It started with six Ball State University students: a couple of seniors, a journalism major, a creative writing major, a freshman and a student who was a week late to registration. For them, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays during the fall semester of 2017 meant inky hands and carpooling.
Located in downtown Muncie, Indiana, Book Arts Collaborative was their newsroom away from the Unified Media Lab on campus. Stories were told through the postcards they ran through the printing press. Designs were created through the decorative paper and colored waxy thread they used to sew together the pages of a book or journal. Once they were invested in their own projects, pitches were tossed across the room from their workstations which were wherever they laid their tools that day.
This Immersive Learning Class was designed to study the shift of journalism’s abandonment of movable type from a front row seat. During the exploration of this dying art form, an appreciation for what came before them arose and began to further mold them into the writers they are today. Read more below to see the documentation of their journeys as young printers in this foreign world.
Spreading the Knowledge of Letterpress one card at a time
By: Tier Morrow
Sitting around the living room after Christmas dinner, daughter, son, and husband each played with words back and forth to create the perfect title.
But nothing seemed to fit.
“Mom what’s something that is important to you when you think about letterpress and the shop?” her son finally asked.
“The presence of my dad,” she replied.
And so Little Cricket Letterpress was born out of fond memories with her father as a young girl standing on a stool to file away tiny blocks of type; she would forever be his “Cricket.”
Martha Beeson is a second-generation printer who took on her father’s shop in 1998 where she now creates cards and wedding invitations while also hosting workshops in Winona Lake, Indiana.
She is carrying out a 600-year-old craft among 4,690 other printers in Indiana, currently one of the most populated states for letterpress, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Letterpress makes her happy and you can see it when she works,” said Steve Beeson, Martha’s husband. “She is always very focused on the project she has at hand trying to find the best solutions to her problems. It is also a big way she expresses her creativity.”
Martha said she remembers the strong smell of the oil-based ink that would linger in the basement as she watched her father teach her brother, whom he thought would continue the business, to print.
When letterpress finally went out of fashion completely, her father was unable to continue selling pieces but still tinkered in the art when he could.
“My father got cancer towards the end of his life, and when he knew he was going to pass on, he asked me if I wanted the shop,” Beeson said. “Of course I said yes. We moved everything to my house, and he took about three weeks training me on everything.”
After accepting the ancient machines, Beeson learned that her husband’s grandparents, who once lived in her home now, owned a letterpress shop, and at one point there were other presses in the basement. Among her equipment, she still has one of the small presses that her husband’s grandparents painted completely gold, but which is now restored to working condition.
“I think it is kind of symbolic of letterpress. I mean nothing worked. You couldn’t move anything because it was painted solid for years as a showpiece. People thought that letterpress had really just become an ancient art from history,” said Beeson. “Now we use it and take it to different shows and places where people can use it and experience letterpress.”
For a few years, Beeson did not spend much time printing because she had a full-time job as an art teacher. But four years ago, she retired from teaching, and now spends about 15 hours a week among the old type.
The more and more people started reaching out to Beeson for wedding invitations and other designs, the more she ran into the problem of finding wooden images, also known as cuts, that would be appropriate for the situation.
Beeson’s solution was teaching herself the 60-year-old craft of hand-carving by watching YouTube videos. As engravers once did in 1970, Beeson uses specific engraving tools that allow her to cut on the engrain of the wood instead of the cross-grain which makes her carvings smoother.
Today, Beeson now has more than 40 cuts that she has designed and hand carved using the old technique, and most of her favorites are among them.
“Letterpress is a vintage method of printing that expresses images and ideas in the most beautiful way possible,” said Beeson. “It is such as a unique trade, and there is so much beauty in the old craft that I try to make it as simple as possible, but sometimes it is easier to show someone a pressed card, than it is to tell them.”
Aside from the thrill of creating new pieces, stepping up to the press and printing something new still amazes Beeson no matter what she is printing.
“I will never get over the beauty of each inked masterpiece I create. Sometimes I’ll stand at the press and gasp in amazement each time I take a card off and replace it with another,” Beeson said.
Intro by Kayla Bickman