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By the letter: Detroit nonprofit prints up handprinted art one page at a time


Detroit-based graphic designer Patrick Barber has relied on a computer for decades to do his job, but lately, he's been playing with type and words in a different way. And it doesn't involve technology at all.

Printing up a poster of a quote by poet Cecil Taylor this month at a Detroit studio dedicated to preserving and teaching letterpress techniques, Barber shifted the typeface around on the press itself. When he'd set the type just the way he liked, he planned to print it, rolling the paper over the inked typeface.

"It's like playing with blocks," said Barber, who has been a graphic designer for more than 30 years. "It's more improvisatory."

Barber is one of many local artists and graphic designers who've discovered Detroit's Signal-Return, a unique nonprofit dedicated to preserving and teaching traditional letterpress printing. Founded in 2011, studio leaders say for a process that dates back to the 15th century but is now considered more of an art form, they're actually seeing more interest in letterpress printing  especially as people tire of relying on technology and computers to do nearly everything.

"I think people are sick of the computer and so they want things that are tangible," said Lynne Avadenka, an artist and Signal-Return's director. "Though we did have to have a long COVID pause, part of our mission here is getting people in to actually set type, work with their hands and be in control of the message, be it a visual image or a text image or a combination of both."

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Signal-Return keeps printmaking process alive in Detroit
Signal-Return keeps printmaking process alive in Detroit
David Guralnick, The Detroit News

And they're creating art that's actually affordable. In 2018, Signal-Return created a program called "On Press," pairing local artists with nonprofits to create prints that generate money for specific groups. They've created 24 prints from hand-carved linocuts, working with such artists as Olayami Dabls, Carole Harris, Sue Carman-Vian and others.

Prints sell for $80 each, and the program has raised thousands for nonprofits, such as Greening of Detroit, COTS and Alternatives for Girls. Prints created by famed Detroit artist Charles McGee and Ouizi, a muralist known for her lush flower paintings, have already sold out.

Earlier this spring, the Detroit Institute of Arts acquired the entire collection of Signal-Return's "On Press" prints to be part of the museum's permanent collection. They'll be displayed in an exhibition this fall about printmaking in the 21st century. 

What Signal-Return is doing with its "On Press" prints, said Clare Rogan, the DIA's curator of prints and drawings, is a  particular kind of community printmaking. 

"This particular project brings together such a wonderful group of artists from all across Detroit and southeast Michigan. It's a cross-section of generations, backgrounds, ways of making art," Rogan said. "... It's a wonderful collaboration. And it's been a wonderful project to watch unfold. And since I'm putting together this exhibition, it really struck me as representing the best of what printmaking can be in terms of collaboration and working together."

Artist Tylonn Sawyer created his "On Press" print from a large-scale oil painting he created inspired by Stone Mountain, Georgia. He'd never created a linocut print before, carving the image into linoleum. It had its challenges, "but challenging in a good way," he said.

"I literally had to come here like a class to learn how to do it and how to cut the block," said Sawyer, whose print benefits Allied Media Projects. "...Once I started to get the hang of it, I really had fun."

Signal-Return is one of only a handful of studios in Michigan dedicated to preserving and teaching traditional letterpress printing (there's another in Kalamazoo). It offers regular workshops and open studio time.

Letterpress printing — which dates back to the 1450s; Johannes Gutenberg is credited with inventing movable type, which changed human communication — is a type of printing in relief using wood and metal type. Multiple copies of an image are produced by hand with an inked, raised surface rolled against sheets or a continuous roll of paper.

Rows and rows of cabinets that hold hundreds of kinds of typefaces in different sizes fill Signal-Return's studio floor. The handles are labeled: "8 pt. Helvetica Medium," "8 pt. Univers No. 55 Medium," and "9 on 10 pt. Helvetica Regular."

"This is before linotype," said Avadenka, who has a master's degree in printmaking from Wayne State University. "These are all parts of material that you need for setting type. I say it's like a construction process."

Handprinted 

Working on a commercial job in early June, Avadenka stood at one of the presses, setting type to print up a prayer for a client. Each sheet is printed one at a time. The end result looks like something out of an old book, aged but fresh and crisp, not like what would come out of a home printer.

Laying out the type, letter by letter, "you either love it or hate it," said Avadenka with a laugh. But the end result "is beautiful. It's handprinted on a beautiful sheet of paper with a beautiful typeface."

Signal-Return, which plans to move to a new, larger studio space next year as part of a cultural center that's being created out of an old church and its campus on the city's east side, has 10 presses, some of which are more than a century old. There are platen presses, flatbed cylinder presses and show card presses. Show card presses, also known as sign presses, were used by store owners decades ago who printed their own window signs.

Some were acquired from printshops going out of business. One had been sitting in a garage for decades and was infested with mice before Signal-Return restored it.

"It's kind of like 'American pickers,'" said Joel Grothaus, Signal-Return's studio manager. "Usually a family-owned shop will reach out because they hear about us. It's usually because whoever was running the shop passed away and the family doesn't want to just scrap or sell all the stuff. When they hear we teach and use and preserve (letterpress printing), they'll reach out."

Avadenka said they used to print wedding invitations but then decided to open their studio space to other artists to print their own jobs. They now offer open studio hours a couple of times a week for those who want to rent press time.

"We have all these presses and we want to share them," said Avadenka, who noted they do require people to go through two training workshops before they can rent studio time. 

Barber of Detroit is one of those people. He said he comes in "as often as they'll let me."

He discovered letterpress printing at a class at POST, a Detroit studio and retail space that offers workshops on the east side. He liked it and stuck with it. For a professional who spends a lot of time making sure typography fits in a particular space on a computer, letterpress printing is more tangible.

"This is me getting to do it in a more physical way, also in a way that is more fun for 55-year-old eyes," Barber said.

Moment of surprise

Making letterpress or linocut prints isn't simple or quick. Working on one print that depicts Eastern Market to sell in early June, Grothaus, the studio manager, counted out the number of linocuts, six, that would be used to create one print. He used a computer to map out the colors for his print but that's it.

"The most difficult part is working out the drawing aspects," said Grothaus. "You have to draw it, carve it and then print it. It really boils down to the size and complexity of the design, the illustration in this case."

Each printed layer has to dry overnight. They use an oil-based ink and thicker stock paper from a company called French Paper Company, which is based in Niles, Michigan.

Grothaus studied illustration at the College for Creative Studies and has been with Signal-Return almost since its beginning. He discovered letterpress printing through one of his professors at CCS and local artist, Don Kilpatrick. 

"I just love image making," said Grothaus "The satisfaction of that moment the print comes off the press — there's always a moment of surprise because you've worked hard on the blocks and the design, but you don't know until it actually comes off the press what it's going to look like. That never goes away."

Grounded in real materials

And community and collaboration are an important part of this kind of printmaking.

Sue Carman-Vian, a longtime performance artist now based in Royal Oak who created one of the "On Press" prints for Alternatives for Girls, thought she was going to create an image and then Signal-Return would print it. But artists created the linocuts that were printed. 

"I hadn't done a block print since I was in school," said Carman-Vian, whose print features a ballerina with desserts. "...Once I got into it, I loved it." 

Grothaus said the beauty of printmaking is that "it grounds you in real materials." And he agrees with Avadenka that people will continue to be drawn to working with their hands as long as people "hunger to get off these devices that we have now."

"Especially when you're in the arts, there's a very human component to wanting to work with your hands in this kind of tactile way," he said. "And I don't see that going away."

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

Signal-Return

  • A nonprofit dedicated to preserving and teaching letterpress printing, it offers workshops and open studio time.
  • Located at 1345 Division, No. 102, near Eastern Market, it's open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. It also has a retail store inside.
  • Go to www.signalreturnpress.org.