Im-Pressed: Local printers elevate letterpress to art form

Letterpress is printing with handset type and, frequently, handmade paper. It is an ancient craft that a small number of Santa Fe printers have elevated to the level of an art. Two of these printers, James Bourland of the Press at the Palace of the Governors, and Janet Rodney of Weaselsleeves Press are among Santa Fe’s printing elite.

Letterpress printing dates back to the 15th century and was invented by Johannes Gutenberg. This week, the Palace of the Governors is celebrating what would have been Benjamin Franklin’s 307th birthday. According to Tom Leech, Curator of the Press at the Palace of the Governors, “Franklin made the printing press, and specifically, a free press, a central priority for an informed public––and we still live with that legacy.”

Janet Rodney of Weaselsleeves Press shares her insight with SFR.

What sort of writing has been published through Weasel Sleeves Press?
Rodney: I had two ideas. One was to do experimental essays by women writers. I also wanted to do Native American, Mesoamerican narratives––stories.

You’re a printer and a writer. What got you into writing?

Did your relationship to writing change when you were using a letterpress?
I would say that writing is so much concerned with breath. And printing is concerned with breath. I taught some workshops up at Naropa University in Colorado, and the first thing I told the students was: now, just breathe. It has to be kinetic. Breath becomes a very physical thing when you’re printing, and when you’re writing it’s more subliminal.

What is your process?
I don’t tend to think things through totally when I’m making a book or a piece of art. For me, it’s important to have risk. Some of the best things I have made have come from mistakes.

James Bourland is with the Press at the Palace of the Governors.

What got you into the business?
Bourland: I got into the business right out of college. Before in high school I worked in a bindery, and then I got a degree in photography and got a job in a pre press shop, doing stripping, plate making, that kind of thing. And I also got into it kind of out of defiance. Both my parents were doctors, and they didn’t want me to be a printer––they said no, and that’s all it took.

What does it take to produce a book?
Paper, ink, patience. Tom’s mentor used to say: “A book is a collection of errors.” You’ll proofread something, and then a day later, you’ll see a typo.

Do you develop a rapport with the writers that you work with?
Most definitely. I get to meet them, and work intimately with them. I prefer writers over artists, because artists seem to have a little bit bigger ego.

Do you enjoy the work that you do?
We have classes in here, and I’ve tried to emphasize to the students that no matter what you do, you’ve got to put your heart in it, and if you don’t put your heart in it, don’t even bother. You see so many people in this world who are unhappy with their jobs, and they just grudgingly go to work every day, and that’s no way to live or work.

I love printing. My favorite quote from Ben Franklin goes: “If you do what you like, that’s happiness. If you do what you love, that’s freedom.”

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