Letterpress Love, Part I

Letterpress Love is part one of a two-part article about the Asheville letterpress community and individual letterpress artists who have influenced its growth.

Letterpress Love
Samantha Urbanick pulls a handful of wooden block letters from one of her hundred antique letterpress drawers and arranges them on the bed of her Vandercook press. She handles the blocks as gingerly as if each letter set might be her last but works with the speed and efficiency of a practiced printmaker. There’s something magical about how hands-on the letterpress process is in a world whose way of seeing print and connecting with media is rapidly changing.

We’ve lost the telegram, we write emails instead of letters, and even long-time book lovers have given up turning a real page for the convenience of a tablet. Print media, once commonplace, is now fading. More and more newspapers, magazines, and literary journals have turned to the Web as their sole platform for publication (The Asheville Post, for instance), and this trend shows no signs of slowing down. Who is going to keep print alive?

Letterpress printers are going to do it.

Letterpress Love
Samantha Urbanick, of Hand Deliver Press, is just one of many letterpress printers working to breathe life back into the dying art of hand-pressed print. Samantha was originally drawn to letterpress through her love of the written word.

“I’ve always been drawn to words,” Samantha says, “my love of books, paper, and words got me into this.” Although she has a background in art, she didn’t discover letterpress until a few years ago. When she did, she couldn’t get the idea of hand-pressed prints out of her head. She promptly began her journey into the world of hand-set type.

She experimented with lino cuts at first—a fairly accessible form of print-making using blocks of linoleum that the artist carves images into and then presses into paper. She loved it so much that she signed up for a typesetting course as soon as possible in her Pennsylvania hometown, but the course, like the lino cuts, only served to whet her appetite. By 2010, Samantha had completely thrown herself into printmaking.

“I finally figured out what I want to do with my life,” she says. “Every time I pull a print, I grin.”

Letterpress Love
It would take a lot more than passion to be successful if she was really going to try to be a printmaker by trade, so she promptly began an apprenticeship with Kseniya Thomas—founder of Thomas-Printers in 2005 in Carlyle, Pennsylvania, and co-founder of Ladies of Letterpress—to learn the business of letterpress printing, an experience that served to further excite her passion, and with her skills improved, Samantha began building her business. She started humble and small, printing wedding invitations for friends and posters for her favorite bands. She quickly graduated to designing and printing logos for local Scranton businesses. The most exciting part of the whole endeavor was how supportive people were. It’s normal to expect that as a fledgling in a professional field where people are competing for the same jobs, colleagues would act competitive, but it wasn’t the case at all. As her business grew, so did the network of supporters in the letterpress community.

In 2011, Samantha attended her first Ladies of Letterpress Asheville-based conference and found herself “enveloped by groups of people who wanted (her) to succeed.” Printmaking has traditionally been a group activity because it had to be—many people working together around large machines that required more than two hands to operate—and the sentiment that resulted from that sort of community labor has remained a strong part of the overall feeling.

Letterpress Love
With the support she found from networking at the 2011 conference, and lots of determination and hard work in the year that followed, by the next Asheville Ladies of Letterpress conference, she was the one giving advice to first-timers. One of the most valuable parts of her experience at these conferences was discovering that Asheville was the place she wanted to be to build her business. As soon as she got back to Pennsylvania, she packed up belongings, including a 2000-pound Vandercook press, and by September of 2012 she’d moved to Asheville.

One of the challenges of moving to a new place and promoting yourself as a letterpress printer is that not everybody understands what letterpress is, let alone why it’s so important in a time when so many rely on the Internet for the majority of their communications. At times, Samantha is met with puzzled expressions when explaining what she does for a living. When this happens, she graciously passes her hand-pressed business card over to the person and says, “Just run your fingers over this,” and that’s all it takes.

Letterpress Love
They feel the text, raised slightly above the smooth paper, and they understand. The Internet has made it so easy to compartmentalize everything behind a little screen—so easy that we hardly hold anything in our hands anymore, but letterpress prints provides the tactile experience that so many crave in a world where so much of our physical communication and artistic expression has become digitized.

“This analog lifestyle really suits me—live a great life and work with your hands,” Samantha says, “I want to make beautiful things that people can hold in their hands forever; I want to keep this age-old craft alive.”

Continue to read Part 2 of this series about the art of letterpress.

Samantha Urbanick lives in Asheville and specializes in wedding invitations, business stationary, cards, posters and prints, and announcements. Contact her to place an order at handdeliverpress.com.

Ryan-Ashley Anderson studied Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina-Asheville and has a background in Fine Art. She made Asheville her home five years ago and is proud to call herself a member of a thriving craft community. Find out more at frayknot.com.