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Local printer visits Argenziano School to teach the art of letterpress

Posted by Liam O'Kennedy  November 14, 2012 10:00 AM

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Eli Epstein visited Argenziano School in Somerville recently. He gave a presentation on how to use a letterpress. 

The following was submitted by Kinga A. Borondy:

A group of sixth and seventh graders from the Argenziano School in Somerville experienced a totally different kind of texting Thursday and Friday when printer and designer Eli Epstein of Union Press took his showcard letterpress to art class with teacher Diana Taremi.

The youngsters all took a turn using the portable press to print a poster; each class choosing a different color for their image.

“It’s communication deconstructed into its component parts, its letters,” said Taremi, admiring Epstein’s choice of creating an alphabet poster. The poster, printed in different color by each of the four classes, contrasted with students’ understanding of text. For them, text is an electronically transmitted message, this text, each wood-block letter carved in a different shape or font, was something they could actually hold.

“Are you pressing letters into paper?” Jackie Eloi, 7B, said when Epstein asked what the students thought letterpress printing is.

“Yes, pressing letters into paper and leaving a mark,” Epstein said He explained that wood-block printing is one of the oldest printing methods dating back to the middle ages when whole pages of letters were carved from wooden blocks.

Printing was revolutionized when Johannes Gutenberg developed moveable type which could be used repeatedly to print the same page many times and then rearranged to print different pages. Still a painstaking process, it was quicker than hand copying text.

“How long does it take to make a print?” asked Savanna Collins, 7B.

“The more colors we use, the longer it takes,” Epstein said. “We cut images by hand, set type by hand, feed the paper by hand, one sheet at a time, one color at a time. It’s a long process.”

As Epstein talked about the history of printing, he mixed his inks, using a palate knife and a glass sheet to stretch the rubber-based color. He took turns inking the raised letters with his friend and assistant Lindsey Richard, of Somerville, who came along to lend a hand. They had placed the type in the press bed before arriving to allow each student to come and press a poster.

“It’s a tactile experience,” Epstein said of letterpress printing. “I feel so great at the end of the day when I wash my hands knowing they are dirty because I used them to make something. I want to give the kids a taste that this is something they can do; get paid to make art.”

Some students nonchalantly pulled the heavy roller across the paper that was stretched over the inked surface with one hand; others used both to pull the roller. The smiles were universal when they peeled the paper from the press and saw the alphabet in red, blue, green or purple.

“Cool,” said Saja El-Saudi of her print, in a vibrant green mixed on-the-spot in the classroom by Epstein.

A group of sixth grade boys pulled their stools close to the printing press and watched avidly as their classmates pulled their prints; these inked in dark purple. They examined the posters, commenting on the intensity of the color, different for each poster, and pointed out the areas where the ink was sparse.

“Each piece of type is different, some of the older ones have worn edges, the less-used letters can have sharper edges,” Epstein said, explaining the discrepancies. Much of his wood type is between 50 and 100 years old. When letterpress was a common form of printing, the wood type was traced and carved from blocks by machines operated by skilled craftspeople.

Epstein hand carves images from linoleum blocks when he creates posters, cards, CD cases, wedding invitations for clients; the Union Square Farmers’ Market, local musicians, the Somerville Arts Council.

While still a graphic design student at Northeastern University, Epstein, now 26, found designing on computers unfulfilling and searched for a different creative outlet. He spent three months as an intern in the Tennessee firm Hatch Show Prints, one of the country’s oldest letterpress shops. On his return and while still an undergraduate, he took a continuing education course on letterpress at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

It was through his professor, Keith Cross, that he found what is now Union Press.

“I had been hired to organize and resurrect a collection of letterpress printing equipment once owned by a 'union' print shop called the City Press” Cross said of the beginnings of the press. Once he had finished the work, he was encouraged to run the shop as a regular printing business. He established Milk Row Press which included a Vadercook SP15 and a Chandler and Price platen press, and an extensive collection of both wood and metal type.

Cross, now a Worcester resident, left Somerville in 2002 and the equipment lay dormant for years. When Cross met Eli, he recognized that his student was serious about letterpress. Subsequently, Epstein stepped into the void and now operates the equipment as Union Press, located at 440 Somerville Ave., next to the Milk Row Cemetery (the origin of the original press name).

“Eli utilizes an enviable collection of wood type and creates beautiful work” Cross said, admitting he missed the days he worked in that space.

Epstein has just expanded the shop into a larger space in the same building where he hopes to hold workshops and open his space to the public.

“I get so excited about what I do; I don’t think letterpress should be limited access; I would like to be able to let people get their hands dirty with it,” Epstein said. “I like to know that when a letterpress print is touched, you can appreciate that someone made it with their hands.” And added, laughing: “I let people put their fingerprints all over my stuff.”

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