As Oberlin students trickle back onto campus for the start of the semester, I thought I would reflect on my first Winter Term experience. For the uninitiated, Winter Term is a month for students between first and second semester to explore their interests and passions. You can either propose an individual project or apply to one of the group projects sponsored by the college. I had the pleasure of being a part of the Letterpress Winter Term, led by library staff member Ed Vermue as well as Bob Kelemen, an artist and professor specializing in letterpress who teaches at Kent State. Oberlin actually has its very own letterpress studio on the second floor of Mudd library, where three different functioning printing presses live.
Coming into the program, I only had a vague idea of what letterpress entailed, but over the course of Winter Term I became familiar with not only the process and jargon, but the history of the printing press itself. Our major project was to create a book. The first step was brainstorming and understanding the limitations of the project, limitations that were surprising to discover as I learned more. To elaborate a little further on the letterpress process, it involves setting individual pieces of type, pieces of metal or wood with letters inscribed on them. After putting these pieces together to make words and sentences, along with lining them up correctly with other pieces called “furniture,” it goes into the printing press itself. While there are multiple different kinds of presses, they all have the same basic mechanism. They have spinning rollers that you spread ink onto, which spreads and saturates the rollers. The rollers then go over the text, inking the letters. A piece of paper is then set down and pressure is applied to the text, printing it onto the paper. It’s all a fairly precise science, where setting something off by a centimeter or placing a letter incorrectly can create project-ruining defects.
In the end we decided to make a cookbook, which we quickly realized would set some of the difficulties for our project. Throughout the history of the letterpress Winter Term, previous groups had mostly chosen to create small, illustrated books, which contained a lot less text than our recipe book would entail. This meant that in choosing fonts for our book, we needed to be aware of which different typefaces we had the most of. This was because to create the layouts, we would be printing four different pages at a time onto one large paper that would then be folded and sewn together with another large page to create a 16-page book in total.
We then had to set every letter and every sentence by hand while lining up all of these layouts on the printing press. To return to the font problem, this meant that the font that our group initially selected for the main body of text, Lydian, could not be used, since we simply didn’t have enough letters in that font to set an entire page. Even when we moved onto using Garamond, one of the fullest cases of text in the letterpress studio, we ran into issues trying to prepare text for the next page while another page was printing. These small issues are just a taste of some of the limitations of physical printing that we were forced to deal with throughout the course of making this book. Rather than limiting our expression and creativity, though, I think that these difficulties helped us to learn how to be creative within the specific bounds of physical printing. Designing text in a digital setting, by contrast, has so much freedom in how one can manipulate text and image that it was an eye-opening experience to see printing through the methods that most previous generations would have been forced to use.
Another element to making our book that I personally found very engaging was creating linocuts for illustrations. I previously had experience in rubber block printing, but actually being able to collaborate in a group to create art specifically made to accompany text was a new challenge for me. The process of creating these illustrations started with the drawings themselves, which were contributed by multiple members of our group. We then printed them out and transferred the drawings to blocks through the use of tracing and carbon paper. Then came the difficult part, cutting the blocks themselves. The challenge with linocuts is that you are trying to remove all parts of the block that you would like to show up as white on the final image. If you make a mistake, you can’t put any material back. Therefore it’s a matter of being very careful and precise in trying to make your cuts and create the image. Even if you make a mistake, though, it can add character and charm to the analog feeling of block prints.
I spent many hours in the letterpress studio over the course of Winter Term, usually working from 9am to 5pm six days a week, but the work was all worth it to have our very own piece of art by the end of the program. There’s something so special about having a physical piece of media to show for your hard work that you can give to your family and friends. In the end we made 200 copies of our recipe book, "Recipes for a Friend," one of which can be found in our very own Oberlin library! This first Winter Term experience was so unique and will certainly continue to inspire my own art-making practice, and I’m so grateful for the work put in by both our instructors and fellow students in making this book happen. If you happen to see me around campus, feel free to stop me and ask to take a look! I promise it’s worth it for the recipes alone.