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Pressing on

Two local artists learn to run a Heidelberg Letterpress for new art show

Posted: December 1, 2011 - 1:01am
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Artist Sarah Conarro assembles letters for the letterpress at Alaska LItho.   Photo by Jenny Fremlin
Photo by Jenny Fremlin
Artist Sarah Conarro assembles letters for the letterpress at Alaska LItho.

When Alaska Litho got their Original Heidelberg Letterpress in 1966, brand new and direct from Germany, it was among the top models of its kind. But, though the press’ design stretched back centuries, building on Gutenburg’s revolutionary 15th century invention, within a few decades of its purchase it was nearly obsolete. A hand-operated machine stood no chance against the ever faster and more efficient printing methods that soon dominated the industry, and the Heidelberg Letterpress’ use dwindled until it was eventually limited to small, occasional jobs, such as printing raffle tickets.

But even as the press was fading, the seeds for its rebirth were being sown in the imagination of a little girl, Giselle Stone. Stone, daughter of Alaska Litho president Rich Stone, spent a lot of time at the shop as a kid, and vividly remembers longtime pressman Dennis Boreen bent over his work, carefully selecting the individual metal letters for the press from a drawer and lining them up into a frame. She remembers the letterpress’ windmill arms spinning around as they fed the paper up to the plate, with Boreen making adjustments on various knobs as it went. The entire process was interactive.

Stone grew up and became an artist, leaving Juneau to attend Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash. When she got back, she’d learned a bit more about printmaking, and solidified her appreciation for hands-on work. Soon, the press again caught her eye.

“I’d been looking at the press, thinking how cool it would be to learn how to use it, actually more for the commercial reasons -- the fact that I could make money with it doing really nice cards or something,“ Stone said.

She’d been noticing an increasing number of wedding invitations and cards from friends that bore the unmistakable impression of letterpress printing, evidence of the artform’s recent resurgence around the country. Putting ideas for a commercial venture to the side for the moment, she hatched a plan for an art show based on letterpress text with friend and fellow artist Sarah Conarro.

But first, they had to learn how to run the thing. Boreen had died in 2010 at age 94, but luckily there were still workers at the employee-owned company who knew what to do.

“Sarah and I got (Travis McCain and Joemer Gonzales) to teach us how to use it,” Stone said. “It’s all hand-set lead type so you actually lay it all backwards, each little letter, and then lay it into a frame, or chase, then you have to tighten the frame so it’s not moving and put it in the press as a plate,” she said.

Once the press is moving, there are dozens of knobs that can be tweaked to adjust for speed, or to control the force of impact of the letters hitting the paper, making the impression deeper or more shallow as needed.

Getting the hang of it took time.

“It took quite a long time, multiple days and hours of watching and then finally being able to kind of run certain parts of the process myself, all the way to the point were I could go in today and know exactly what to do to get it up and running,” Stone said.

Conarro said the women’s avid interest in the old press provoked curiosity and friendly amusement in some of the workers.

“The guys at Litho, who’ve been extremely welcoming and helpful towards us, they were all laughing — ‘Why are you using that?! We’re getting this fancy new digital printer,’” Conarro said with a laugh.

As they were learning the press, they were also coming up with ideas for how to artistically feature the text they were going to be printing, finally settling on the idea of “words of advice,” which was chosen in part for the way it gave them a parameter without being too limiting, Though both artists participated in all aspects of the creative process, Conarro said she became a bit obsessive about coming up with text.

“Giselle has been mastering the press, I’ve been coming up with a hundred sentences a day,” she said. “It’s such as great outlet for spitting out ideas. I’m just going crazy with lines of text — and they’ve gotten stranger and stranger.”

The advice falls (loosely) into five categories — kitchen, relationships, personal hygiene, active randomness and miscellaneous; figuring out where each one fits, or how it might bridge more than one category, is part of the fun.

Just as Stone pulled in childhood memories in returning to the press, Conarro has incorporated family history into some of the advice printed on the cards. Some are quotes from her grandmother (“Just ignore the expiration date”) another is borrowed from her nephew’s school (“You get what you get and don’t pitch a fit”) (Conarro, from Georgia, delivers the latter with an exaggerated southern twang.)

Another one she likes is, ‘Try to include ‘the Universe’ when offering relationship advice.”

Last week, all the quotes, 30 in all, had been printed in various fonts on 4-by-4 inch cards and the artists were working on the images that will accompany the text.

Conarro said not all the text can really be considered “advice.”

“We called it ‘Words of Advice’ even though a lot of them are...”

“...demands,” Stone continued.

“...and opinions,” Conarro finished. “Words of advice, opinions and demands.”

One of Stone’s favorites is “Everything in moderation, even moderation, moderation, moderation.” She also likes the simply stated, “Grind finely.”

The last step in the artistic process was to illustrate each of the cards. The women, who are both primarily visual artists, experimented with different washes – watercolor, acrylic marker, even coffee – for the background and then created line drawings in darker ink on top. The whole process has been done in a bit of a whirlwind, as both artists juggle very busy schedules. Stone, 24, is currently acting in Perseverance Theatre’s production of “A Christmas Carol,” among other things, and Conarro, 27, is taking care of her two young kids, Margo and Ramon, ages 4 and 1. One thing that has made the collaboration easier is the fact that the women live within a block of eachother in downtown Douglas. And the stack of cards they’ve produced — more than 700 — is proof that they made the strict deadline work for them.

Though each of the quotes bears one of two designs, for a total of 60 images, every card is a little different.

Individual unframed cards will be on display at Alaska Litho Friday during Gallery Walk, many of which will be alligator clipped to the wall in a large grid. Patrons are encouraged to clip their money ($7) in the space once they’ve taken the print the want. Framed prints will also be available for $30.

The artists will also be encouraging Gallery Walk patrons to write down their own words of advice on Friday, on a separate wall specifically designated for that purpose.

Now that Stone and Conarro know how to run the press, a more commercial venture might be an option. Both said the entire project has been very rewarding — especially the hands-on learning process with the Heidelberg Letterpress. Even watching the machine run — with its sweeping windmill arms feeding paper to the plate in rhythmic quarter turns — was enjoyable.

“It really is pretty to watch it,” Conarro said.

Just try saying that about your fancy digital printer.

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