Blog Feed

On with the Letterpress!

I’m not one to find great interest in history, whether that includes learning about the subject in class or seeing an old building from years before. I’ve never really known why I don’t find an interest in it, but the thought of seeing really old items never appealed to me; I’ve always found antiques of any kind to be boring, and I find myself more interested in the clock than I do the artifact in front of me. For some reason I can’t explain, I didn’t feel this way in regard to the letterpress. 

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to visit Meshwork Press in Wilkinsburg, PA, a small independent letterpress business that creates greeting cards and postcards, with the Small Press Publishing class. Although the building itself was rather small, with the machines and letterpresses present in the room, the area somehow felt bigger than it truly was. 

Once we were told about each of the letterpresses, how they worked, and the different vocabulary and processes required to create a print, we were split into pairs and set off to make our own creations. Now, I’ve made hands-on artwork before, and one of the perks of Saint Vincent is that there’s so many opportunities to try something totally new, but I’ve never done something quite like letterpress before. 

A photo of one of the two presses at the Meshwork Press. Pictured above is a tabletop press. Photo taken by me.

Although the prints can sometimes look incredibly simple to make, and the process may appear to be easy, there’s so much work and thought that goes into the craft that I never cared to think of before. If you’re working with letters or specific images, you really have to think about how you want them placed, for you’ve got to ensure that they’re both backwards and in reverse so that the page will read correctly once you print them. You also have to consider the types of furniture you have to press them together, for while you may have a beautiful idea with a bunch of images and letters scattered about, having it all stick together can be a rather difficult task with the number of little spaces placed between them; granted, this doesn’t mean you can’t make a print such as the one mentioned, but a lot more thought and time may have to go into the process than before. 

A photo of one of the two presses at the Meshwork Press. Pictured above is a platen press. Photo taken by me.

Working with a letterpress is one of those activities that I for whatever reason could never have pictured myself ever getting the chance to do, mostly because it’s an activity I didn’t realize still existed, but now that I’ve done it once, I can’t wait to make even more! 

If you want to learn more about Meshwork Press or visit it yourself, click here!

Passion in Printing: Amos Kennedy’s Letterpress

            Amos Kennedy Jr. is a printer who prints with passion and soul, embodying all that letterpress is and can be and especially highlighting its intrinsic paradoxes that underlie its character and charm.

Although letterpress was slowly extinguished as a commercial endeavor during the 1980s, it emerged again in the 1990s from the ashes as an art form. Modern letterpress celebrates those elements of printing that were considered “bad practice” in the early parts of the twentieth century, often through exaggeration, which now typifies the letterpress. The now-classic letterpress punches in paper were initially considered mistakes but today characterize letterpress. Such indentations are innately human and underscore the individuality behind letterpress. Kennedy’s devotion to his passions, which arose from a reenactment in Williamsburg, Virginia, cement him as a quintessential – and even “master” – letterpress printer. Indeed, he radiates with the joy of creation.

One of Kennedy’s posters contains the quote that “life is short, but as long as you got it, make something of it.” This quote is the thread that runs through all of Kennedy’s life in the printing sphere. It is the rare person that would forsake a seemingly perfect life in corporate America for the scarcity of an artist’s life, but that is exactly what Kennedy did. Almost like a traveling salesman, Kennedy is interested in putting art into as many hands as possible and in creating engagement with uncomfortable racial realities through images and provocation. His “nappy-grams,” for example, landed him in trouble with university police – a situation that reflects exactly how little people are comfortable with his work that demands engagement with the racial issues that plague America. His artist’s books are about encountering the world as an African American man, and he uses color and font in his art to hook people into his agenda of active political engagement and consistent dismantling of racial injustices.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Kennedy, his work, and letterpress in general is how they escape precise description and thrive on paradox. Although a printer’s studio is often cluttered and chaotic – like Kennedy’s is to an organizational mind – the printer must nevertheless be conscientious and detail-oriented in order to succeed in the world of letterpress. Each piece of material in the studio plays a role in the creation of the final print. Kennedy’s prints themselves are often multi-layered and blend together five or six layers of color and font. Such prints combat easy characterization and instead foster engagement and resistance, in line with Kennedy’s own artistic, literary, and political goals. Moreover, his website is also unique and accordingly exemplifies the qualities of his works. His enthusiasm spills through the exclamation point; his website is entitled “Kennedy Prints!” and not “Kennedy Prints,” and that exclamation point conveys much of his personality that also shines through the documentary.

[Image Description: one of Amos Kennedy’s prints that is featured in the gallery section of his website. There are many layers of font and type interacting with each other, but the most prominent layer is laid out in black ink and varying fonts and reads “wear the old coat and buy the new book.” This is a quote from Austin Phelps. The poster’s color scheme includes greens, yellows, browns, and blacks.]

This print is indicative of much of the interest in Kennedy’s work and letterpress itself. It blends the old with the new and intimates that the process of creation is one that is always ongoing, always leading to new books and artwork. Yet, the antique also holds a privileged place. An old coat teems with humanity, character, and history. Traces of the “old coat” run throughout all letterpress prints as they, too, emphasize these characteristics and celebrate the simultaneous harmony of flaws and detail within any one work. The power of letterpress, and printers such as Amos Kennedy, is how they blur conventional boundaries between new and old, valued and un-valued, and product and process.

Works Cited

Kennedy, Amos Jr. Kennedy Prints!, http://www.kennedyprints.com/posters2.html. Accessed 14 October 2021.

Kennedy Prints!, http://www.kennedyprints.com/posters2.html. Accessed 14 October 2021.

Preserving the Press

I left the screening of Pressing On: The Letterpress Film feeling sort-of. . .sad. Melancholy. I’m a sentimental person by nature, and seeing a trade that was discussed with such love and passion by all of the interviewees slowly being lost to time and technology certainly struck a chord with my sensitive, sentimental little heart. The film made me feel such a deep concern for preserving the legacy of the letterpress, something that can only best be done with the guidance of the previous generations’ masters. Learning from them – who have become so knowledgeable and so dedicated to their craft – is the best way for future generations to preserve the techniques and the knowledge needed for letterpress printing. And certainly, it feels as if the clock is ticking down rapidly for this – the generations with experience won’t be here forever, so the younger generations must be inspired to learn this wonderful craft before all those who know its secrets best are gone.

I don’t know if it’s something I could pursue with the same passion as the numerous interviewees, but I, at the very least, want to gain some experience working with letterpress printing at some point in my lifetime. I was struck by the images of the process of letterpress printing in the documentary; the process seems so intimate, like the individual artist’s creativity is so intricately intertwined with the final product. Modern technology takes away that individual artist’s touch, undoubtedly – creating digital art on my laptop feels much more departed from me, physically, than traditional drawing with a pencil and paper.

I think the speed, the accuracy, and the ability to perfectly copy prints you’ve already made that comes along with modern processes does add a particular ease to the processes, but these technologies really seem to take the artist away from their projects, to separate them physically and conceptually.

Works Cited

Hatch Show Print, https://hatchshowprint.com/. Accessed 13 October 2021.

Pressing On: The Letterpress Film, 2017, http://www.letterpressfilm.com/. Accessed 13 October 2021.

Using and Preserving

Many of the printers interviewed in Pressing On argued that presses are best preserved if they are used rather than stored or displayed in museums. I think this philosophy might be applied to most heritage items, with the caveat that antiques in use will hardly, if ever, remain in mint condition.

A short video on using a 1930 Golding press. Never having heard of letterpress before, I found this video helped me understand a little bit of how the machinery worked (“How to: Use a Vintage Letterpress”).

              Heritage items preserved by consistent use will evolve through wear and tear. I used to work at JoAnn Fabrics, and I remember one lady who bought faux fur to repair a teddy bear from the 19th century; that bear is no longer the exact same bear as it was in the 1800s. It has been preserved, but not in its original condition. I find this impermanence a little disconcerting; the thought that sentimental things like toys, special blankets, or my favourite pair of socks might one day wear out and need repairs that could significantly alter their identities is a little scary. I imagine that on something more utilitarian, like a printing press, the replacements and repairs necessitated by frequent use are probably less noticeable. Though, perhaps if one were to sentimentalize a press in the same way as a teddy bear, one might be more aware of its identity changes.

              So items in use will never be preserved exactly as they were when they were manufactured. Bits and pieces wear out over time and need replacing; these broken bits will usually have to be replaced with modern bits. I have a Singer New Home sewing machine from the 1940s; needles aren’t made for it anymore, so, when I inevitably break the needle I’ve got, I’ll have to modify a modern needle to replace it. But I think the mish-mash of old and new parts speaks to the time a thing has been through, its reliability, and the people who have owned and used it before. I think of that senior teddy bear and the hands it’s passed through; how cool it would be to gift it to a little boy or girl and say, “This used to be mine, and before that, it was your grandmother’s,” and so on. The process of use, wear, and repair gives an item a story, personalizes it, and connects its user with his ancestors.

               I think when deciding whether to preserve something by using it or storing it, there are two warring sentimentalities. On the one hand, a sort of conservatism wants to keep something as it is forever; one thinks, ‘there’s something special about the way it is now and I don’t want to ever forget it or lose it.’ On the other hand, the process of using, wearing, and renovating marks an item with its history, tying its current user to the users before. I think for most things, a medium can be reached: use the things you want to preserve, but use them carefully. Some of the printers in Pressing On mentioned how important regular cleaning and maintenance of a letterpress is to its performance. They use their presses, but they are careful to keep them in good condition. If the same care is applied to any antique, I think most can be useful, and some even preserved better for being used.

Works Cited

“After Printing: The Crucial Step Between Stopping the Press and Tea and Buns.” British Letterpress, 2021, britishletterpress.co.uk/letterpress-guides/after-printing/. Accessed 12 Oct. 2021.

“How to: Use a Vintage Letterpress.” YouTube, uploaded by atplay, 19 Aug. 2015, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJa5anhdmYs.

Pressing On. Directed by Andrew P. Quinn and Erin Beckloff, Bayonet Media, 2017.

Preserving Letterpress- Pressing on: The Letterpress Film

The film Pressing On (linked here) explores the method of letterpress printing and all the people behind it that are painstakingly working to preserve this medium. It was these people running the presses who stood out the most to me throughout the film because of their evident passion for the craft. The organizers of these small print shops run out of basements and garages are completely devoted to the entire process of letterpress—from the physical process of printing to the design of the type. Because of this, it is clear that both the physical and design components are necessary for letterpress printing; a thorough understanding of one enhances the other.

The film’s interviewees also discussed the importance of preserving the legacy of printing. Letterpress is a trade, and as such, it must be passed down from generation to generation by teaching and experience. Because of the physical aspects of the press, it’s not something that can be entirely taught in school, and without the hands-on aspect of legacy printing, it will ultimately become a lost art. Having members of younger generations who are excited to learn from skilled older generations works to preserve the intricate innerworkings of the press that are only learned through experience.

[Image Description] A case of individual pieces of hand set metal type used in letterpress to make the designs on the print. Image taken from The Paper Assembly website

Like older technology, printing presses are often tucked away in basements because many people don’t know how to use them. One of the small independent printmakers in the video explained that many of their presses are from people who had them but weren’t sure what to do with them. So, instead of letting the presses go unused and forgotten, they rescued them to be used. Technology such as these presses should be preserved in a way that grants them use so as to preserve the art of letterpress. If presses continue to be left in basements or stored in museums, the method of letterpress publishing will find itself obsolete. Letterpress is an important part of printmaking that shouldn’t be forgotten about, and it’s up to our generation to preserve it.

Works Cited

Pressing On: The Letterpress Film, 2017, http://www.letterpressfilm.com/. Accessed 12 October 2021.

The Paper Assembly, http://www.thepaperassembly.com/blog/2015/4/12/letterpress-type-fact-and-fiction/. Accessed 12 October 2021.

Our Next Film Today is Pressing On: The Letterpress Film

Like any documentary focusing on a craft from a distant time period, it celebrates its legacy, and is also brutally honest of its fade into obscurity, and not too hopeful for its return. What surprised me, however, was how much I learned how much artistry was involved in the press itself, rather than just the design of the prints.

Beyond the lettering designs, this film also highlights the importance of considering what material of stamp or paper to use, relating to the style or substance. Knowing this could certainly make for smoother work and less wasted time. After watching the film, I’ve researched additional information, and discovered the reason behind the numeric values for font sizes, which has carried over to the digital writing programs of today.

A stash of hand crafted prints for an old letterpress. Downloaded off of Pixabay.

As for the improbability of press making a comeback, I believe there are pros and cons to the case of it returning as well as it remaining in obscurity. On the one hand, digital printing doesn’t demand the same dexterity and exercising of skill as letterpress printing, but it also comes with little to no physical hazards. I don’t know about you, but I’m the kind of artist who needs all ten fingers. On the other hand, if letterpress were to suddenly return as an industrial necessity, we would be in for an economical rollercoaster having to reestablish all the other companies that helped keep it alive, some of which, would otherwise be a waste of space.

Personally, I don’t think letterpress ought to die off completely. With plenty of independent press companies powering through and welcoming curious newcomers, this craft could open more possibilities and innovations for future generations as it has for this one.

One fundamental truth that should be gained by this film, especially by young artists, is that rules and boundaries are essential to sprout one’s creative voice. As I always put it, you can’t go anywhere without a floor to walk on. But by the time you’ve built that floor, you’ll realize you have a floor to dance on.

Work Cited

R.I. Sutton, The Hair Brained Press Project. https://www.theharebrainedpress.com. 2017

Lett-Er Run, Press

To me, Pressing On: The Letterpress Film had a very melancholy feeling about the future of the letterpress. It wanted to be hopeful, but had a strong push of ideas of dying out and forgotten tools. And admittedly, when it comes to bigger book selling stores that require enormous quantities of each printing, letterpress will ultimately be beaten by faster modern technologies. But, I do not think the letterpress’s use is gone forever.  

This picture is a drawing of the first Printing Press made by Gutenberg. The link to its source is here. https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.history.com/.amp/news/printing-press-renaissance  

Modern people will still use the press for their own smaller stories and creations because it is so unique. Each pressed piece is connected to its creation and its creator. Beyond just the basic individual styles that letterpress has, each printed piece is its own original thing. Even when it may look like others, it could perhaps have ink missing in a letter or a spilled dot somewhere else on the page. Letterpress naturally has a handcrafted feeling to it that at least a small grouping of people will appreciate. 

Plus since letterpress allows creators to create whatever they would like, pieces can be much more experimental. They do not have to fill any forms the big store company books may. Letterpress work can be of any topic, style, etc. that the creator wants without the conformity. This allows many stories not normally mentioned to be able to be posted and shown.

I know personally I am learning about graphic design and more digital arts, but when it comes down to it, I tend to work traditionally. I love learning different types of materials and seeing what can be made out of their processes. And I’m sure I am not the only one. People will still love and appreciate the process that goes into making it. They will love to visually see that an artist they like has worked on something and support that. Letterpress will in the end be pushed by it’s personal aspects and artistic styles. 

Work Cited

Pressing On: The Letterpress Film, 2017, https://www.letterpressfilm.com/. Accessed 12 October 2021.   

Ordinary Places into Extraordinary Spaces

                What struck me the most about the film, Pressing On, was that all of those garages, workshops, and sheds where these letterpress publishers kept and operated their equipment looked a lot like my father’s various storage spaces. Drawers spilling over with tools, tables covered with boxes of barely labeled materials, and a fine layer of oil and grease covering everything, my father’s workspace paints a picture of a man who doesn’t like to get rid of anything. My older brothers liked to joke that the Ark of the Covenant is buried in the back of our garage. And, at first, that’s what the letterpress publishers look like: kleptomaniacs. However, this film shows that these letter presses, while often being discovered in someone’s basement or garage or in the deep recesses of storage, are so much more than just idle pieces of equipment in the hands of prospective publisher. They are artist’s tools, and these chaotic workshops are really more like artist garrets than storage units.

                And that might be what’s really lost by separating artistic designers from the very physical printing process that comes with working with a letterpress. The best thing about chaotic spaces is that you never know what you’re going to find there, what’s going to inspire you. The space in which an artist works affects what is being created. As a writer, I know that I have found inspiration not in the ordinary places of the world (such as the white-walled classrooms that populate many campuses), but in the extraordinary places. The physical printing on letterpress practically begs for an artist recreate the extraordinary onto the page itself, providing scores of material for inspiration while leaving plenty of room for creative enterprise. Nothing exists in a vacuum, so why should book design be created outside the context of the print shop?

[Image Source: https://hatchshowprint.com/] Hatch Show Print’s Signature collection in the Haley Gallery.

                On the other hand, removing the designer from the physical process of printing seems to allow cheaper, faster production, that could ultimately lead to a wider audience than what could be achieved with the highly specified works created on a letterpress. But does everything have to be about cost? The film pointed out that Hatch Show Print posters are still remembered today for the impact they made on advertising, creating stunning visuals. There are some things that have more value than what can be labeled with a price tag.

                So, in the end, I understand why the letterpress publishers collect these presses and equipment, just as I understand why my father cannot just toss aside what he has accumulated over the years. Everything has its value, and the space itself is an expression of that value, even if the Ark of the Covenant isn’t hidden in the back.

Works Cited:

Hatch Show Print, https://hatchshowprint.com/. Accessed 12 October 2021.

Pressing On: The Letterpress Film, 2017, https://www.letterpressfilm.com/. Accessed 12 October 2021.

Pressing On

When I think about the printing press, I picture a room filled with beautiful pieces of machinery that literally documented history and wrote it into books. I found the film Pressing On: The Letterpress Film to be quite an inspiring account of the history of the letterpress and how it has impacted American history and literature. Perhaps most interesting about this film was how it demonstrated that the modern world was born on a printing press, but it is now in danger of being lost. In addition, I found it fascinating how the film explored why letterpress has survived in the digital age.

There are so many different directions one could go in exploring the significance of the letterpress, but what most stood out to me is how artists and printers involved in letterpress describe how letterpress feels to them. Earl Gee a designer, partner, and creative director of Gee + Chung Design says, “These amazing tools and techniques, which have survived for centuries, connect art and craft, designer and printer, and paper and impression. Letterpress has the extraordinary ability to make a lasting impression by enabling people to appreciate the artist’s craft in both a visual and tactile manner (Gee).” 

Printing Press Letters | Prints, Letterpress printing, Letterpress
[ Image Description: A variety of printing press letters that were on display at an Antique Flea Market in Brimfield Massachusetts. Credit: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/178807047675121854/ by Rachel Scroggins ]

The most intriguing characteristic of the printing press is type. I am completely fascinated by the process in which text can be transferred from movable type to paper or other platforms by ink. In learning about the printing press, I have gained a whole new appreciation for this system-both for its contributions to literature and its creative publication and evolution to the world. 

I found it inspiring how many of the people interviewed in The Letterpress Film emphasized that printing presses are meant to be used, not just looked at in museums. In addition, they argued that the best way to preserve them is by actively using them, and I could not agree more with this statement. I believe that preserving heritage items such as printing presses are essential because they are a fundamental piece of our history that should not be forgotten or disregarded just because we have new advancements in technology.

Works Cited

Gee, Earl. “The Beauty of Letterpress.” PaperSpecs, 19 January 2016, https://www.paperspecs.com/spotlight/beauty-letterpress-art-making-impression/.

Pressing On: The Letterpress Film, 2017, https://www.letterpressfilm.com/. Accessed 12 October 2021.  

 

Losing Letterpress

            A lot of letterpresses have shifted into a more automated system, one that removes the dedicated worker from the process, one that’s much quicker and easier to produce works with. The issue is that you lose that personal aspect when you begin to become more industrial or more online; you don’t get to see every little chip or nick in the paper, every little splotch of misplaced ink, every tiny mistake that tells the audience that the art was created by a human being. You also begin to slowly lose that physical piece that comes with using a letterpress. When using the machinery to craft your artwork, you have to grab each of the letters, put them together, shift them, rearrange them, really think about where they have to go. You have to press them firmly together to ensure they won’t fall apart before rolling ink onto the machine, and then you have to slip the paper in and push the ink onto the page; the same design, same font and page, could be created in about half the time with only a few buttons in today’s world, no letterpress needed. 

            That’s the difference though, for where the individual today could craft hundreds of the same print using only a simple machine and a computer, the one with the letterpress creates a few dozen, but there’s personal connection to each and every print that that letterpress crafts. Where the modern person has no attachment to the hundreds, possibly thousands, of prints they create, for they can easily make and pass out more if need be, every print that the letterpress makes at the hand of an individual will hold some sort of meaning to that individual. 

            Although I’ve never made prints using a letterpress, I have made linoleum/ linocut prints before utilizing a similar process. The idea of cutting out your art piece by piece, be it with a piece of linoleum or with lettered blocks, rolling over it with ink, and pressing it down on the paper is nearly identical. It’s an art form much like letter press that is also very slowly dying out (at least to my knowledge), and while it’s a little more common to see than letterpress, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s necessary to try and spark an interest for the craft in other people.

A photo of my linoleum/ linocut prints that I made a few years back! You can learn more about linocuts here and letterpresses here!

It’s not exactly the same, I know, but the weight is still there; nothing will ever beat the feeling of holding a piece of your work and being able to know that you no one else but you created it, that someone can enjoy a piece of your art and you’re the only one who can make it the way you do.