After seeing the movie Selma last night, I was reminded that way back in 2004, before the November election, I formed a group called the Olympia Propaganda Squad with some friends of mine: Jenn Kliese, Lena Davidson, Ramona Tougas, and Carrie Stellpflug, with help from others. Using the various design and production tools available at The Sherwood Press, we cranked out thousands of buttons, pocket pinnies, and flyers, tabling at various events so that we could hand them out and accept donations. We held “Hungry for Democracy” bake sales selling apple hand pies or cookies. We raised over $2000 in order to fulfill our ultimate mission: to have thousands of posters printed by Hatch Show Print in Nashville. Then, we called organizations all over Florida to offer them free shipments of these posters which featured a brief history of the African American right to vote. We called the poster initiative “Apples to Oranges.” I still have a map showing all the cities in Florida that hung our posters. We held an election night party in the K-Records studio at the Knitting Mills. Calvin DJ’d and we of course lost the election. Well, I’m not sure we would have “won” by electing John Kerry, to be honest. But it was an exhilarating time and we cared so much. Our group did not survive long after that, though there never stopped being good things to crank our presses for.

It’s heartbreaking to admit that our country’s journey toward equality for all is so damned slow and contains persistent setbacks. I hope that we are all eventually moving toward an embrace of our common humanity, but it’s so clear we have far to go on many fronts. I don’t know what it’s like to be a black person in Olympia, Seattle, Selma, New York City, Rock Springs, Wyoming or anywhere. As a young teen I had a black step father, but I did not see his point of view and was only vaguely aware of how un-approving many people were of our family. The notion that anyone would believe and defend the notion that black people should not be permitted to vote would have struck me as illogical.

Racism and xenophobia and religious intolerance and violence are still keeping humanity in a headlock. What could we become as a species and how could we address the many problems that we have brought upon ourselves if we could eliminate the illusions that fuel human conflict? I keep coming back to the same belief… that all these myriad conflicts are a mask for the real conflicts that are inherent in global capitalism and wealth inequality.

What does this have to do with this little letterpress print shop? I guess it is just this: we do not always see where we fit in to the world’s problems and don’t always see how we can make them better. We worked really hard here in Olympia in 2004 but Washington didn’t even vote for George Bush. Still… we got calls from other parts of the country asking us for our buttons and pinnies, and those posters were all over Florida. You do not always know where your thoughts and actions go when you’re finished offering them. Whatever we do, we create ripples and sometimes other people amplify your little ripple into something substantial.

trick_or_treat


For years I’ve accumulated clean offcuts of cotton letterpress paper. I just don’t have the heart to throw it out in the regular recycling, so I’ve been squirreling it away in the hopes of finding a papermaker who would appreciate having it. Well… I held on long enough for that papermaker to be me. I like the idea of recycling a lovely material into fresh sheets of paper. They come to me as machine-made papers that are manufactured to careful measurements of weight, density, caliper, color and finish. I’m not able to get that level of exactitude with this rustic process, and I’m certainly not able to keep all the bits of the universe out that seem to be DYING to make it into the vat and onto the mould. And I do mean literally DYING, as some insects and arachnids have found their end in the watery vat. But when I show the samples to people, they seem to like it far more than they like the machine-made papers. I guess we all to some extent like to see a little evidence of human processes in craftwork. And while I’m the first to admit that some irregularity can create warmth and charm, I am not the type of person to settle with that. I very much want to make VERY CLEAN BEAUTIFUL PERFECT WHITE HANDMADE PAPER. So it’s practice time, and from what I’ve read, the process of sheet formation at the vat can take years of constant practice to master, and that’s alright with me.

So far we have only begun to test this soft paper in terms of how it folds, tears, and preliminarily takes ink. We haven’t really begun to test what kinds of chemistry (sizing) will be needed to make it optimum to receive ink. For now, we are focusing on getting into a rhythm and learning how to form a nice, smooth sheet without too-obvious problems. Controlling the weight of the paper is also going to be a learning process, as it’s really so much a by-feel sort of thing. How much pulp in the water yields a sheet heavy enough for a business card? How much for a broadside? How much for envelopes? You could go about this two ways… by pure measurement, which is compelling, or by training the sensor. I do so much measuring in my letterpress work, I feel I will enjoy taking the latter method, and training my eyes, hands, and body to develop the sensory understanding of how to get the thickness of papers I want.

It’s kind of funny that after so many, many years of putting ink on paper, I could be THIS excited to create blank paper. Maybe that’s both a logical beginning and a logical endpoint for my work. I started my young life fascinated with paper. Maybe on my last day of life I will create the most perfect sheet of white paper, and it will carry no signs or symbols, persuasions, narratives or exhortations whatsoever. I think that would be a great way to sign off.

Ten years ago this spring, I asked Jocelyn’s friends to consider contributing plants from their own yards for a memorial garden I was planting. Many people came by with something dug up from their own gardens. These plants were by and large native species, but a few non-natives were brought along, too. I spent days pulling up ivy, brought in garden fill and chips, and hired some helpers to build a rock wall and spread out the soil. I took an old cedar shingle from our previous roof and carved Jocelyn’s name and life dates into it and hung it on a tree. Her funerary urn was also soon planted at the foot of the garden under an enormous fir tree — a garland of dog tags from all the dogs that she and Margery had over the years adorning and guarding the spot. A few years ago, Jocelyn’s partner Margery’s ashes were also interred there. What a fortuitous place to rest! I wonder if I will join them both one day, overlooking the lake in the cool shade.

I love this tiny garden and spring is it’s best time… the Sweet Woodruff in bloom, the Trillium going purple, the Solomon’s Seal flowers in their full fragrance and Maple blossoms forming a delicate carpet.

Jocelyn's Memorial Garden

Jocelyn’s Memorial Garden

IMG_0016_3When I stepped through the front door of The Sherwood Press 24 years ago and fell in love with it hard and fast, it wasn’t because it was a small business. It was because the work that Jocelyn did here was an old, even ancient craft. And everything about that craft appealed to me, from the type, the ink, the machines, paper, smells, tactile sensations, and the chance to bring these all together in service of content and design. And I applied myself to its study, through a slow process of assimilation and insinuation — becoming a part of the press week by week, year by year. When I assumed ownership, I soon realized to my dismay that in fourteen years of working in support of my predecessor, I had not learned as much as I really needed to, in order to perform the kind of work I wanted. So I set out again to learn and re-learn so much more about the machines, about paper, about ink, design, precision, measurement, problem-solving, and on and on.

My time in the woodshed had a predictable effect. It made me good at what I do. It made me a capable printer. It made me a better designer. It made me better at understanding and communicating with my customers, and translating their needs and wishes into concrete form. And with skill came work. Every job going out became another advertisement for the press, and for me. Without any advertising, my business grew. And grew. And then grew yet more until I was really starting to struggle with the workload, having a hard time saying ‘no.’

They say it is as hard on a small business to have too much work as it is to have too little. And now I understand. You work hard and keep your head down and before you realize what’s happening you are swamped. And when you’re swamped, you risk losing everything: the faith of your customers, your energy, sanity, and your free time. And so after all these years, I am finally undertaking a whole new set of skills: the skills of being a business owner.

Business management wasn’t what drew me to this place, and I’ve talked to many small-business owners that agree: we are not drawn to cash-flow analysis, bookkeeping, accounts receivable, supplies management, marketing and the thousand other things you’re supposed to be good at and diligent about to have a successful small business. There are people out there who are in business because they love just those things. But most of us, no. Yet we all at some point have to reconcile ourselves with the hard facts. No matter how skilled we are or how much we like our customers, we have to get intimate with the cold, hard numbers and fundamental procedures of business.

My advancement through this late-dawning series of realizations has been like a whole new version of growing up. And it’s about time.

The key has been to open myself up to help. Lots and lots of help, from working with a wonderful graduate student on business development, hiring a bookkeeper, bringing on some part-time administrative and production help, and harnessing the natural skill of my partner Terry in the pressroom. I’ve also been working with the Small Business Administration on business accounting fundamentals, and hired a friend who just happens to be a Quickbooks expert to streamline and expand our use of that essential tool. And it is all very empowering — bringing the kinds of support to the business that it needs to rise to an ever-increasing demand.

I can’t pretend that this has all gone as quickly and smoothly as I like. It is busy here. Client work comes first, no matter what. But we are putting all the pieces in place to run like the well-oiled machines that sit at the heart of our business — our trusty 1953 and 1958 Heidelberg T-Platens, ‘Heidi’ and ‘Hans.’ I’m learning to see these fantastic machines as symbols of how the whole business should run: smoothly, precisely, and as fast as possible without inviting error.

I have customers who have shown an awful lot of patience as we build a more efficient business. Our deep thanks go out to them.

The Sherwood Press has gone from a one-person craft business that at times felt more like a hobby to a full-tilt letterpress and design shop getting new jobs practically every day. Like a real, grown-up business.

Late last year, we were lucky enough to have a most wonderful video made about The Sherwood Press by Charlie Voorhis and his team at Voortex Productions. It was a fun day and the result says so much without any words at all, which is nice, because I really did not want to speak. Please take some time to visit Voortex Productions and watch some of their absolutely stunning videos. It was a great honor to work with these talented artists.

The press is a very intimate and warm place, and this video really shows you what drew me so irresistibly to this place when Jocelyn first opened the door to welcome me in 1989.  Visitors are always welcome to stop by and see the place in person, whether you need printing or not. The Sherwood Press is on Olympia’s Historic Register, and the view over Capitol Lake through the trees is quite special. Come on by!

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