Prairie Printing is a Wyoming-based non-profit formed to preserve the art, craft and equipment of letterpress printing. We do this by actively rescuing and restoring letterpress equipment, teaching classes on letterpress printing and, as we can, making our equipment available for use without cost. Why do we do this? - Simple - we feel strongly that the art, craft, skill and equipment of letterpress needs to be preserved. To understand why I am so passionate about printing, I’ll tell you my story. It is a bit long, but if you want, here it is.
I made my first print when I was 9, in 1984. That year, for Christmas, when friends were getting video games or the popular toy, my parents got me a Kelsey press, three fonts of type, type cases and some print blocks. This was one of the few Christmas gifts I still remember, perhaps because it was the perfect gift for me.
To their credit, my parents have always known that I am a century behind my time. They also recognized my interest in type design and calligraphy. One of my favorite books was a volume on typography. To, I am sure, the bemusement of my teachers, I sometimes wrote my homework in calligraphy, trying my best to copy medieval styles. I also love seeing old pieces of equipment in operation, which to me are as much function as they are art. Watching a hit or miss engine or one of our presses run is like watching poetry in motion. Putting all these interest together shows how well my parents knew me. Bring together an interest in all things old, a love of mechanical equipment, and an appreciation of type design and calligraphy, and I don’t think they could have given me a better gift than a printing press. Proof of this is that throughout junior and high school, I continued to print, collect blocks, type and even paper. But the next step in my interest in letterpress would come in college.
In my second year at the University of Wyoming, I discovered a new interest closely related to printing – antiquarian books. At that time, there was a used and rare bookstore in Laramie called Adams & Adams. I went there often, but the fateful visit occurred a few days before the beginning of the spring semester of my junior year. On that visit, I saw, in the glass case reserved for the rare and antiquarian books, a 1645 printing of the plays of Terence. It is a beautiful volume, bound in velum with gilt stamped details. I do not know why, but I was taken by this book. I bought it and took it back to my dorm room. Then reality set in. I quickly realized that I needed to properly care this book, but I had no idea about how. To learn more, I first took it to Coe, UW’s main college library, asking for advice. They could offer little help and directed me to the Toppan, UW’s rare books library. So I went to the Toppan and showed my new book to the librarian. Not only did she tell me about the book and how to care for it, she told that she was teaching a class on book history and said that, if I was interested, there was one space available. I added the class and learned more about books and printing than I didn’t know I didn’t know. This set in motion a new course of study.
Over the next few years, my interest in rare books grew and overlapped with my interest in printing. I volunteered with the Toppan. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a year working for Priscilla Juvelis Rare Books, a rare books dealer in Cambridge, Mass. While there, I poured over classic volumes at the Houghton, Harvard’s rare books library. When I returned to UW, I took classes in art history, book arts and other subjects related to the history of printing. I wanted to learn not only how the master printers of past could create such beautiful and timeless volumes, like the ones I had studied at the Houghton and, as I could, collect, but also how I could do the same printing. I wanted to be able to print like the printers of old. However, as I continued to collect presses, type and equipment that could help me print like printers of the past, a realization and focus emerged.
As I acquired letterpress equipment, I would sometimes see presses, or other equipment, available for rescue. In some form or another, these presses are free for pickup or they will be recycled, scrapped or otherwise disposed of. And a few of these, I was able to rescue. At the same time, I also realized that, in many ways, the art of printing was also disappearing. I remember asking one of the few remaining type foundries in the US if they could recreate a typeface that was available in the early 20th century that was, itself, a recreation of a typeface used during the Renaissance. I was told that unless the mats (the form into which the type is cast) were available, they couldn’t make the type because they cannot make the mats. Making type, it seems, was becoming a lost art. The last company making type cases went out of business when the last employee retired. When we restore presses, we often find that parts are impossible to find and often have to be made. And on and on and on. I started to have a desire to not only print, but to preserve the art and equipment of letterpress printing. Then I had an idea - a light bulb moment.
Just before Thanksgiving, 2017, I contacted Casper, Wyoming’s artist guild, Art 321. I told them about my interest in printing, my desire to preserve the art of printing, and I proposed an interesting idea. I said I would place with them one of my presses, an 1895 Reliance hand iron press - beautiful and simple to use. They agreed, and the press was placed with them that weekend. Along with the press, I provided paper, ink, block making tools and other resources. There, the press is free for anyone to use (well almost free as the only fee is just one copy of what is printed for an exhibit wall). This would be, I felt, a good first step, a way to start to the idea of preserving letterpress printing. And throughout 2017 and 2018, this is how our work continued. Then, I took the next step forward.
So Now This
The next step forward. Though I’ve been rescuing presses, teaching printing for years, and loaning equipment since 2017, my work to now has been largely informal. This year, I decided to be more intentional, making my desire to preserving letterpress printing more focused. As one of the first steps, I formed Prairie Printing a Wyoming-based non-profit with a focus on teaching the art letterpress printing and preserving letterpress printing equipment. To our great surprise, we were invited to participate in Nic Fest, a major local art event. At this event, we will be showcasing two of our rescued presses, offer letterpress printed cards for sale, and let guests print their own poster, a piece we are designing for this event. We look forward to a summer of open printing sessions and our next series of classes, which begin this fall. And so it begins.
Well - that’s the story of how an unlikely Christmas present in 1984 becomes, in 2019, Prairie Printing. If you’ve made it this far, thank you for your interest. If you want to learn more about printing or our work, please go the contact page and write us. We would love to hear from you.