July 6

Pressing Prints

A look inside the School of Visual Concepts’ letterpress shop.

When Johann Gutenberg revolutionized mass communication by creating the first printing press in the fifteenth century, he likely didn’t count on his innovation sparking an artistic fascination that would span centuries and ultimately find its way to South Lake Union.

The letterpress shop at the School of Visual Concepts (SVC), located at 2300 Seventh Ave Suite B, is committed to passing on the time-honored tradition of letterpress printing to today’s artists, designers, and other local creatives.

 

Jenny Wilkson, founder and director of the SVC’s letterpress program since 2001, understands the shop’s distinct role at the SVC, a design school started in 1971 that emphasizes hands-on instruction. “The SVC focuses mainly on digital design, and to focus on craft and the handmade was a really unique offering,” Wilkson says. Students learn to carve designs by hand in linoleum, ranging from abstract shapes to detailed illustrations of animals. They also utilize traditional metal type blocks and then transfer ink from these materials onto paper using a press.

Developing these skills takes time and knowledge. “It’s not a place where you can pay a membership and have access to the presses,” Wilkson explains. “These presses are completely irreplaceable. They’re not made anymore. It’s really important that we give everyone who uses them that foundation.” She stresses the significance of learning what she calls “the care and feeding of the equipment” to avoid damaging the presses through incorrect use.

Students in the letterpress program begin with Letterpress Printing Level 1, a 10-week introductory course. After completing Letterpress Printing Level 2, also 10 weeks, students can take a proficiency test to gain access to the shop outside of class time, though they must still be in enrolled in a letterpress course in order to use the presses.

 

For those simply looking to dip their toe into letterpress printing, the two-hour Letterpress: Create at Lunch course offers a chance to sample the equipment while printing keepsake posters.

Many experienced students serve as teaching assistants with unlimited shop access and ensure that no one is ever left to print alone. “We don’t want anyone printing in a void where they can’t get feedback,” Wilkson says. “We’re always learning new things and we want to be able to share what we learn with our students. It’s really a unique community we’ve created here.”

Community is certainly a driving force behind the letterpress program. Though the shop doesn’t create pieces for businesses or sell them to the public (aside from printed greeting cards sold in the SVC lobby to raise funds for the shop), it rarely misses an opportunity to involve itself with the Seattle community.

One example is the Children’s Hospital Broadside Project, in which long-term and terminally ill patients at Seattle Children’s Hospital write poems that the SVC’s letterpress artists turn into hand-printed works of art.

 

Another community enterprise involves a five-ton steamroller. The Steamroller Smackdown occurs annually during the summer’s South Lake Union Block Party (Friday, August 12 this year) and was inspired by the San Francisco Center For the Book’s Steamroller Printing Festival, in which featured artists print posters using a steamroller rather than a traditional printing press. “I put a spin on that since our school is so connected to the design community,” Wilkson says.

The idea was to gather competing teams of designers from local companies and design firms to create posters following an annual theme (last year’s was Man vs. Machine). The catch: Groups must hand-carve their designs in linoleum and print their posters using a steamroller. Team spirit abounds, like the group that designed a Loch Ness Monster poster and “dressed up as Scottish Highlanders and hired a bagpipe guy who led them in. It’s full of grand entrances,” Wilkson says.

According to Wilkson, letterpress printing remains well loved because of its physical nature. “They’re just dying for that tactile connection to what they’re making.” She describes letterpress printing as “the antidote to too much screen time” for creative individuals who spend their days working on computers.

When carried out with others, the complex endeavor of producing a handmade print also encourages a sense of partnership and personal interaction, which Wilkson strongly supports. “I think that’s what makes letterpress printing worth holding onto.”

For more information on the SVC and the Steamroller Smackdown, check out http://www.svcseattle.com/letterpress.

Story by Parker Danowski, Photos by (from top) Phototainment, Steve Utaski (2), and Lifestring Photography

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