Artist Interview: Spoon & Sailor Letterpress February 11, 2012 07:53

Happy Friday, everyone! Loyal readers, you're in for a treat today. Not only are you going to meet the lovely Elana, from Spoon & Sailor Letterpress, but you're also going to get a killer explanation of the process and history of letterpress. Read on, and have a great week! 

Please introduce yourself and tell us about your handmade business.
My name is Elana and I'm the captain of Spoon&Sailor Letterpress, a boutique letterpress printing studio in Central Falls, Rhode Island. I'm originally from Boston and moved down to Providence about 6 years ago to get my MFA at RISD and ended up settling-in over on the West side of Providence. Now I teach photography and design at Rhode Island College and RISD and run the presses at my printshop.

Most of the work I do over here involves creating designs for, and then producing, custom printing projects like wedding ephemera, business cards, special event invitations, personal stationery, limited edition artists' prints...and pretty much anything else you can think of that someone may need prints for! Every single item that I make is always 100% handcrafted:  all ink colors are hand-mixed; every page  is manually cut down to size on a turn of the century guillotine cutter; every printed piece gets hand-fed through a century old Chandler & Price 10x15 Old Style platen press...and  usually more than once or twice. 

A little over a year ago, I started taking some of my ideas and turning them into greeting cards and once I started, I couldn't stop. So now, Spoon&Sailor has expanded into retail as well and has an ever-growing line of original paper goods that are sold through the Etsy storefront and at several of the very most awesome retail Craftland! 

Describe your studio for us.
I like to proclaim that it's the smallest printshop in the smallest state...but I have no actual proof of this. But I can confidently say that it is little and full of very heavy big things which all chug away quietly in a sunny corner of an old mill building, above a wood shop and below a screen printing studio (Devil's Rainbow!). I've been told that walking into the studio is almost like walking into what could be a possible time capsule from the mill's earlier days, because not only are you suddenly surrounded by a 100+ year old printing press and manual cast iron guillotine, but I happen to like old stuff (shocker) so there's that a' plenty. There's also a great deal of evidence as to my endless fascination with animals...& books.

As for the fancy decor, when I moved Spoon&Sailor into the space, all I had was the printing equipment (press, type cabinet, composing stone, guillotine, galley rack, etc) so the rest of the furniture I got insanely cheaply on Craigslist or found abandoned on the street so it's a bit of an awesome mix of weathered items that I love visually, weathered items that I love functionally, and weathered items that I love both ways. And a lot of paper and ink. 

For those who don't know what letterpress is, can you explain the process a bit?
Sure! Letterpress printing is a form of relief printing that dates back to the 15th century in which the raised surface of text and/or image is inked and then  literally pressed into paper. This "pressing" process creates a debossed impression on the surface of each printed sheet that has the potential of being both seen by the eyes and felt by the hand. It's this highly tactile quality that's unique to the letterpress printing process and is one of its most charming characteristics.

It originally came into use in the Western world in the mid-1400's thanks to a nice German fellow by the name of Johannes Gutenberg who developed a method for mass-reproducing handwritten and block-printed pages by inventing a system for movable type: tiny, individual castings of reversed letters that could be arranged into words and sentences to form a  page, printed onto paper, and then redistributed and rearranged to form another page. It became the workhorse of the printing industry for a very long time  but was then abandoned by the production world in favor of faster and more efficient printing methods.

Now it's appreciated for the very fact that it's not as fast and efficient as contemporary ways of printing -- it's a decidedly slow and methodical process. As a letterpress printer, I mix up every color by hand using a Pantone formula guide, an old scale, a palette knife and a wee bit of math. I then ink up the press with one color, register the plate or type that corresponds, hand-feed each sheet through, remove the plate or type, clean the press, ink up the press with the next color,  register the plate or type that corresponds, hand-feed each sheet through again...and repeat. Oh, and then do it all again for double sided printing and then again without ink for scoring. So this means that each one of the "You're Whaley Magic" cards in Craftland actually had to be hand-fed through the press 4 times a piece -- which is a whole lot!  But strangely, this repetitive exactitude is something that I love about letterpress printing. It's almost meditative...and of course very satisfying to the obsessive/perfectionist side to me.

Where do you find the imagery that you use? Are they your own illustrations?
The illustrations are most often collages made up of a mash-up of sources. I have a substantial weakness for antique natural history books and French illustrated dictionaries from the 1800's and tend to collect them like a crazy person. Or a very sane and wise person, you decide. With my card designs, I collage together various images from various books in my collection, and then add to them with my own drawing.  I like to think of them as a meet and greet between friends who would not have met otherwise but are very pleased to finally do so.

What do you do when you need a little inspiration?
I find a lot of inspiration from the following sources: animals, the ocean, old books, music, old man jokes, nature, and sandwiches.

What does handmade mean to you?
Handmade means a lot to me. I think there's something intrinsically more personal in receiving an item that was undoubtedly made by an actual person's hands and at a smaller quantity and a slower pace than a mass-produced thing that you could pick up at any megastore. There's more of a story imbedded in a handmade object where you can wonder about the maker or the process or the materials used. I think that in a strange way, the digital age that we live in is actually amplifying the need for the analog creation of unique, tactile, hand-crafted goods. With everything in our current climate of cyber-relating, digital hands-off art-making and chain store home decorating being so perfect, polished, and able to be replicated consistently and purchased in identical visual form by the press of a button, people crave something real -- something that can be held in the hand, touched, and where you can notice the physical marks and tiny imperfections left by an analog process. The unavoidable micro-variations between even the most expertly-printed run of prints give a uniqueness and a personality to handmade goods that cannot be replicated by a computerized algorithm. It's very real...& we're charmed by it.

How did you first become involved with Craftland?
Sheer moxie in the form of an email.

Guilty pleasure?
I have to say that I am quite proud of all of my pleasures.