Adventures in Letterpress:
Creating Fine Art Prints and Hand-bound Artist’s Books on a 100-year-old Platen Press
In the late summer of 2018, visual artist Sonja Horoshko and I were sitting in her enchanted garden in SW Colorado, sipping white wine amidst the rose bushes, dreaming up another collaboration. This delightful conversation was the seed of the 18-month long “Paper Wings” collaboration which resulted in a series of 12 limited edition artist prints and 6 hand-bound artist manuscripts which are now available for purchase to collectors internationally.
The project was started in 2019 and completed over 18 months; first through a 12-month artist residency with Mancos Common Press in Mancos, CO, and completed during a week-long artist residency at Willowtail Springs Nature Preserve in Mancos, CO.
At the time, Mancos Common Press was restored enough to let artists use the renovated presses for fine arts projects. You can watch the story of how the press was restored on PBS. When we arrived as the first artists to have a working residency there, things were still being sorted, discovered, and learned about this lost form of printing.
When we arrived on the first day of the project, we knew we had 12 poems paired with 12 illustrations that we would use to create a limited run of artist prints. We knew we would print some of those as “signatures” or double-sided prints for hand-bound manuscripts or “livre d’artistes” to be completed at a later time. We were naive, to say the least, but inspired and willing to learn this lost art. We planned to complete one print per month, and largely stuck to that timeframe despite having other jobs and projects to tend to.
The fullest set of type at the time was Garamond 24 point, meaning it had enough letters for the task at hand. However, those letters needed to be put in their proper places in a type case drawer. You can see in this picture the unsorted type and so it was this job we started on day one.
We were thus introduced to the tedious attention to detail and the “willing to get your hands dirty” dimension of working with lead type, ink, and press tools. We realized that the first day that we would learn from these materials, they would inform the project as much as our own vision. The length of poems was immediately affected, which affected the flow of the visual narrative as well. On day one, we conjured the ability to be flexible and adapt language and form to the particular constraints that the letterpress presents.
It took a long time for me to handset the first poem. Words are set by placing individual lead type letters in a cartridge, from right to left, setting the words and sentences backward. Each letter has a spacer (leading) between it and the next letter. It takes precision, dexterity, and patience. Nothing is more frustrating than setting a sentence and then realizing a “d” was used where a “b” should have been. That means loosening the carefully placed spacers, pulling out that one small letter with tweezers, all the while hoping not to knock the whole sentence amuck. So, mind your “Ps” and “Qs”!
You can see in one of our first proofs these types of mistakes. We did get more proficient as we went along, but the learning curve was really steep at first. Most artists had worked with the press as a visual art medium; a few holiday cards had been set with limited type. No one had attempted a full book until we showed up with our complex vision and project.
We didn’t print as we had naively imagined on that first day. It was a tedious day, but we were satisfied to be starting on our vision. The “pressman” we had lured in to help us had studied letterpress in his industrial arts classes and had good advice and know-how, and the manager of Mancos Common Press was delighted that we were there starting to use the space. We pushed through that day, determined to face the many challenges that we knew we were to encounter during our long courtship with the platen press.