Letterpress printing thriving in Asheville
The letterpress may be more than 5 centuries old, but in Asheville, this antique printing method is downright thriving. Still, it wasn’t always this way. Lance Wille, the founder of Hand-Cranked Letterpress Co., has watched the proliferation of letterpress artists here over the last decade. Wille started printing music posters out of The Orange Peel’s basement when the club first opened in the early 2000s. At that time, he says, he was one of two letterpress artists in Asheville.
When Wille was starting out, he had to make weekend trips to Yee-Haw Industries in Knoxville, Tenn., to gain access to a press and learn the ins and outs of the method. Now, with studios like Asheville BookWorks and collectives like 7 Ton Letterpress, local artists have an easier time gaining access to the unwieldy equipment.
“You need a lot of space,” says Wille. “It has to be on the ground floor; you have to have access to a pallet jack or a winch. There are so many factors in the process that make it hard to begin, and having a resource like BookWorks, more than anything it’s made [Asheville] a mecca. There are very few places that could rival having this many letterpress artists. New York may have more, but per capita, I think this is the capital.”
When Blue Barnhouse owner Brendan Mise first got into letterpressing as a graduate-level creative-writing student in San Francisco, he says his interest was “totally utilitarian.” BookWorks owner Laurie Corral uses the same adjective to describe the presses in her West Asheville studio.
In the 15th century, the letterpress was on the cutting edge of utility. The invention of movable, reusable type meant that, for the first time, the common people had access to printed materials. But the basics of letterpress haven’t changed much since then — ink is often still mixed by hand, typeface is set into plates and locked into chases, and sheets are still hand-fed one at a time — so there are arguably more utilitarian ways of printing. Just ask the folks at Kinko’s.
A modern print shop, however, can’t achieve the deep impressions in the page and that tactile quality that makes you want to reach out and touch letterpressed materials. Perhaps, then, the letterpress artist must also be something of a romantic.
“It was fun,” says Mise of his foray into letterpress. “There was definitely an interactive method; you’re troubleshooting every little step of the way. Problem solving was something I gravitated toward.” For Mise, “troubleshooting” often meant posting questions online to Saskatchewan-based expert Phil Ambrosi (whose printing operation started in 1929) or calling up Fritz Klinke of NA Graphics in Colorado, “The Godfather of Letterpress,” whom Mise says can usually identify a problem, and even diagnose “weird noises,” over the phone.
“Most experienced letterpress mechanics are long dead or out of work,” Mise explains in his new book, Adventures in Letterpress. “Solutions for the various glitches that occur in the printing process are not easily found in a bookshelf but still reside in the minds of men and women who learned this stuff two generations ago.”
Phased out in the late 1700s by lithography and rendered further obsolete by offset printing in the early 1900s, letterpress fell into obscurity through much of the last century. It was resurrected in the ’90s — thanks in part to Martha Stewart and her penchant for letterpress wedding invitations. Since then, artists have been finding new ways to put this endangered species to good use. Wedding invitations and “save the dates” may still be an income stream for many letterpress artists, but it’s not the only way to go.
“It’s very utilitarian, but a lot of fine art has come out of the letterpress, too,” notes Corral. “There are ways that the letterpress has been adapted for printmaking techniques, so all of that is starting to come together.”
Mise adds: “You do it for long enough, and you come to appreciate all the ways it can be used. I think that’s what [Adventures in Letterpress] is about, mostly. Look what you can do with these presses, look how many different ways this can be applied.” One artist, says Mise, is creating letterpress works using Legos. Others mentioned in his book have created 3-D letterpress sculptures. Local artist Beth Schaible of Quill & Arrow has been experimenting with printing on leaves.
In projects like these, craft, utility and fine art start to merge, says Corral. “I think this town really understands craft and fine art, and there’s a lot of discussion between the two and where do they meet,” she says. “But I think that Asheville doesn’t have a hard time with that, because we have a lot of both of those things happening together.”
Go local with letterpress
Asheville is well-represented in Mise’s Adventures in Letterpress. A handful of local studios — Hand-Cranked Letterpress Co., Mink, Jessica White, ANNAND and BookWorks — are among the 80 whose work is spotlighted by the 200 letterpress images featured in the book. Surely, this is partly due to Mise’s strong connection with the city — Blue Barnhouse, his letterpress business, was long based here before moving to Wilmington — but there’s no denying the significant letterpress presence here.
“Asheville is interesting in that it attracts people who simultaneously yearn for self-sufficiency and for community,” says Eleanor Annand, a member of the 7 Ton Letterpress Collective. “Self-sufficiency in that people want to grow their own food, they want to make their own products, and in the case of letterpress, they want the power of the press at their fingertips. But a lot of us also want a sense of community. We want to be able to ask our neighbors how they got their blueberries to grow so well, how they built their newest sculpture — and how long they worked on that five-color letterpress print.”
7 Ton Letterpress was started in 2012 by Schaible, Annand, Bridget Elmer of Flatbed Splendor and Kelly Kelbel of Tiny Story Factory. “The collective exists for a lot of practical reasons,” Schaible explains. “We love what we do and wouldn’t be able to do it without sharing a space, equipment, costs. It’s also a really good setup for us to be able to work both independently and collaboratively and get feedback, camaraderie and support from one another.”
For those without access to equipment, BookWorks is a major source of support and education. “We have a lot of people who have actually moved to Asheville, who have gone through graduate programs in print arts and bookmaking and, because they can come here to continue their work, they find it a good place to be,” says Corral. Besides offering both basic and advanced-level classes, Bookworks rents studio space and equipment access.
Macon York, who gave up a career in magazine design in New York to start her own letterpress business in Asheville, does all her printing at BookWorks. “Asheville was never on my radar for a city to live in,” she says, “but when I came to the [2011 Ladies of Letterpress Conference] and saw the studio for the first time, I was like, ‘I think I could live in Asheville.’”
York has her own line of greeting cards, and she works with clients to create custom letterpress designs for things like wedding and birthday party invitations. “I love typography, and it was really cool to work with hand-set type and pick out each letter one at a time,” she says. “There’s the tactile nature of it, but also how it really presses into the paper and you can feel the printing. I still use the computer as a tool, but I like having a balance with handmade work.”
Made with love
Brides with some leeway in their budget aren’t the only ones splurging on letterpress. Wille mostly prints posters for musicians — a client base that’s not exactly known for deep pockets. So why opt for printing that takes longer, costs more and is generally more involved than other modern printing methods? “It harks back to an old-fashioned time,” says Wille. “Especially with the linoleum and wood type, it has sort of an unexpected quality. You have variances in the color coverage and, a lot of times, old wood type is dinged up and nicked. I always thought that was one of my favorite things about it.”
Wille also cites the DIY challenge, which speaks to artists and clients alike. “When I first started out, I only had about four fonts and not a lot of money to buy fonts,” he recalls. “So when I needed to say something and somebody’s name had four E’s in it and I only had three, then I had to find an appropriate replacement font. That was part of the challenge and the fun of mixing type and working with limited tools. I also think that’s part of the charm of it, and I think that’s what people see.”
It’s not a stretch, says York, to see the proliferation of letterpress as part of a cultural shift, similar to the slow-food and buy-local movements. “I think it’s maybe wired into our primitive nature [to want] whatever is easiest and convenient,” she says. “But honestly, I think we’ve gone too far, and we’ve lost a lot. Cheaper, faster, more convenient — to me, it’s not the best. From craft beer to handmade clothing to handmade shoes to handmade paper to hand-printed things, I think everyone is like, ‘Oh yeah, this is really good.’ You can see people remembering that quality is really important.”
But if letterpress asks artists to make a real commitment in order to learn their craft, that extends to the client, too: It’s going to cost more. It’s going to take longer to print. The end result, though, will be something a little more special than a photocopy.
“Anybody who does it really isn’t doing it for money,” says Wille. “They’re doing it for the love of the art. So you have to take that into account. Not only is it made with these crazy methods that were popular in the ’40s at best: It’s also made with love.”