The local resurgence of letterpress is featured in the current issue of City. What is “letterpress” you ask? Letterpress is an old craft used through the mid-20th century to print text and images in books, in newspapers, on posters or anything else you would think of as consumable communication. The process that Johannes Gutenberg invented 500 years ago, pressing inked moveable type into paper, sparked a revolution credited in part with awakening other revolutions. Think about it: mass communication of ideas required mass literacy, all enabled by the moveable type printing press. This is a movement so important that the first amendment of our Constitution includes protection for a free press. Pretty cool, but I digress.
When recently I took the Block Cutting class at Genesee Center for the Arts and Education (GCAE) – an organization featured prominently in the City article – some of my classmates printed their block cuts on the Vandercook proof press in the downstairs Letterpress Shop. The images were crisp, richly colored representations that were born of a machine that looked as if it ached to crush fingers in its many rollers. While I chose to hand-print my block cut, I also itched to work with the type and machinery of that shop, where oil-based ink intermingles with solvent to fragrance the air. There lives a jumble of industry and art; case upon case of type and image blocks of various shapes and sizes alongside the heavy-metal machines that chomp paper into colorful communiqué. Barely finished with one class, already I pined for another.
What is it about the cosmos that channels all things “x” your way once you take a fancy to it?
While dreaming about this prospect for my next experience, City was preparing their article on letterpress, calling the craft “a very slow, messy, time- and money-consuming process.” Picking up this issue of the newspaper and finding a cover article all about letterpress made me feel a little like someone is trying to tell me something. I read the article (twice so far) to learn about the local letterpress culture, in particular that this popular labor of love has bred at least 8 local shops in the area. These are small businesses making a living by creating your company letterhead, business card, posters, invitations, announcements, note cards, etc. – part of our local economy. They employ an old art; rooting a skill in love and, like the guilds, prize craftsmanship in commerce. How did they get so lucky?
In a few weeks I will once again try something new as part of this journey to change my life. Coming up in January, I will get dirty at a one-day Letterpress Workshop at GCAE that offers “a taste of letterpress printing.” As innocent as the proverbial “taste” offered by a drug dealer, I suspect, based on the passion with which these letterpress artists pursue bits of type and hulking machinery. It is nice to know that in the age of the Kindle there are still sweet love affairs to be had with paper and ink. If a person is going to change their life, a love affair is a likely place to start.