If you've been following my travels, you know how much respect I have for traditional arts and crafts. In an era of mass-produced crafts imported from China and sold at every Pier One and Crate & Barrel, I consider myself very fortunate to stumble across someone using traditional methods to produce hand-crafted items. When I was introduced to Sarah Brown this past weekend as someone doing traditional letterpress printing, I knew I had to find out more. Sarah and I sat down to discuss her craft and some of the projects she's been working on. The more I learned, the more fascinated I became with the process and the more respect I had for the patience required to create these products.
While Sarah now lives and works in Lancaster, Ohio, she grew up in Buckhannon, West Virginia. She took her first printing classes at West Virginia University. After college, she moved to the suburbs of Washington D.C. and met and befriended artist and author Cynthia Connolly (who wrote one of the first books on the D.C. punk scene). They bonded over old-time music and traditional arts and when Cynthia found out about Sarah's interest in letterpress printing she offered to sell her a letterpress. This letterpress was a small, tabletop press, not the one Sarah uses for most of her work now, but it definitely reignited her interest in the craft. Cynthia was probably happy to find someone who wanted to use the press, not just put it in a corner as conversation piece.
As Sarah began to focus more attention on the art of letterpress printing, she got a tip that a newspaper in Philippi, near her hometown, was getting rid of their old press and all of the associated type. She jumped at the opportunity, saving it from the junkyard, and became the proud owner of a one-ton 1948 Heidelberg electric windmill platen press. Sarah describes the Heidelberg as the "Cadillac of letterpress printers" and told me it was once used in small towns around the world to print business cards, letterhead and even bills of sale. Watching this machine work (which you can do on Sarah's Facebook page HERE), is mesmerizing, and the design definitely appeals to my inner steampunk. While the machine is well made and simple enough to operate (according to Sarah), learning how to set the type and create beautiful finished products took hundreds of hours to learn. As with almost any great craft, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.
While she was learning the ins and outs of the Heidelberg, Sarah also dove into the world of wood engraving. In the days before newspapers could print photographs, wood engraving was the only way that images could be transferred into print. It is an intensely intricate art form, using tiny tools to carve highly detailed images into blocks of wood. Those blocks can then be set with the type to create prints with both pictures and writing.
As Sarah became more involved in the process, she apprenticed under Jim Horton at the Augusta Heritage Center of Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia. She is now teaching classes there on letterpress printing and wood engraving (the next one is starting August 5th, 2018 - find out more HERE). While working at Augusta, Sarah received a grant to produce a book using these traditional methods (with a little bookbinding thrown in for good measure). The result was The Life Cycle of the Fungal Kingdom. It is a beautiful book, but since each page was hand set and printed only 80 copies were produced. You can get yours from Sarah's website HERE.
While letterpress printing is coming back, many people involved in it are using plastic plates designed on their computers. Sarah has chosen to continue using the traditional methods by hand setting her wooden type and hand carving the wood engravings. While this process is significantly more challenging, the finished products are unique and bold and beautiful.
In addition to her beautiful book, Sarah produces notepads, coasters, mini-posters and really cool greeting cards (my favorites are the I Believe In You Jackalope cards). One of her most unique items is a turtle sculpture kit you assemble yourself. Sarah is currently selling her work at small shows and craft fairs, but also has a wonderful website for her business Questionable Press which you can find HERE.
Sarah Brown is a true artisan. Her work is bold and beautiful and I found myself staring at some of her products and marveling at the detail involved in it. She has chosen to continue the traditional method of setting her own type which hasn't changed significantly since Johannes Gutenberg started printing bibles in the 15th Century. Her wood engraving skills are remarkable and the detail is phenomenal. It always makes me happy to find someone who is keeping an art form alive in the traditional form not because they have to, but because it's something they're deeply passionate about. Sarah's work is truly exceptional.
To find out more about Sarah and her business Questionable Press, check out her website HERE, her Facebook page HERE or her Instagram @questionablepress. You can also learn more about the class she is teaching at the Augusta Heritage Center HERE.