Red Plate Press at The SHOP
I am a letterpress artist, printmaker and educator. During Spring and Summer 2015 I was an artist in-residence at The Shop, a secondhand shop and café in the district centre of Nelson, Lancashire. During the residency I (re)created a temporary letterpress facility that functioned as a living/working installation and as a print studio. In the spirit of the jobbing letterpress printers that every town once had, I refurbished an ex-Fleet Street printer’s home studio in The Shop, keeping a daily log of jobs, observations and visitor comments.
I based myself in the front window of The Shop because I wanted the studio to be seen by passers-by. I hoped that people would be interested, amused and maybe bemused too. Letterpress printing has a definite performative aspect – the action of using a printing press is almost like a strange slow dance, repetitive and constant. As I worked, head down at the table repairing the press and cleaning type, slowly and diligently, visitors would creep up and around me. Sometimes people would ask questions, sometimes they’d just watch for a while. I enjoyed these moments before a conversation when curiosity hung in the air.
There were times when the mere fact of something specific and physical happening in the space elicited a snapshot of someone’s life, like the man who needed a new ribbon for his typewriter: “Do you know about typewriters? Mine’s not printing. I don’t have a computer… because of this tremor. So I need it.” I offered to find out for him and asked if he could drop back in, but he said: “I don’t get into town much, just to pay the Council Tax.” A whole world opens up in the space of an encounter that takes a minute or less.
Once I started actually printing, it was more obvious what was happening and there would be visitors who’d exclaim, “My Dad used to do this!” There was a broad mix of ages – with some older people knowing exactly what I was doing – and some interesting questions that usually contained presumptions; “Do you paint portraits?”. We also had two workshop days where people could try out the press for themselves – despite watching me first, there was always a gasp of amazement when they pressed the handle down and then looked at their own card as it came out of the press. The immediacy always grabs people.
The log I kept of both my own daily jobs and the observations of visitors then became the source material for a small A7 book, created as the residency progressed, leaving a permanent record of a temporary facility. The work was the log and then the log became the work: ‘Whirlers & grainers’ – so named after a conversation with Ken, one of the visitors, and a man who’d worked for the Ordnance Survey all his life preparing material for print. “I thought I’d find Ken over here – he knows all about this!” said his wife.