My first lessons were at Artists Book Works, a community-based letterpress shop in Chicago. Under the tutelage of Pam Barrie, I learned the basics of letterpress printing. After about six months, I was given a printing press, and three months later, a printer gave me his type collection. There was something about the process of letterpress printing that appealed to me; I believe it was the capability of making multiples. Multiples of text are important to me. They allow for distribution. I do not find the preciousness of other printing techniques in the letterpress technique—maybe because letterpress has always been a commercial form of printing. Because I could make multiples, I was able to give them away to the public. I would hand out poems, aphorisms and quotations on the “L” platforms of Chicago to people on their way to work.
Do you feel that you’ve mastered the skills you’ve learned? One does not master skills. Skills allow one to interpret the world. There is an energy that flows throughout life, and skills help you understand that energy. So, I have no desire to master anything. I wish to experience it with wonder.
You spent some time in the rural South. How has living there affected how you design your prints? I am Southern by birth and by raising. I am rural by choice. Away from the centers of graphic design, I was able to focus on the vernacular design of the rural South. The handwritten signs for fried fish dinners and church-sponsored flea markets are about putting the message in the hands of the people. It was refreshing to be removed from the noise caused by graphic designers attempting to be clever by designing unintelligible work. Now these signs are produced on computers and printed with laser printers.
I have thirteen printing presses in my shop. Why thirteen? Because I haven’t found the fourteenth press yet.”
Why are you averse to being called an artist? Because I am not an artist. I am a human being who prints. I dislike labels because they are designed to exclude people. I print. I am human. We, as humans, have more in common than we have differences. Yet, we use the differences to define us. Why? Death sees no difference in us. And what is with this “creative” label? What is the need for it? Are creatives creating a sustainable world? Or are they just seeking to increase the profits of corporations? Are they cogs in the neoliberal fascism that seeks to destroy humanity in the name of profit? If they are so damn creative, create a society that will not destroy the environment we need to live. But they are not. They are just increasing consumption.
How many presses do you use in your shop? I have thirteen printing presses in my shop. Why thirteen? Because I haven’t found the fourteenth press yet. Letterpress printing requires saving technology that is no longer commercially profitable. Reuse, recycle. So, I saved these presses from the landfill. These presses were designed and manufactured to last. And they do. They are simple machines, so maintaining them is possible for people with a desire to get their hands dirty. If the problem becomes too great, go to an expert. The greatest challenge of using these presses is starting. Remember Newton’s first law of motion? Well, it is true. So start!
Also, I am building a space in Detroit for people to explore the possibilities of letterpress poster design. Most educational programs in letterpress printing focus on book design because of the elitism of books. A beautiful satire of this is writer Charles W. Chestnutt’s short story “Baxter’s Procrustes”—the story behind the story is even more fascinating. But I am building an institution that will enable the free flow of information about letterpress printing by allowing people to come and print. Printing Plant The Printery Of The Americas has two major purposes: to create a space where letterpress printers from across the Western hemisphere can gather to share information and print, and to provide a space to study the design and production of letterpress posters. Posters are very aggressive. They invade your visual space. They are too loud to ignore.
What led you to shift your focus from making books to printing posters? Books are very exclusive. They are owned by collectors or libraries. Books are also expensive. The public has limited access to them. Posters are a more democratic form of printed matter. They are affordable for a large segment of the population. Every person wants to be in the presence of beauty. Yet, this civilization wants to restrict that presence to a tiny minority of people. I want to expand that presence to everyone. Printing posters allows me to create multiples that are affordable to the masses.
You’ve said that you’re interested in overprinting. Why does it appeal to you? I like the “randomness” of the overprinting I do. I am in complete control of the process; i.e., I have no idea what I am doing. I just print. For me, the process is informed by nature. Things in nature are not “random;” humans just cannot recognize the order—a serious shortcoming of ours.
Tell us how your Burnt Church series came about. Did any reactions to it surprise you? Oh, that project. It is a classic example of institutional racism. In 1995, 140 churches in the Negro community were burned to the ground. An investigation by the US “justice” department determined that the fires were not racially motivated. Yeah. Of course, most of the churches were in the Negro community. How could that be racially motivated? I decided to burn a Bible for each church that was burned down. Some people were pissed that I would burn Bibles, which is strange because they are just ink and paper that have been processed.
What are some print shops—besides your own—that you recommend we check out? I would recommend looking at every letterpress print shop. Each shop offers something unique. Do not limit yourself.
Church of Type (Santa Monica) and Hatch Show Print (Nashville) are classic letterpress poster shops. The Globe Collection and Press at MICA is very interesting because it is a teaching shop at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Tribune Showprint (Muncie) is a commercial shop with a long history of printing posters. The Canadian book publishing company Gaspereau Press makes well-crafted books for the masses.
What advice do you have for a creative who wants to start incorporating letterpress printing in her or his own work? First, stop calling yourself a creative. You should not restrict yourself by excluding others. Once you do that, go have fun.