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Artist Residency at Wells

black and white letterpress artist book

A Specimen of Broken – limited edition artists book. Few copies available.

I spent the last two and half weeks printing up a storm in the Wells Book Arts Center, at Wells College in Aurora NY. I camped out in the new press room with five Vandercooks, reams of Mohawk Superfine, a 3lb can of black ink, and tunes, snacks, and a water bottle. On my cross country drive to New York, I thought a lot about partial/broken letterforms, watching paint peel away on many a weathered building across the western mountains and midwestern plains. Plenty of thinking time. No books, I decided. Too much work. I knew wanted to make things bigger, like the signs I’ve recently done, but vaguely thought no, no, I’ll be printing of course. And I thought, I’d like to work with those forms in print. But can’t break the type. Cut the paper? I just really wanted to build, not break.

Morgan Hall at Wells College

I arrived on a sunny muggy afternoon and was warmly received by Rich Kegler, of P22/WNYBAC fame, and now the director of Wells Book Arts Center. Wells is on Lake Cayuga, one of the finger lakes in upstate New York. It’s beautiful, a classic New England campus with brick red buildings, big blue water across the street, and a majestic sycamore tree in front that is too huge to photograph.

Rich gave me a tour of the book arts center, which occupies three floors of a four story building in Morgan Hall, smack dab in the center of campus. It’s basically heaven at the intersection of printing and typography, especially with Rich there who brings great depth of knowledge and context to bear on type, printing, and design. He’s also an affable host who made me dinner and reminded me about lunch and nice walks to take, was always good for a beer and serious type talk, shared process and opinions and dry humor freely, and gave me all the space and time I could desire to work while being available for consultation and feedback. We quickly established an easy rapport and I was able to get as much work done as there were available hours in the day. Gosh darn 24 hours only in each one, though.

boxes of big broken wood type

After seeing cabinet after cabinet of metal type, and many cabinets of wood type, the press room(s) and paper making studio, we went back to Rich’s house and he showed me the P22 Design Research Laboratory (a.k.a. analog garage immensely full of mid-century wood type and advertising blocks). And then he showed me the “back 40” – a smaller outbuilding behind the Research Lab, which housed several boxes of partial wooden letterforms. Some broken, some sawed apart, some curiously inked on all four sides suggesting modular fonts for unknown purposes (billboards?).

Over the dining room table that first evening, after the grand tour – oh and moving a Vandercook across the hall – Rich asked me what I wanted to work with. “The broken forms!” I said without hesitation. “Ah yeah I thought so,” he replied. “And there’s more.”

Vandercook press room at Wells College

Leading up to the residency, all our talks about possible projects had to do with type specimens. The day before I got to Wells, I spent a day at the Cary Collection at RIT, researching the history of type specimens aided by Steven and Amelia, who are immensely skilled and knowledgable. Doing research at the Cary Collection felt like consulting the oracle at Delphi: here’s my best formulation of a question, that I don’t know quite enough about to articulate fully, returned with: here’s what you asked for, plus three more things I thought you’d like based on your interest in this. Beautiful old books you didn’t know you needed to see, handed to you by Amelia with straightforward grace, precision, and a cheery countenance.

Back to Wells. I arrived soaked in specimen imagery, found a cache of big broken wooden letters, and got right to work. I cleaned and conditioned the broken forms (Amelia’s method, explained to me in detail the night before by the indomitable Geri McCormick of Virgin Wood Type– story of that visit for another day!). I spent two days cleaning broken wood sorts (pieces of type) and proofing them. I was fascinated by the endless combinations, the sheer size of them, the beautiful grain and worn character of the wood, and the new relationships formed between the letter parts when taken out of context. I paired and proofed and cleaned and proofed and paired broken sorts for several days, feeling much like a kid playing with wooden blocks, with pure delight at every new proof. The idea for a book came naturally at this point, thinking about the interaction in three dimensional format, and the endless possibilities for collating suddenly exciting. Then I thought I better get to actual printing, and thus the Broken Studies were born, from which the book A Specimen of Broken was born. I printed 24 different combinations of partial letterforms, on 13×19 sheets. 5 of each were printed as stand-alone prints – Broken Studies – and 10 of each were printed double sided and bound into a book.

There are ten copies of A Specimen of Broken. I printed a title page and colophon and spine label, and used one of Keith Smith’s non-adhesive bindings (variation on the long stitch) to sew the pages into museum board covers.

black and white letterpress broadside of poem "Built Broken"

I learned so much on residence at Wells. I can’t say enough good things about it. I also curiously started writing poems the first day of the residency, and wrote them every morning I was there. My last day I took a major leap outside of my comfort zone and printed a little broadside of a poem that I wrote, distilled down through my process of printing the Broken Studies project. Looking at it today, it is clearly part of the project. A prospectus perhaps, or a specimen poem.

I also printed a couple of other broadsides, did loads of experimentation, helped with some organization around the center and demonstrations, visited the Bixler Foundry (another fabulous interlude for telling another day) and made a new friend in Jessie Reich, proprietor of Three Ton Bridge Press.

My stay at Wells was bookended by a couple wonderful days in Rochester, hosted by Geri of Virgin Wood Type (shout out to the very lovely Matt Rieck) and getting to know the strong printing community cultivated at the Genesee Arts Center. Ending with the sweet sweet cherry on top of a workshop with Amos Kennedy Jr. just yesterday.

Today I fly to Milan for LetterPressWorkers. I’m sitting at my gate at JFK now, downsized to one small backpack and a box of prints, off to present my new work and print print print some more with esteemed letterpress workers from all over Europe. I feel a strong deep current of gratitude for all the new folks I’ve connected with. Each and every person I’ve spent time with from Zion to Chicago to Rochester to Aurora has been a generous guide, giving me sound advice and indispensable trail notes I didn’t know to ask for and absolutely needed. The impact on my work has been profound and is only just beginning. I am thoroughly happily exhausted in a way that only pulling thousands of impressions in a couple weeks amidst scores of meaningful new work/art/life connections can make you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

And yikes, my flight is boarding!