17 May 2011

Letterpress & Maine Lobsters

I met Hugh French on Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, in 2009 at a meeting which aimed to stimulate more cross-border cultural exchange between New England and the Maritimes. When I learned about the work that Hugh was doing at the Tides Institute in the tiny town of Eastport, Maine, I resolved to find some excuse to get involved. Too often the American-Canadian border inhibits interaction between artists, musicians and craftsmen and the community institutions which support them. But the same tides rise and fall at Eastport as those which push up the Cornwallis River to Kentville, and a letterpress printer from small-town Nova Scotia often has more in common with his fellows in rural Maine than he has with those urban printers in Toronto or Vancouver.

Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr., and Hugh French at the Tides Institute, Eastport, Maine

Or, for that matter, more in common with rural Alabama, for what finally drew me across the border was the news that my letterpress compatriot Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr., was coming north to spend a week at the Tides Institute. Amos had been our special guest at the 2010 Wayzgoose, and the chance to see him again was too good to pass up.

For a Canadian making his first foray into the United States in over twenty years, Eastport was an excellent destination, for only a little water separates it from Canada; home was never for a moment out of sight. But the journey was not without its discouragements. A letter from the Tides Institute explaining the nature of my visit did not ease my entry into Maine. In fact, quite the opposite. The US Customs officers who searched my pick-up truck, though respectful and polite, seemed not to share the notion of a binational fraternity of small-town printers and artists, or, for that matter, the notion of altruism in general. They did, however, after a time, let me pass and genuinely wish me well.

The Tides Institute, Eastport, Maine

Eastport itself was more welcoming. It is a working harbour town, not a kitschy tourist trap. Once affluent, recently depressed and languishing, Eastport now appears to be undergoing a bit of a renaissance, thanks in part to an upswing in business at its port (shipping live cattle to Turkey and constructing apparatus for conveying wood chips onto ships) and in part to the innovation and tenacity of its more entrepreneurial and community-minded citizens, like Hugh French. Several years ago, Hugh purchased the decrepit remains of the Eastport Savings Bank, a three storey brick structure erected in 1887, and set about raising funds to refurbish it into a museum, gallery and arts centre. The work on the building is well underway and the project’s momentum and its effect on the community are already in evidence.

The building hosts a gallery space, a sort of ‘great room’ which houses the Tides’ library and items from its permanent collection, and a studio space and printshop. Hugh had been sending me samples of the posters which the Portland-based printer David Wolfe and others have been producing for the Tides under the imprint of Hand Line Press.

Over the side door

When I arrived in Eastport on Friday morning, I found David Wolfe and Siri Beckman busily working in the printshop. Both were participating in short residencies and working on commissions for the Tides. I was familiar with David’s work, but was intrigued to discover that he had once been a press operator at the storied Stinehour Press of Lunenburg, Vermont, and acquired much of Stinehour’s letterpress material for his own studio when Stinehour discontinued that department. Siri was proofing a colour block for a large engraving she was making of Eastport’s waterfront.

David Wolfe in his Portland studio

Amos Kennedy arrived back at the Tides by late-afternoon. He had spent his week lugging a small poster press and two cases of type around to Washington County schools, where he introduced students to letterpress printing. It had been an intense week. “You-all got your 50 cents out of me,” he teased Hugh, but it was clear that he was having an excellent time. To say that Amos is passionate about letterpress printing would be a gross understatement. He spends a good portion of his year on the road, as sort of travelling evangelist for our inky profession. After talking for a while, we headed downstairs to the gallery and pinned up Amos’s colourful and provocative boxboard posters. There was a reception in gallery, and then we moved back up to the great room to screen Proceed and Be Bold, a film about Amos’s experience as a letterpress printer. The audience was small but attentive and appreciative.

A wall of Amos Kennedy’s posters displayed in the Tides Institute’s gallery

About half-way through the film, I realized that I had forgotten to eat supper and that by the time we were finished the screening, Eastport’s few eateries would most likely be closed. And I was correct. After futile investigation of the late-evening dining prospects in the town’s two drinking establishments, Amos, Jude Valentine and I ended up back at the Todd House B&B, where we combined our modest stores – fresh eggs, broccoli and sardines, which Amos fried up in the little kitchenette in his room. This meal was supplemented by some homemade cookies which I had picked up at my mother’s on my way through New Brunswick. It was a meal well-seasoned with companionship and conversation.

Amos Kennedy cuts a lobster out of box board while David Wolfe works in the background

On Saturday, we held a sort of symposium of letterpress printers in the Tides Institute printshop. There were only two items on the agenda: 1) the collaborative creation of some sort of printed item, and 2) the securing of a lobster for Amos’s supper. Participates included: Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr., of Kennedy Prints, Gordo, Alabama; David Wolfe of Wolfe Editions, Portland, Maine; Siri Beckman, printer and wood engraver, Stonington, Maine; John Vincent of A Revolutionary Press, Brooklin, Maine; Bill Schaefer, sculptor and Tides Institute’s ‘carpenter in residence’, and Hugh French and Jude Valentine of the Tides Institute. I was there too, of course.

I’m the first one to admit that I am a poor collaborator, at least when it comes to this sort of crowded hot house approach. Besides cleaning presses and tinkering with equipment, I stayed on the sidelines and let others plan the piece, set the type, and crank the Vandercook No. 4 cylinder press. Amos demonstrated one of his techniques for laying down colourful backgrounds on his posters. He locked a sheet of plywood in the press that was just about type high and toned it up with ink. By placing shapes cut from box board under the mylar top sheet of the impression cylinder, he is able to force the press sheet into contact with areas of the inked board and print the box-board shapes. These box-board shapes can be shuffled to different locations under the top sheet to alter and build-up patterns over multiple passes. In this case, we cut box board in the shape of lobsters. It is a quick, simple, and inexpensive method of making a mark.

Amos positions a box-board lobster under the mylar top sheet of the Vandercook No. 4

Amos likes to lay down a lot of ink and alters the appearance of his posters across a print run by gradually adding different colours to the rollers. This method leaves much up to chance, but can yield rewarding results.

Inking the rollers. Note the plywood sheet locked in the press

Jude Valentine feeds a sheet into the grippers

Mixing inks

In the meantime, type was set for the text and David cut a quick version of the Hand Line Press hook in a piece of plywood using knives and gouges. These were printed in black and blue inks respectively.

Setting the type

David Wolfe cuts the image of a hook into a piece of wood

Through the day, there was ample opportunity to talk about inking, paper, cylinder packing, make-ready and printing techniques. It was a symposium in the best sense to the word, not a meeting or a workshop but rather an hands-on exchange of working knowledge and ideas between practitioners and enthusiasts. Everyone contributed, and everyone learned.

David Wolfe prints while Jude Valentine and Siri Beckman sort and stack sheets

Amos holds forth while John Vincent prints

Amos in the printshop

As the last colour was being printed, Amos was whisked off to select his lobster, and after cleaning up we descended to the great room for a banquet. We ate, and we laughed, satisfying to be among friends.

Lobster at last, bib and all

I am a reluctant traveller with little wanderlust in my heart. There is a hemlock post in the centre of the house I built, and to a certain extent my health and happiness seems to bear a relationship to my proximity to it. Yet there is something important about stepping off your well-worn path from time to time, leaving your home place and inserting yourself in the company of strangers who share your passions. And if this past weekend is any indication, I feel confident that the Tides Institute in Eastport will become a more frequent destination for such wanderings.


Wild letterforms, Eastport, Maine

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