“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.

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.