Monday, December 22, 2014

The Human Touch is Back in Vogue

Last Saturday, I ventured up to Two Rivers, Wisconsin to visit the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum. I had heard about the museum mainly through Instagram, and through my co-workers at Broadway Paper. I hear the term "letterpress" everywhere, not to mention the number of letterpress products we sell at work. It seems like a self-explanatory term, but on the several occasions that I was asked to explain it to customers, I came up short. In addition, I recently made the resolution to improve my relationship with the tactile activities that I abandoned when I went to college in favor of more conceptual ones. Thus, I decided it was time to take a workshop at the museum.

If you ever happen to drive past the Hamilton Wood Type Museum, don't be put off by its facade. If anything it resembles an abandoned laundromat, with its white industrial exterior and retro vintage lettering spelling out "Hamilton" on the side. (I later learned that I was not completely out of line for comparing it to a laundromat. Hamilton, an innovative businessman, manufactured dryers in addition to wood type, printing machines, and furniture. Recognize this font below?).


After stepping inside, you are finally awash with what you expected to see:

Wall of colorful letterpressed posters

Letterpressed sign above toilet: Please do not flush sanitary products,
tampons, paper towels, tissues & trash, used diapers, goldfish,
prosthetic limbs, hopes & dreams 
down this toilet.

The 9-5 day starts off with a quick tour. I was immediately impressed with the energy and welcoming attitude of the staff, despite the earliness of the hour on a Saturday morning. I learned quickly that the museum only really has two staff members: Jim Moran, the museum director, and Stephanie Carpenter, the assistant director. Stephanie led the tour while Jim waited to later give the demonstration for the workshop. On the tour, we learned about the history of the museum, and of J. Edward Hamilton, the man who started all this letterpress madness in 1880. We also learned about the machines and equipment the museum holds in its collection. The space pictured below is a working space used for cutting type, an art that few living people still know how to do. We learned that a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board is the one source of funding for teaching and preserving this art today. Without it, the knowledge could very easily die out and the machines would turn into relics. 


Hand-cut wood type

Carpenter made a point to emphasize that the Hamilton is a "preservation museum," acknowledging that the only way to preserve the art of letterpress is to actually use the museum's collection. This is why we were allowed access to a shocking number of vintage wood type for the day's workshop, as well as a gigantic studio with an individual letterpress for each person.

Gasp! Drawers filled with letters

The studio

Access to all of this equipment was exciting, but I was still scared to throw myself into the process. However, the demonstration given by Jim was thorough, calm, and non-intimidating, and by the time he was done everyone in the room (there were about 10 of us) was able to print one word of type before breaking for lunch. 

On my break I wandered through the museum's gift shop, browsing the handmade postcards, posters, and art prints that the museum was selling. One thing that struck me was how easily I could tell that the products were handmade. When I held up two of the same postcards right next to each other I could discern which one was printed first and which was printed second due to the saturation of the ink on each print. When the lunch break was over I was more than ready to throw myself back into it. Perusing the gift shop made me realize that there was no way I could really screw up. The beauty of letterpress is to be able to see the imperfections of humans in the finished product. Below is a perfect example:


The zig zag lines may seem like an intentional technique used by a pro, but they were actually created by a strand of my unruly hair that fell onto the brayer. I printed over this background with red ink a quote from Andy Dwyer of Parks and Recreation: "The show must go wrong."

The workshop flew by, but it was also intense. Even for me, a person who took art classes all throughout my academic career, 3-4 full hours of art making was a long time. I was exhausted and sweaty, and didn't realize how much my feet hurt and how thirsty I was until the day was over. At the end of the day my workspace looked like this: 


Did I make anything I was really happy with? Not exactly. But I also didn't really have any expectations for how the work would turn out. It was a day for learning, experimentation, and fun. As I write this post two days later, I am happy to see all the prints that I made lined up on a shelf in my room. But the best gift I came home with the was the ink that is still underneath my fingernails. Every time I catch a glimpse of it I am proud of myself for doing something with my hands. Conceptual ideas are great. But at the end of the day, the ink on my hands reminds me that we are humans, and doing things with our hands is the best idea we ever had. 

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