Making an Impression: Letterpress Renaissance in Halifax

“I think people in general are returning to a hand-crafted culture, possibly as a counterpoint to the tidal wave of technology that we're inundated with on a daily basis” – Kyle Durrie, Moveable Type

Letterpress: a still vibrant art form that is often misunderstood in modern cultural spheres and banished to the confines of archaic history—namely Johannes Gutenburg’s infamous invention that engulfed the world in the popular printing of pamphlets and books with wood type in the 15th century. Today letterpress is used to make everything from custom wedding invitations, to political posters, to coasters, to notebooks and personalized stationary.

Always novel, letterpress appeals to those who value both the uniqueness of the singular object, and the artistry of imperfection. It remains one of the most functional and tactile art forms and has remarkably stood the test of time and technology.

In recent years, Halifax, Nova Scotia has become a haven for letterpress entrepreneurs, enthusiasts, and educators alike.

The legendary port city is home to the historic Dawson Print Shop, a once ancillary business, now educational space and open artist’s studio owned by NSCAD University. Housing several ancient, fully-functioning presses along with a veritable treasure trove of wood and metal type, the shop also serves as the production facility for several independent artists as well as a meeting space for NSCAD’s own “Letterpress Gang” (LPG).

According to LPG Secretary and graphic design artist Katie Tower, the group was created simply “to preserve and promote the Dawson”. Today LPG is an open group of letterpress advocates who maintain the shop and aim to educate the public on letterpress by showcasing and selling their own pieces, offering a Wayzegoose bi-annually, and participating in the annual Nocturne art exhibition.

Niko Silvester, LPG member and proprietor of “White Raven Ink”, an independently run letterpress and bookbinding business, was part of NSCAD’s first letterpress class and has had much time to reflect on the appeal of letterpress in Halifax.

“It's partly the Dawson Printshop--not every city has a place when people can learn about letterpress and try it for themselves. It may also be the age of the city; Halifax is old for a North American city, so we've developed an appreciation for history. The first newspaper in Canada was printed here, so letterpress has been here for a very long time.”

Emily Davidson of “Make Work Design”, a graphic design business specializing in letterpress printing run from the Dawson, agrees.

“The Dawson Printshop collection is the corner stone of the letterpress community in Halifax. [It] is the ideal site of a letterpress ‘renaissance’ because it literally revives a part of Nova Scotia’s printing history in a contemporary context.”

Although the art of letterpress printing has evolved throughout the centuries, it has never lost its unique, tangible appeal, with many letterpress enthusiasts choosing to print in the old style, revamping old machines and unearthing dusty boxes of type from dank basements.

One such treasure hunter is Andrea Rahal. Recognizing the appeal of letterpress in Halifax, This former NSCAD graphic design student fell in love with the art after a three-week intensive class with bookbinding and letterpress guru Joe Landry.

“I always liked the look of it, I just didn’t know if I’d enjoy the process of it… but after day one, I was hooked!”

Shortly over a year ago, Rahal began a business plan for Inkwell Modern Handmade Boutique & Letterpress Studio. After revamping a rescued Golding Pearl No#11 Improved Press (circa 1920) affectionately nicknamed “Pretty Izzy”, she recently celebrated the launch of her letterpress services with a successful open house, crediting outside movements for allowing letterpress room to blossom in Halifax.

“I think it was started a decade ago, obviously things are slower to get to […] the Eastern part of Canada, but there’s definitely a renaissance—a resurgence. People just like the tactile quality of it, being able to touch it. I think it coincides with the slow food movement and slow design”

Davidson notes Halifax’s unique personality as a key factor.

“I think letterpress appeals to the DIY sensibility of many Haligonians. Letterpress is a small-scale process that leaves a trace of the producer. Since Halifax is the kind of place where you know your neighbours it makes for an arts community that cares about how things are made and who made them.”

Often a misunderstood or underappreciated art, most proponents of letterpress agree that only finished products tend to be seen, with few understanding the process behind their creation. Silvester, who shares her passion by teaching Introduction to Printing at the Dawson through the Extended Studies department at NSCAD, sees this first hand.

“At first people think it's as easy as photocopying, and then when they learn how it's actually done, they wonder why anyone would bother […] But show them a beautifully printed letterpress piece and the same thing printed digitally, and they begin to understand what it's about.”

Very much an apprentice art, the Extended Studies classes are a delicate introduction into the potentially overwhelming world of letterpress.

“It’s a once-a-week evening course where students get a brief introduction to setting type and printing. I try to get them comfortable with type as quickly as possible so they can get to work on whatever projects they want”

This Fall NSCAD will also be offering a wood type letterpress class for youth ages 15+ which Silvester claims is “less technical and easier to get comfortable with than metal type.”

In true educational fashion, and in large part due to the efforts of LPG and Andrea Rahal, Kyle Durrie, proprietor of Power and Light Press based in Portland, Oregon will be making Halifax the only Canadian stop on her North American letterpress ‘tour’, Moveable Type this fall.

Durrie has been traveling in her 1982 Chevy Step Van-cum-letterpress studio since mid-June, stopping in bookish cities and arts savvy small towns to share her love of letterpress and leave behind a souvenir or two.

“I was interested in combining my loves of travel, adventure, and letterpress printing into one big project. I was very inspired by my friends' bands […] I thought, well; I'm not a musician, but there must be a way that I can travel with MY art.”

For Durrie, the appeal of letterpress is its paradoxical nature.

“I love how the process and product are actually very different experience - the giant hulking machinery is very industrial and dirty, but the finished product is often so fine and delicate. I love how those two work together”

Durrie’s ‘cross-country adventures in printing’ will be stopping in Halifax from September 23rd to 25th, visiting the Halifax Seaport Farmer’s Market on September 24th, Inkwell on September 25h after a visit to NSCAD on the 23rd. As usual, Durrie will be offering letterpress information and instruction, and even printing some local fare.
Durrie shares the sentiments of the majority of letterpress artists, inviting Haligonians to “Come make a print, whether it's your first time or your 500th!”

So join the revolution, you’ve been cordially invited to make an impression. ~ Whitney Moran