Among the 75 booths of handmade crafts and art at last Saturday’s Bazaar, graphic designer Derek Landers cranked out freshly inked flyers from a massive 1950s tabletop press. Although hitting “command-p” could have produced similar results in a fraction of the time, a line of curious onlookers formed to observe this relic of a bygone era in action.
“The letterpress is becoming popular again because it’s hand-done, an artisan craft, and it’s produced locally,” said Landers, delightedly rubbing the ink on his fingers. “You could get it cheaper and faster online, but there’s no magic to it.”
Landers is one of a trio of passionate printmakers, including Bethany Taylor and Thom Caraway, who have banded together to bring magic to the masses in the form of a new nonprofit community print shop called Millwood Print Works. The three co-founders launched a $5,000 Kickstarter campaign two days ago, and will hold an open house and fundraiser this Saturday. The open house is free to all who want to learn more about how letterpress and screen printing works, and even get a little ink on themselves in the process. There will be information about beginner and advanced classes, and those who enroll as members can use the nonprofit facility to print whatever they want during open studio hours.
All three principals in Millwood Print Works have worked as professional artists and arts leaders in their communities.
Taylor is a visual arts fellow of the 2017 Business Accelerator Program of The Clark Hulings Fund, and also runs her own children’s book publishing company, Interpunct Press. She honed her expertise in the printmaking trade in her hometown of Nashville, where she worked at the legendary Hatch Show Print, a show poster shop and living museum founded in 1879, credited with the branding of the iconic Music City itself.
During half a dozen years of producing tens of thousands of posters at Nashville’s Hatch, Taylor learned how to carve in linoleum and wood, and helped re-imagine letterpress processes with innovative stenciling techniques and reductive carvings. She designed Hatch’s fabled internship program, which attracts renowned designers from all over the world.
“I was taking (student designers) away from that artificial light of the screen, taking them out of their computers and getting them to use their hands,” Taylor said. “Seeing that love and passion grow is what inspires me to want to teach more people.”
Fellow co-founder Caraway’s passion for letterpress printmaking stems from an almost physical reaction that he has when finishing a poetry collection. “I use InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator, and that’s great. I love doing that,” Caraway said. “But there was always this part of me that was like, ‘No, this isn’t how it’s done. What happened to those old books you know somebody would make with their hands?’ ”
To satisfy his hunger for process-based making of books and texts, Caraway founded his own publishing house, Sage Hill Press, where he creates and prints books from start to finish. Caraway also teaches creative writing and editing at Whitworth University, and even went so far as to design the school’s curriculum for classes in book design, which he also teaches. He was Spokane’s first poet laureate in 2013, is editor-in-chief of the literary journal Rock & Sling, and is co-editor of Railtown Almanac.
The third leg of the Millwood Print Works stool is Landers, who, for the past two decades, has worked at various local design agencies and for several years taught design at North Idaho College. He co-founded the design firm Dumbgun in 2008, specializing in T-shirts, logos and concert posters, including the ones he produced for Wilco that currently hang on the walls at Millwood Print Works.
Landers’ interest in printmaking grew, in part, from the frustrating lack of letterpress and screen printing locally. He grew weary of having to send all of his gig posters to Seattle for printing. “No one can print them in town, really because there’s no money in it and no demand,” Landers said. “It’s becoming a lost art in this area.”
Landers, Caraway and Taylor plan to reverse that trend with the fledgling Millwood Print Works. The mission will be to educate interested community members on the letterpress and screen printing processes, and then to give people the space and hands-on guidance they need to make their own creations. From wedding and baby shower invitations to posters and art projects, Millwood Print Works will be the place to do it all yourself.
The place is located 10 minutes from Spokane in historic Millwood, between the railroad tracks and the Inland Paper Co. Millwood Community Presbyterian Church donated the space, rent-free, for five years. Part working studio and part museum, the 900-square-foot space has four rooms: the letterpress room, which houses all the presses, ink, type, the book press, a small display area, and the classroom space. There is also a screen printing room with exposure unit, three-station vacuum table, a dark room, the washout room, and a finishing room for paper cutting, binding, folding, and paper storage.
The shop has received an infusion of free equipment from various people and places who wanted to preserve the valuable machines, but had neither the knowledge or ability to use them. For example, Gonzaga University donated a lightning jobber press from the 1890s worth at least $5,000, and 90-year-old local printmaker/hobbyist Gale Mueller donated, among other things, the tabletop press the principals demonstrated at Bazaar.
And then there’s the $7,500 Spokane Arts Grants Award (SAGA) that Millwood Print Works won earlier this year. Caraway praised Spokane Arts for showing a commitment to a diverse arts community by choosing to fund projects from new pioneers and not just established artists. He also believes that funding projects such as his printmaking cooperative and a separate Salishan canoe-building project by Shawn Brigman shows a commitment to “hands-on old art forms.”
“These aren’t dead art forms, but rather enriching and productive processes that create something useful and meaningful,” Caraway said.
Caraway added that the basis of democracy itself can be traced back to the hand-powered letterpress, on which the Federalist Papers were first printed. “This has to be the most democratic art process ever, right?” Caraway said.
“Most important for people interested in printmaking to know is that Millwood Print Works isn’t just for artists with a BFA or an MFA,” Caraway said. “If you can pull a lever you can be a letterpress printer.”
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