Letter Impressive

This is the first post in a series I’m calling Vancoeuvre. Get it? The oeuvre of Vancouver? I’m not just a brutal speller. The idea is to feature local artists and craftspeople in their workspaces. Photos at work, photos at rest, and a little history or explanation about the cool work they’re doing.

Most of us have felt the satisfaction of creating or fixing something by hand. I want to feature people who actively seek that feeling, in an amateur or professional capacity. Basement startups, local heroes, anyone I can get a hold of who’s making something cool the old fashioned way. Or the new fashioned way. Mostly in an interesting way. If you know anyone or are anyone who fits the bill, drop me a line. It’s a labour of love for me, a bit of practice with in situ portraits while making connections with people I admire. For the people featured it’s a bit of free exposure and a chance to get some publicity photos pro bono.

On to the feature.

This weekend I had the pleasure of visiting the workspace of local artist, musician, Emily Carr accredited designer, and all around fine human being Stephen Mullally. A few years ago he shelved an undergrad in architecture and a senior position in an engineering firm in order to pursue his passion for art and design. Ballsy, yes?

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I’ll spare you the suspense: it paid off. He’s now a staff designer for Science World, Vancouver’s signature geodesic learning institute.

Recently, the talented Mr. Mullally has taken up the not-quite-forgotten art of letterpress. Compared to the digital tools, techniques, and machines used in modern design and printmaking, letterpress is like, say, a sandal is to a rocketship. It’s only a few steps more modern than the block press invented in China circa a thousand years ago. To be fair, it more closely resembles the occidental version developed by Gutenberg in the fifteenth century. So not that old, right?

The basic operation is similar to a stamp. The letterpress comprises a bed, into which raised letters and images are set, then inked. Lay a sheet of paper over the bed, secure it, then pass a cylinder like a rolling pin over the sheet to press the inked letters into the paper. Rinse, repeat.

It sounds simple, but it is in fact deeply complex. Every part of the final print has to be created in reverse. Letters set backward, images carved into wood or lino inverse. The type ranges from tiny typewriter-sized letters to huge fist-sized letters. Every part must be secured in the bed of the press with blocks so they don’t shift when the roller passes over them. The roller has to be raised or lowered just so, or else tall elements will punch through the paper and short elements won’t make an impression at all.

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Not counting the time to source or create blocks for each of the elements you want in your print, it might take twenty minutes to a couple hours or more to set type in a small bed. Then it’s ballpark five minutes to ink up, secure the paper, and make a pass with the roller. Per sheet. Think about that next time you’re making copies at the office.

And don’t even get me started about multi-colour prints. One pass per sheet, one pass per colour. Lining up each sheet for each pass of each colour.

I said don’t get me started!

The short version is, big surprise: it’s a lot of work. Letterpress requires days full of hours, biblical reserves of patience, and an enormous, sincere adoration for the process. And, of course, the kind of investment premiums you’d expect of an ancient niche craft. You need a press, tins of ink, a small army of furniture, and as much type as you can get your hands on. You know all those fonts on your computer? Think about each letter as a tooth-sized metal block in a drawer. Then think about each letter at each possible size. Then think about that same array of letters in a second font. In a third, in a tenth, in a twentieth font.

If you want images, you’ll either likely need a gift for illustration and carving. Or a knack for making pictures out of letters you already have in the drawer.

Stephen, by training, perseverance, and a little luck, has acquired these things. And continues to. And might never stop. The first time he and I talked press, it was obvious he takes great pleasure in the art. I’ve been in print for years, and have developed a similar relish for type and reproduction, albeit from a nearly opposite vector. It’s no coincidence he’s my introductory subject for this project. I want a behind the scenes look at this remarkable traditional artform as much as I want to share it with you.

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For all that daunting investment and setup, letterpress prints are beautiful, inimitable works of art. They possess a texture unavailable to modern printing machines. The impression made by physical letters in the fabric of the page. Each letterpressed sheet is wholly unique, distinguished by variations in position, ink density, absorption. If the press operator has done a good job, those variations will be minute, but they’re inevitable. Just as every artist is in her own paintings and every photographer in his photographs, so every pressman is in his prints.

Pictured throughout: the press itself, a Morgan Line-O-Scribe, a beautiful 100+ pound machine out of Chicago known generally as a proof press, which means it’s ideal for one print at a time operation but still reasonably suitable for short run production. The print is a portrait Stephen carved in lino of his father, for his birthday. The ink is a very nice metallic gold. It was unlabelled, but my Pantone spidey-senses say it’s 871.

If you’re in the market for some very cool, very unique, very specialized print materials for your next gig, event, invite, etc., contact Stephen through his website. You’ll be supporting a local artist and helping an awesome tradition from getting sidelined by modern technology. Plus, believe me, your prints will be like nothing else. You’ll get all-email confirmations from your wedding guests, because they’ll keep their RSVP cards to frame.

And if, as I said, you know someone or are someone who suits a feature in Vancoeuvre, don’t be shy!