This is work that requires both delicacy and physical strength. Printing presses are expensive, heavy, difficult to move and require maintenance. Most letterpress classes begin with safety lessons — pull your hair back, watch your fingers, pay attention. Paper is fragile; ink, indelible. Practice and commitment are essential. And the rewards are beautiful.
Baskerville Studio, at 3000 Royal St., is a haven for print lovers, with antique presses and drawers of type and paper. A collective of nine members — called Hounds, in homage to Sherlock Holmes — keeps Baskerville going. Every January, they celebrate the birthday of their namesake, John Baskerville, and the typeface that bears his name.
One of the founding Hounds is Amelia Bird, whose beautiful books have been exhibited widely; “A Rose Is a Rose Is a Rose,” inspired by Gertrude Stein, appeared in the landmark anthology 500 Handmade Books. Bird has created a book about the marginalia in Thoreau’s “Walden,” and she also conducts Baskerville’s popular Valentine workshops.
Bird began as a nonfiction writer in the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, but then she began to explore book arts and made a match of literary inspiration and technique. “Bookbinding felt so much easier than anything I’d ever done before. I took to the physical process so much. It was another way to make meaning. I felt liberated.”
From the first, she envisioned Baskerville as a collaborative space, and her enthusiasm drew others. Working with Tyler Harwood, who’s known for his beautiful posters and broadsides from Planetary Magnetics Corp., they gathered like-minded artists, set up the studio, and began printing and teaching.
Hound Laura Thomson, an archivist at the Amistad Research Center, teaches bookbinding techniques. “I’m not a book artist,” she said, defining her terms. “I don’t do what Amelia does. I’m a fine press printer. I do one of a kind or limited editions.”
Thomson publishes limited editions of carefully selected fan fiction through her Doppelganger Press. Her current project is the second in a trilogy, “A Strange Place in Time,” by Alyx J. Shaw, a Canadian writer she found online. The book is illustrated by Eveline Koeppen, a German artist. The three have never met in person, but their cyber-collaboration has resulted in a gorgeous handmade object.
“If I’m going to spend a lot of time printing and designing, I want to love the content,” Thomson said. “It’s a holistic experience. And I do love the collating and sewing — it has a meditative quality for me.”
Urban planner and information designer Jeffrey Goodman, who calls himself “the fifth Hound,” began by looking for a hobby, something tactile and physical after staring at a screen all day. He eventually built a printing press in his backyard. Then he found Baskerville and began working on broadsides and cards.
A welcoming letterpress
Over at 3700 St. Claude Ave., Yuka Petz and Jessica Peterson have joined forces to create the welcoming environment that is Southern Letterpress and Studio Ippiki. The cheerful purple building with turquoise trim houses a storefront with letterpress cards and artists’ books and prints, a printing space with presses and a guillotine (so sharp, but fun to use), as well as a small gallery space.
That exhibit space currently features a show by engraver Nancy Sharon Collins, a project called Color Matching Systems. A show by the Community Print Shop goes up Nov. 7.
Petz is one of the founders and coordinators of SIFT (Sequence, Image, Form, Text), a confederacy of book and paper artists who meet monthly.
“The work we do is wonderful work, and I’m honored to do it all the time,” Petz said. “But it’s isolating, and so it’s wonderful to share experiences with others.”
An early start
Petz is known for her beautiful handmade books, boxes, paper rosettes and eggs. It all began with making her first book in third grade — her version of a childhood favorite, “The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson.” “And I still have it,” she said.
Jessica Peterson, newly settled in New Orleans, is known for her distinctive and witty work. She’s a Rochester, New York, native, but her Southern Letterpress books deal with serious Southern themes — race and the legacy of slavery.
Her work also includes lots of wit. One memorable tribute to Southern charm is MaCille’s Museum of Americana, a catalog of an Alabama woman’s personal collection, a backroads museum.
“Books are such a powerful medium,” Peterson said. “I began by making a nontraditional book in the ninth grade, and that’s how I became interested in art and mythmaking.”
Bird, Peterson and Petz are all generous members of their community. They praise the work of veteran printer John Fitzgerald, whose work is sold at the Dutch Alley Artists Co-op; Friedrich Kerksieck’s Small Fires Press, which does beautiful books and zines; J.S. Makkos, founder of the Digital NOLA archive; and the Community Print Shop.
Jeffrey Goodman’s joy in the process is clear: “It’s the pleasure of creation. It’s the kind of pride that you get from looking at this object that’s a manifestation of your creativity and patience and work. If I just wanted a copy, I’d press Control P.”
Susan Larson is the host of The Reading Life on WWNO-FM and the author of The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.