To say I've been busy lately is an understatement. I've had a little side line going besides my usual rotation of art making and instructing, plus a child graduating and the bustle of summer.
If you read this blog semi regularly, you will know that for many, many years I have been increasingly pulled into Letterpress printing. For those of you that don't know what that is, it is the pre-digital, pre-offset method of printing text and images on paper. Commonly used for printing books, posters and newspapers. It dates back to around 1440 and Gutenberg's invention of printing with movable type.
For me, it all started ages ago (in the range of 15 years) when a dear friend of mine gave me a table top platen press that needed a little restoration and some parts. I had no idea what this thing was but knew somehow you could use it to do linocut printmaking. So I kept it knowing that I could eventually use it once I figured out how to get it running. I started paying a little more attention to the word "letterpress" when I encountered it, slowly realizing what it was and seeing the possibilities beyond straight linocut printmaking. This period lasted about 10 years. The machine sat idle.
Then about 4 or 5 years ago, I saw a workshop posted at a local gallery for beginner letterpress printing. I jumped at the chance. The machine got carried out of the basement and dragged along so the instructor could take a look and let me know what needed to be done to get it working. I started actively looking at letterpress work and tutorials online when the mood struck.
Fast forward another year or so, I end up at a museum on a tour and start telling the blacksmith in charge there about my press and wanting to learn how to take apart machines so I could figure out how to fix it. I end up volunteering once a week there (and still do) helping with that sort of thing and working in metal. The press gets fully restored. I start bringing the press to events so I can share this art form with the public.
Last summer, through my museum connections, I end up in touch with someone who is looking for a home for her grandfather's press. Desperate to keep this equipment out of the scrap heap she speaks with quite a few Calgary organizations who cannot take this press out of her basement. We figure out a way and remove it successfully. This new press is brought to the museum in August. Coincidentally, during this time, my family moves to a bigger house that can accommodate multiple type cabinets and a full size floor model platen press. Work begins when time allows on restoring and repairing the press.
At the same time, I learn that one of the organizations that was interested in this press (but could not take it) was Heritage Park, a huge historical village/museum in Calgary. A light bulb goes on in my head.
One of the frustrations I have had over the years is trying to learn the proper way of using the equipment I have. Letterpress information can sometimes be wildly off base as the blind lead the blind in a dying art form. If you do find someone offering a workshop or running a business with beautifully produced work, chances are they don't live near enough to visit often. Video tutorials can help, but don't always show a lot of detail. Old textbooks are a wealth of information, but you cannot ask questions if you do not understand.
There can be a disconnect at times from the generation who were skilled tradesmen working a full time printing career to the next generation of artisan letterpress operators that utilize new as well as old technology. I know a few people in artisan camp (and thankfully, Calgary is really blossoming in this area so I am VERY thankful for the camaraderie) but I didn't know any old school pressmen. Until I realized there must be more than a few of them working with the machines at Heritage Park.
So I sent a nervous email before Christmas and an off season visit was arranged so I could tour their newspaper building from 1909, The Strathmore Standard. It was great, they were very generous with their time and information. My interest must have been evident, because they suggested I apply for a part time job there if I wanted to learn more an run the equipment. So I did! I've been working 1 or 2 days a week for the past few months and it has been so much fun. I've wanted to demonstrate letterpress for years, especially to children and this has been a wonderful opportunity. I even get to wear a costume!
Plus, the team at the Standard is great. We have guys who have worked in the newspaper industry, owned their own print shops and a variety of others who just love the equipment and want to keep it maintained and share it with others. Naturally, this has taken up some of my time (part of the reason my artistic output has been a little leaner than usual - don't worry, this was a planned educational break and I'm already gearing up for my late summer painting binge!)
A few weeks ago, the major work was finished on the press (serious props to my blacksmith friend at the museum - I couldn't have done this on my own). It was delivered safe and sound and is in my garage awaiting the last few minor parts. It runs so beautifully and is even sporting a brand new treadle so I can power it by foot!
You have no idea how exciting this has all been to me. A gift from a friend who was moving away (who couldn't take it with him) has absolutely transformed a lot of my art and taken me on an adventure of a lifetime. Through this I've learned so much more than I would have about printmaking, machinery, metal working, graphic design, the history of type, bookmaking, and of course letterpress printing. I've made some life long friends (and keep making more) who continue to encourage and guide me.
The best part is that I have barely gotten started. The coming months and years hold so much potential and I am so excited to see where it goes.