork Press was the process of typesetting, transforming an idea in your head onto the page. Though I had some idea of what to expect, I hadn’t expected how much I would have to compromise in order to get my idea to work. We were supposed to keep our typeset simple, but I quickly realized that I probably had a different idea of what was simple than what Haylee had intended. My partner and I settled on an idea fairly quickly, making a card that said “Hot & Spicy” with peppers and leaves bordering the words, but actually getting that idea to work meant we had to compromise with our choices. We had to ditch several pieces we wanted to incorporate, replace our ampersand with a slightly larger one, and work around the spacing and placement of the peppers constantly. For a moment, I was worried that it wouldn’t hold together, that we’d have to start over.

Letterpress card saying "Hot & Spicy" with peppers.
[Photo: Isabel Sicree] Card printed at Haylee’s letterpress workshop, https://meshworkpress.com/

                Though we managed to get our print to hold together, I have to wonder if the frustration of getting it to work, or having to start over, is actually supposed to be part of the process of typesetting. Submitting to the limitations of your physical press, or the amount of furniture you have available, leads to unique changes in the design of the printed piece. With a computer that can do so many different things, we rarely have to compromise with artistic designs—what we picture in our minds is what appears on the page—but letterpress limitations force us to constantly change and adapt our ideas to make them work. It’s like the typesetting is forcing you to try new things. And maybe that’s why some small presses hold onto letterpress—it really is a kind of art.

5 thoughts on ““Hot & Spicy” Compromises: A Visit to Meshwork Press”

  1. This was a lot of fun putting together! Your observation on the availability of materials certainly shaping the artwork is absolutely correct. What I found while we were attempting to make the piece work is that we had to think through different possibilities of what we had at our disposal. While I was thinking about swapping, removing, and adding typesets, I was oblivious to the possibility of using furniture to our advantage. It finally came together when you realized we could use a thin spacer in between the typeset. I think the letterpress forces printers to change their mode of thinking complementing the creative process.

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  2. Your point about the physical limitations of letterpress necessitating aesthetic compromises is so true. I think of two different philosophies when it comes to art (letterpress included): either an artist thinks of what s/he wants to create and then makes the idea a reality to the best of his/her ability, or an artist starts with the materials and the idea takes form along the way. In the former school of thought, art can be terribly frustrating– as you mentioned, compromises have to be made, and, in some cases, the final result is very different from the idea. But, also as you mentioned, that interplay between idea and the physical constraints of one’s materials is part of the fun of creating art; you’re always surprised by the finished piece.

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  3. You sound like a tactile learner, you like to touch things and be a part of them in order to fully understand what is going on. This makes sense as to why you enjoyed typesetting! It’s very much a hands on experience and a very physical thing to do, you can establish a very personal relationship with your piece and that adds even more value to the type. It sounds like this process for you was very much trial and error, you figured out what worked as you were moving around the pieces and playing with the chase and various bins of typefaces.

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  4. I’m so glad you guys got the “Hot & Spicy” prints to work out. I love the design so much!
    Though I think, while yes traditional art techniques do have more limitations, digital art can have some as well, at least temporarily. Most process need practice to perfect and try many different things, so maybe it also depends on experience?

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  5. You raise the point that getting your print to work required plenty of compromises, and I couldn’t agree more; not only were compromises necessary in choosing the type, but they were necessary for organizing the type. I agree that this necessity of compromise acts as its own art form within itself; the prints made via the letterpress take on their own life, sort of make their own aesthetic choices in that way. It’s a fascinating aspect of such a personal, physical medium!

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