My last Letterpress project did not turn out as I had hoped. My Alphabet set in Onyx, plus numbers and symbols, was, I decided, about as exciting as an eye test. My classmates’ Alphabets are a funky arrangement of large wood type in “Condensed Gothic,” a clever poem in “Valiant,” and a sweet little play on the childhood alphabet song in “Freehand.” Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized that in my disappointed pronouncement, I had stumbled upon what could be My Alphabet. My Alphabet would be…an Eye Test chart.
Better or Worse?
I pull apart my ho-hum Alphabet and redistribute all the Onyx type and hard-sought spacing material. Next, I need to find a font that is represented in several point sizes – in this glorious mess of a Letterpress shop where there are about 20 banks full of about 20 job cases apiece (similar to high-boy dressers full of very shallow drawers). Finally, in Bank 17, I find it: Garamont, represented in 7 different point sizes. It is a good specimen for an “Eye Test” given its simple lines and slight serifs.
In my composing stick, I set letters A, B and C in the largest point size, 36. Add the same point size spacing material, slide it off onto my galley, and move on to the next set of letters. Letters D through F are set in 24 point, H through P in 18 point, Q through V in 14 point, and letters W through Z in very small 8 point. As if I don’t think the matchstick-sized 8 point is tough enough to handle and justify with equally tiny spacing material, I decide to add one more line at the bottom…in 6 point Garamont. This point size is like setting type with flat toothpicks. I set it a total of 7 times, quitting once after the sixth time when yet again the type slips through my fingers and scatters like doll-house pickup sticks. When my soft spoken classmate remarks that it would look really cool, I try one last time. Seven times a charm!
The bottom line
We print within an 8.5 x 11 border pre-printed on an 11 x 14 page of a hefty, slightly pebbled cream colored stock. I sip a black cherry soda as my classmate helps me lock up my alphabet on the press bed of Vandercook 3, the Shop’s non-motorized proof press. I run back and forth for the proper sizes of furniture to block in my type after I gingerly slide it off my galley, holding my breath as I slide off that last line in 6 point type.
Vandercook inks up in basic black, with me cranking to distribute all that lovely, sticky ink to the rollers above and below. I run through my first sheet…and my print comes out upside down, the largest letters A-B-C at the bottom. I wipe the type with solvent, unlock the furniture and start sliding rows of type around on the bed, all while giving thanks for my classmate whose spatial abilities clearly trounce mine (given that she is a university press editor, I have hope that buried somewhere in my wordy brain is some smidgen of spatial skill). My forearms and fingers get inky, and the rag I use to clean up just spreads it around worse. Tonight, I truly look the part of a Letterpress Printer.
The GCAE Book Arts Print Shop has acquired a giant press the size of my living room couch (maybe two couches). Its celebrated presence requires some shuffling of the Shop; two Vandercook proof presses are dragged across the room and various cutting machines migrate to other spaces. It all fits, but during our 8 week class we became accustomed to the previous shop arrangement. Somehow, Mitch still knows where everything is, just as he says that the gouges in the parquet floor somehow “self-heal” as printers move about the Shop, creating.
I run an edition of 19 Alphabet prints, signing and dating each one with a mechanical pencil. We begin cleanup and find discarded in the recycling bin a stack of colorful, impressionistic prints of a wood scene. I know this artist’s work – it is Laura Wilder’s, the arts and crafts style print-maker, and these are her rejects. REJECTS. The paper is luxuriously thick and the layers of oil-based ink give off that singular aroma, the fragrance of print creation. The temptation to tuck one under my arm is great, but I don’t, because even though I am giddy at the thought of a Laura Wilder direct print, I know that she does not see these as her best work. Her eyes look for some perfection that mine may not see, and in that difference of perception lays the genius of her art. A reject, it’s not a Laura Wilder print at all.
My galley is full of type and spacing material from all my class projects: my web address, Giving Tree bookmark, Alphabet. It is full of lead and it is heavy. There are racks and racks of galleys full of undistributed type, from prior classes and from printers just not quite ready to part with their compositions of words and symbols. I understand the sentiment, but I also know that Mitch could use the emptied galley. Every piece of type goes back to its proper place in its proper job case, returning to slumber until called upon again to take the ink and press into a page for eyes to see and read the words of a future story.
As I put the last of the spacing material away, Mitch pronounces me the “best student ever”; maybe not for my composing or printing skills, but I do clean up like nobody’s business. One important lesson I learned during this class is to not focus so much on what I think is the “right way” to do something. Just figure out how something can be done, and do it. Thanks, Mitch.
As I begin to pull out of the church parking lot across the street, something catches my eye. The church’s side yard and bushes are full of fireflies. They glow everywhere, here then there; this is a rare treat in Genesee Center’s urban neighborhood. I pause to watch them flashing their messages of alarm, warning or love. My letterpress-ed Alphabet safely stowed in the back seat, I watch the fireflies for one minute longer before I drive away, imprinting this vision on my memory.