Penland was like summer camp for adults. Together with about ten other students from all over the country, for eight weeks, I sat under the instruction of talented printer, Bryan Baker. He’d cut his teeth working for (the now former) Yeehaw Print Industries in Knoxville—a print shop with as much fame in the printing world (and wood type) as Hatch.
In a beautiful state-of-the-art studio, I learned the basics of printing as well as some more experimental printing techniques, before being given assignments to employ them in various projects of my own. I experimented with wood and linoleum carving, wood and lead type, as well as polymer-plate printing. As fall was setting into the mountains, I basked in the beauty of what I was experiencing.
Between studio sessions, I’d take long, meandering walks through the woods, leaves changing from green to orange to brown. I knew I was undergoing a transformation of my own. The art of letterpress had grabbed a hold of me for good. I felt then and I feel now that I did not choose it. Picking up a bread crumb here and another there, I was led to a feast—what I truly believe is the marriage of my interests and my life’s work.
And so Four Hats Press was born.
I had entered the working world as a journalist: a member of the press. In some ways, I began with a nostalgic impression of how writers used to approach their jobs of reporting. They’d show up on the scene wearing a hat that identified them as the ‘press.’ They’d boldly ask their questions, scribble notes, and return to the newsroom to churn out the news.
When I started baking and pulling espresso shots at the coffee shop, I was wearing another hat. When I began designing and learning hand-lettering, I piled on another. And printing was the final hat on top. It was like a bookend to the journalist cap, sealing me as a press-woman in more ways than one.
I was joining a rich legacy of printmakers. The printing press, after all, had been integral in the spread of the gospel in the early days of the Reformation. It became the vehicle for mass communication of ideas from church pamphlets, to the Bible, to newspapers. When digital printing took over, the machinery fell out of fashion, as did the need to train people on it.
Thankfully, before all of the dusty presses were dumped in lakes and the generation of experienced pressmen expired, the medium began to experience a comeback. Young, enthusiastic artists recognized the unique quality that the process could apply to paper and they scraped the rust off it and brought it new life.
It was (and is) an exciting time to be in printing. Communication will never lose its relevancy, and while our culture heads towards paperless-ness, there are some things that maintain their significance in tangibility.
Not only that, but I have a growing respect for hard, honest work. I like to see a little ink under the nails, oil on the elbows. Letterpress is no different. It is active work. It requires each piece of paper to moved (by hand) through a machine. Turning, moving, cranking, rolling. This art is gritty, repetitive, and raw. The machine rolls out a rhythm as it hums, rolls, clicks, whirrs. The smell ink, solvents, and rust still fills me with the same wonder it did when I first stepped foot in Patrick’s shop.
Letterpress is a love story for me. And when I first started getting to know it, I fell fast and hard.
Leaving Penland was like waking up from a dream, but I knew my desire to continue in it wouldn’t soon fade.