The Well-Traveled Metaphor

I've never been out of the country (you don't count, Canada, to a New York gal coming of age in the 90's.) When asked about this 'choice' I am forced to both consider and share that it was anything but. The lack of travel tied into paying for my education, starting a business and ultimately owning the 1920 poky-walled bungalow of my dreams, all of these things held together with spackle, paint and sheer gumption. But with the exception of the til-death-do-us-part mortgage, life is debt-free and Starshaped boasts one of the finest metal type collections in the Midwest. My true choices were good ones.

Eponymous Dard Hunter ampersand, representing East Aurora, New York

Eponymous Dard Hunter ampersand, representing East Aurora, New York

American Uncial, by Victor Hammer, printed at the Wells Book Arts Center in Aurora, New York

American Uncial, by Victor Hammer, printed at the Wells Book Arts Center in Aurora, New York

Totemic, by Jim Rimmer, representing Vancouver

Totemic, by Jim Rimmer, representing Vancouver

Given my foreign travel virginity, the irony of The Well-Traveled Ampersand series is not lost on me. My anxiety with this shortcoming often leads to insecurity and not feeling qualified to engage in conversation with exceptionally well-traveled individuals in printing circles. I am thankful for two situations that help alleviate what is likely a self-imposed stress. The first is that we live in an extremely diverse and multicultural city. The street by our home is host to many Latin and South American parades in the summer, prompting a 2-year-old Jo in 2009 to ask 'can we go to the parade this weekend?' assuming there was one every Saturday at noon. There almost always is.
The other benefit to living is Chicago is our position as travel hub for those on their way to the annual Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum Wayzgoose or Newberry Library. This brings a stream of travelers through the studio and exposes both of us to cultural differences and funny slang; Jo learned this year that 'trump' in England is code for 'fart.' This was a gift to a 10-year-old if ever there was one.

Concave Tuscan, a popular style for wood type, much of which was produced at Hamilton

Concave Tuscan, a popular style for wood type, much of which was produced at Hamilton

Prior to hitching his wagon to mine, Mr. Starshaped was indeed well-traveled and spent a year living in London. I regret we were never able to travel together and it pains me to remember his first sentence after learning he had cancer: 'You need to get a passport.' I built ampersands during his illness that prompted discussions of his time and experiences abroad as well as reconnecting with the people there he loved.

London Underground, by Edward Johnston

London Underground, by Edward Johnston

Ampersand by Vojtech Preissig, representing Prague

Ampersand by Vojtech Preissig, representing Prague

Adrian Frutiger's ampersand for the Paris airport

Adrian Frutiger's ampersand for the Paris airport

Jo and I get a lot of mileage out of our fair city. We've spent hours in front of the Chagall windows at the Art Institute, a favorite of hers as she likes us to make up stories about the imagery. And we study the Tribune Tower which boasts stone and brick from famous structures all over the world, including the pyramids; this gives new meaning to the Magnificent Mile.
In the summer of 2015 she and I traveled by car to California and then east to New York, a trip that was physically and emotionally challenging for me (more here) but presented Jo with her first opportunity to see the ocean. She fixated on this as a personal manifest destiny-style mantra and her 8-year-old exuberance was a welcome respite.

Californian, by Fred Goudy

Californian, by Fred Goudy

Over the 18 months of developing this project, I reached out to a few contemporaries, crossing my fingers they'd contribute an ampersand based on their varied travels and experiences in the world and so I could live vicariously through them. One of these was Russell Maret, who shared his Cancellaresca Milanese, the one image that breaks out of the form itself to add structures of Siena. I can't pretend to understand most of the work Russell does; what I do know is that it's visually striking and beautifully printed, and I can stare at it for hours and hours as I attempt to pick apart the brain that made it possible.

Cancellaresca Milanese by Russell Maret, to represent Siena, Italy

Cancellaresca Milanese by Russell Maret, to represent Siena, Italy

Another lucky shot was getting Mark Van Wageningen of Novo Typo on board to contribute. I've been watching his work with chromatic type, both digitally and in metal, for some time and fell in love with how well this form fit the cityscapes of Amsterdam.

Bixa Stencil by Mark Van Wageningen, to represent Amsterdam

Bixa Stencil by Mark Van Wageningen, to represent Amsterdam

Joseph Churchward's Maori was supposed to be the final ampersand as it would provide the biggest challenge to my bandsaw skills. But my quest for contributors had to be put on hold while caring for Mr. S in his final months so I jumped it ahead. It's a truly impressive ampersand, and I nailed it.

Churchward Maori, by Joseph Churchward, in homage to the Maori of New Zealand

Churchward Maori, by Joseph Churchward, in homage to the Maori of New Zealand

There was a shocking lack of women designers when I first developed a list of potential ampersands. Not acceptable. It was suggested I check 'my own backyard' for talent and there's no doubt I am surrounded by it.
Nadine of Sonnenzimmer is a solid friend and comrade-in-arms in Chicago's design scene. She's always been there for me with no nonsense insight into work and a kick in the ass when it's needed. She has held me accountable to my own work and if I ever phoned it in she'd be there to let me know. As a native of Switzerland, it's impressive how quickly she developed her no-BS Chicago attitude and I love her for it. Her typographic work is anything but stale and this ampersand was the biggest challenge of the entire project.

Sonnenzimmer Manuscript by Nadine Nakanishi, representing Switzerland in grid form

Sonnenzimmer Manuscript by Nadine Nakanishi, representing Switzerland in grid form

Frances, my Frances, the cleverest turn-of-phrase woman I know, who seamlessly maneuvers between pattern and type, provided a sprawling ampersand based on her time in Vienna. How badly did we want to call it Wiener Chic? We giggled and silenced our 10-year-old selves.

Wien, by Frances MacLeod, representing Vienna

Wien, by Frances MacLeod, representing Vienna

Jenna Blazevich of Vichcraft is a beacon for feminism and owning the issues that surround empowering women and running a business. Her time studying letterforms in Rome led to Sea Change Script, and the change we hoped would come in November 2016.

Sea Change Script by Jenna Blazevich, representing Rome

Sea Change Script by Jenna Blazevich, representing Rome

I found Pooja Saxena through Alphabettes and admired her writing and type work. There is no ampersand in Devanagari script so she created a reverse stroke form that hints at the style. I found new ornaments cast at Skyline Type Foundry from Indian matrices. Tiny pigeons and kites dot the Delhi sky. This is a place to which I have longed to go for many years.

Viparit, by Pooja Saxena, representing Delhi

Viparit, by Pooja Saxena, representing Delhi

Chicago, my Chicago. The city is the constant in my life and grounds both Jo and me. Its streets and structures remain throughout all trials and the people, our village, are everywhere I turn.

Cooper Black, by Oswald Cooper, representing Chicago

Cooper Black, by Oswald Cooper, representing Chicago

I'm ever mindful that the triple crown of parenthood, homeowner and entrepreneur is an exhausting mantle to bear and we are very slowly settling into what I call our New World Order. I am hopeful that opportunities to travel and see the world will present themselves for myself and Jo. In the meantime, the passport that I rushed for a failed attempt to leave town last summer will sit at the back of the desk drawer, patiently awaiting its first stamp.
That said, there's a substantial, challenging and exhilarating project on the horizon for Starshaped that will define the studio's place, as well as my own, within the context of Chicago's past, present and future. I am looking forward to revealing more of this as 2017, already off to a jump start, progresses.

For more detailed process info on the series, please read this post. And this.
Full portfolios as well as individual prints can be purchased here.

Book of Rules

On June 30th, 2016, I lost Mr. Starshaped following a nine month battle with cancer that I attempted to process through print here and here. As we pick up the pieces and wade into our next chapter, we're grateful for the unwavering support shown us by so many.
Over the winter, unbeknownst to me, Mr. S and his psychologist, Stacy Sanford, at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, documented a series of thoughts that he wanted to leave with Jo before the inevitable separated them. I discovered this when Stacy reached out at one of his appointments and gave me a copy. I was blown away; this short list included things he repeatedly expressed to Jo but couldn't write down. I knew immediately it needed a better format than a sad Word print out.

Kooks, by David Bowie, was the first song Mr. S taught to Jo and she could sing it at the age of 2. It's been a touchstone for the two of them over the years and given the weird things her parents do for a living, Jo has always loved it. Bowie mentions giving his child a 'Book of Rules... what to say to people when they pick on you.' This seemed a perfect description for Mr. S's list.
I created a simple structure that would serve as a sort of chapbook for Jo to keep close. I looked at the delightful work of W.A. Dwiggins for ornamental inspiration that would appeal to a nine year old so she could interpret the images as she liked. Everything about the simple design kept this audience of one in mind.

Printed in an edition of 75, many have been gifted to family but a number remain and are available here. There are 12 rules, with a brief intro and colophon on the inside covers.
At the risk of adding too much of my own verbiage, I'll let Mr. S's words take it from here.

Images from July 2015 and June 2016. The appearances of my two loves may have changed but the intangible between them never did.

Sweet Home, Ornamental Chicago

Since moving to Chicago in 1994, I've been captivated by both the ornate and the everyday architectural ornament of the city and how both are at home together, as if they recognize their disparate elements and accept that it takes all types to build a city.
I've used all types of metal ornament to create structures that represent various aspects of Chicago, the city I love, warts and all. 'Mom, why are you taking pictures of that again?!' has given way to 'Mom did you get a picture of this ornament here?'

A few images captured around the Mag Mile

A few images captured around the Mag Mile

A tiny sampling of the beautiful Cultural Center

A tiny sampling of the beautiful Cultural Center

Macy's on State Street, neé Marshall Fields

Macy's on State Street, neé Marshall Fields

The Burnham Hotel in the former Reliance Building never disappoints

The Burnham Hotel in the former Reliance Building never disappoints

Not exactly at a loss for metal type to create buildings in the studio, I still itched to try my hand at designing ornaments entirely specific to Chicago and based on my photos. Thankfully the technology to create the matrices needed and the craft of casting are accessible today.

Jessie Reich, First Lady Typecaster in Space

I met Jessie in the Fall of 2014 and ever since then we've attempted to find the perfect collaborative project. At last, it's here! Jessie is full of firsts, from being the first graduate of the Book Arts Concentration at Wells College to being the first woman to attend and graduate from Skyline Type Foundry's Thompson Tech. She Really. Likes. Typecasting. In her words:

I love the grittiness and the glitz; amidst the grease and kerosene and smoke, from the freshly cast type to the mats to the machines, there is endless beauty within a working type foundry. It’s a great feeling to begin a day with an empty galley, a box of mats, a pair of tweezers, and a trusty casting machine, and end it with a sense of accomplishment supported by the production of beautiful new type, soon to be shipped off to continue the life and legacy of letterpress printing. It’s both highly satisfying and empowering work.

Whenever she has a free moment, you can find Jessie at the Bixler Letterfoundry in Skaneateles, New York. These are a few of her gorgeous photos that show exactly what she mentions above.

bixler2.jpg

Luck brought us Ed Rayher at Swamp Press to create the precious matrices. Working to develop exactly what will provide the best result is currently where we're at with the production. Learning the nuances of a new-to-me material is a challenge I love; after sketching and re-sketching a few dozen ornaments, we've whittled it down to the top contenders.
Quickly drafting these in Illustrator lost something in translation, so I've been revisiting the designs to add warmth and imperfections, the characteristics that brought me to this project in the first place. And so I am redrawing the best of the bunch to see which feel right and represent what I find to be missing from my own collection and often those of shops I've visited across the country.

Looking over various incarnations with talented design ladies

Looking over various incarnations with talented design ladies

When the correct number of ornaments is established (between 4-6), then we will work with Ed on the specifics of creating the 24-point mats for Jessie to cast. We have already begun to develop our packaging ideas and usage information, as well as deadline schedules, and will announce pre-orders on sets as soon as we are confident that all systems are go. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, you can grab one of these sweet postcards from Jessie at the American Typecasting Fellowship conference this coming weekend (August 11-14th) or request one from Starshaped.

I agree with Jessie when she states 'anyone involved in contemporary letterpress printing can see that its Renaissance is in full swing; with new wood and metal type still being made, new typefaces and ornaments being designed, artists making ground-breaking work that is completely innovative yet pays homage to the tradition, and an entire community built on the grounds of a like passion and the drive to move it forward.' It's a thrill to work with another lady as enthusiastic as myself about ornament and pushing the craft of letterpress. Even if the process is centuries old, adding our stamp on it and challenging other printers to create exciting work is a worthwhile endeavor.

On My Tour of the World

San Francisco, Chicago, Vancouver, Siena, London, Two Rivers, Aurora, Prague, Vienna... The Well-Traveled Ampersand series has made one loop around the globe and is about to embark on a second. I'm using this layover to show a little more behind-the-scenes as to how each ampersand is created. While the process for building each is similar, the drastic differences in form means tweaking how the structural elements are cut and stabilized.

The first step is choosing what ampersand to tackle and why. Does it tie in well with a region or city? Was it designed by someone I admire? Will it challenge me to set type in a new way? Is the form ridiculously incredible, and will that give me the fuel to work day and night to elevate it through the use of metal ornaments?

Russell Maret cleaning up his Cancellaresca Milanese before the pattern was made.

Russell Maret cleaning up his Cancellaresca Milanese before the pattern was made.

About half of the ampersands were chosen before beginning the series. I left the remaining open so that there would be flexibility in case something surprising presented itself, and if I found contemporary collaborators to contribute. The caliber of folks jumping in to provide a character is overwhelming and inspiring.

The pattern for Wien, by Frances MacLeod.

The pattern for Wien, by Frances MacLeod.

After the pattern is sketched out, I trace it onto wood and trim it in sections with a bandsaw to fill the galley. Some of this custom made furniture, the non-printing wood supports, is sanded and refined, then double stick taped onto the galley. If needed, I run a paper strip around all seams to smooth the joins.

Cooper Black, awaiting its destiny with metal ornaments.

Cooper Black, awaiting its destiny with metal ornaments.

Then I'm off and running! I pull together research for each ampersand, examining how to represent its region or city. Are there specific structures that are recognizable? Is there an overarching ideology that encompasses the area? Does the city offer something specific that no other city has? What ornaments in the Starshaped collection will best represent this?
Building out the structure is a bit like Tetris-meets-Operation. Like all letterpress work, the type and ornaments must be held in place firmly to print successfully. But unlike normal typesetting, the elements of each ampersand must work around curves instead of straight lines. So while I attempt to set them solidly in place, they occasionally fall over and out come the tweezers.

Filling in Californian.

Filling in Californian.

The hardest two ampersands thus far, for entirely different reasons, have been Preissig (Prague) and Cancellaresca Milanese (Siena).
For Preissig I wanted to create a little snapshot of Prague, keeping the vantage point straight while building on an extremely angled ampersand. It took days to get it right and many, many proofs of the sky area to develop the 'magical winter night' feel I wanted.

Preissig detail with tweezers, extra sorts and an etching needle for pushing down errant spaces.

Preissig detail with tweezers, extra sorts and an etching needle for pushing down errant spaces.

Late night workspace.

Late night workspace.

Every ampersand has an entirely different form; this is probably why it is such an attractive character to both type junkies and those who couldn't tell you what 'stem' and 'counter' mean. I fell hard for Russell Maret's Cancellaresca Milanese, with it's sleek and sweeping curves. Having had the fortune to discuss it together in the studio, we considered how some aspect of Siena could be included that was outside of the form itself, given it's narrow curves.

Detail of Cancellaresca Milanese.

Detail of Cancellaresca Milanese.

The final form, with many thin copper and brass spaces along the edges to help keep the curve true.

The final form, with many thin copper and brass spaces along the edges to help keep the curve true.

Since writing this post about the first four ampersands there have been these additions to the series:

Concave Tuscan

Concave Tuscan

Concave Tuscan is a chunky nod to a well-known wood typeface and represents Two Rivers, Wisconsin, home to the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum. I chose ornamentation that is popular in both wood and metal form and used wood type from Hamilton as well as Virgin Wood Type and Moore Wood Type to recognize today's practitioners of the craft.

Wien, by Frances MacLeod, pulls in architectural styles for which Vienna is known, including Romanesque, Baroque and Workstatte.

Wien

Wien

The most recent ampersand is Totemic by Jim Rimmer. It features bold, graphic elements indicative of the totem poles of Vancouver and was downright fun to piece together.

Totemic

Totemic

I've selected some glorious additions to the series to be printed over the coming months. While some are historical by designers no longer with us (Adrian Frutiger and Dard Hunter are on deck), a few are brand new, never-before-seen characters by women I am so pleased to have on board. Jenna Blazevich will be creating an ampersand based on her upcoming design intensive in Rome while Nadine Nakanishi, one half of Sonnenzimmer, those international design world game changers, will no doubt be drawing something unlike all ampersands ever known.

Limited sets of the entire portfolio are available at the presale price through the end of June. Individual prints are also for sale as the ampersands are created. The portfolio includes a digitally printed 12" colophon with photos of all of the type forms. All are housed in a printed sleeve.
Show a little love for the 27th letter, like my Spanish sister-in-type Eva of Familia Plomez, who came to visit this Fall.

For Those in Peril

As the salt water gushes into our ship’s holes,
Don’t you dare jump without me
I’m no good on my own.

'The Wreck' · Frightened Rabbit

On this night in 1912, Mother Nature took the life of the Titanic in a death scene that lasted less than three hours. Like so many, this story captivates me and is subject to prints like this:

What hold does this have on my psyche? Two reasons come to mind. The first is my fear of water and the claustrophobic feeling I encounter when up to my neck in it. This mistrust led to successfully enjoying the last 20 years sans bathing suit, a record broken at the insistence of my 9-year-old mermaid.
The second is the loss of this floating monument to Craft that took countless skilled hands three years to build. I wonder if the plasterers, the carpenters, the riveters, the woodworkers mourned not only the loss of life that day but the loss of what may have been the finest work of their hands. It reminds me that all craft is ephemeral and part of a bigger story, not the story. I create and let the creations go, to soar or fall flat, and I am grown up enough accept both scenarios.

by Arsenal Handicraft... a favorite print, acquired at a very low point in 2015.

by Arsenal Handicraft... a favorite print, acquired at a very low point in 2015.

On the other hand, a friend moving to Nashville lamented the loss of feeling grounded, of not having a large body of water nearby. Water reminds us exactly how small and inconsequential we probably are. We celebrate this humble moment the last day before school starts in September every year, heading to Lake Michigan at sunrise with friends to give our city kids their last taste of the beach.

Everything I love is on the table.
Everything I love is out to sea.

'Don't Swallow the Cap' · The National

These days our house is swimming in a rainbow of drugs as Mr. Starshaped navigates cancerous waters. Got nausea? There's a drug for that! Got anxiety? There's a drug for that! Got pain? Lots of drugs for that! Got a rare fibroblastic reticulum cell sarcoma the docs only see every 4-5 years? Sorry. You're F'd.
My cheap and easy drug of choice is music that enhances the therapeutic studio hours. And I am apparently not the only one to use it as such:

In the studio I find every drug I need. Focus issues? Debussy's Preludes. Exorcise demons? Daughter. Unrequited passion for Mr. Starshaped? Puccini (mostly the 3rd act of Tosca). Every other emotion? Ida.

Oh, this water is making my death
Every season stealing my man from my bed
And if this winter should carry him through to the next
All I can offer is yours to take

'This Water' · Ida

As a stagehand his entire adult life, Mr. S's craft is quite literally an entertaining one. I have watched him explain to Jo the principles of automation, hydraulics, rigging and conductor cameras. But she sees father-as-magician: 'Daddy made it snow!' 'Daddy made the stairs appear in the wall!' 'Daddy made the furniture move with no one touching it!'
On Christmas Eve, 2015, we watched Gotta Dance from the front of house, the only seat available to Mr. S this time around, due to the deleterious effects of cancer on his ability to work. Rounding out Jerry Mitchell's trifecta of populist musicals, (Mr. S worked the first two), we laughed through it until Mae, an elderly woman losing her husband to Alzheimer's, sings The Waters Rise. It was then I realized the fear of losing my husband was the same as my fear of drowning. Was Jo oblivious, parked in between us? No. The second time she and I saw the show she anticipated the song, looked to me and reached for my hand. At that moment she understood metaphor while I understood we'd keep each other afloat.

Let the water rise,
Let the ground crack.
Come out, come out, to the sea my love...
and just... drown with me...

'Shallow' · Daughter
'A song about the Last Day' explained Elena at the February 2016 Chicago show

This is the wave of grief that came after learning our experiments with chemo had come to an end. It resolutely failed in every way. The daily dichotomy of vibrantly pushing past memories to the forefront while not knowing what's actually on the road ahead, especially given the lack of signage, is a dance we perform.
Seeing Mr. S in pain and helpless to do anything about it? Another all-consuming wave.

The musical b-roll in my brain put this on constant replay:

When I hear you saying
That we stood no chance
I'll dive for your memory
We stood that chance

'Dive for your Memory' · The Go-Betweens

I can't think of anything worse than actually, not metaphorically, diving into something over my head. But if there was a cure for Mr. S on the other end of that dive, like when those kids on The Twilight Zone dive into the pool through a metaphysical hole that leads them to a happy place without horrid, bickering parents, then I'd do it.
But there isn't, so I bend my metal rules to do what they don't want to do, because it's the only thing I can control.

All together, the forms became this.

We sought another expert opinion this week but the second verse was the same as the first. I carved, carved away at this linoleum, wishing I could cut out the malignancies creeping through Mr. S's chest. My hands guide me through uncharted waters, laying down new, coping graphs, and when they are distracted this way, my eyes forget to cry for a while.

Together these elements formed a print in serious blues on muted gray cotton paper that absorbs the waves. It reminds me to practice diving, to make sure I return to the surface with poignant, silly or sublime memories and the best day's work, the common ground the three of us share.

I thank The Go-Betweens for their words that gave this print legs and the ornaments that played along. When I sit in my 'crying spot' on the studio floor, the vantage point is of the vast ornament collection, and I yield to their siren call. Tears released and then shut off, I reach my hands up and outward and towards their little metal bodies and the typesetting therapy session begins.
Can I make peace with water? With the metaphor? Yes, because of my village of friends that give me a sense of place:

Close up of 'This Must Be The Place' by Dan Grzeca

Close up of 'This Must Be The Place' by Dan Grzeca

I will continue to make things, then sell the things, and if no one wants the things and they all end up at the bottom of Lake Michigan, I am fine with that. I inherently understand the ephemeral, our place in the world and that we've already built everything we truly need.

Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

'Eternal Father, Strong to Save'

'Dive for your Memory' was printed in an edition of 75, which is available here. And thanks for thinking it doesn't belong at the bottom of the lake.


Of course there's a playlist to accompany this post. It's available here. Note choice of Irish Guards cover of 'Eternal Father' as a nod to the Irish hands that built the Titanic. Bonus point for anyone guessing my superimposed, though historic, link between 'California' and the ship.

The Union, Forever

Back in the courtship days, Mr. Starshaped and I spent hours finding and photographing Chicago's historical details, especially those pertaining to the city's long and storied relationship with trade unions. As a member of IATSE Stagehands Local 2, Mr. S's life's work is tied into this history and its ever-changing social and political influence on the working classes.

Photographs from past visits to important labor history sites.

Photographs from past visits to important labor history sites.

One of the structures that has always resonated is the Union Stock Yard gate, the sole standing reminder of what was once referenced in Sandburg's perfect poem Chicago: Hog Butcher to the World. Sitting serenely in what is currently a corporate industrial area, its unassuming presence almost belittles what happened behind it for a century. The area surrounding what was the Stock Yard, known as the Back of the Yards neighborhood, could be viewed as a microcosm for any large urban environment that promised ample work for a massive influx of immigrant labor. It took 70 years to organize such a disparate workforce and demand decent living and working conditions. The seeds of social change began here, as in so many low wage areas of the city at the turn of the century, when the actions of the few towards reform and education helped the many achieve a greater quality of life.

I recently stopped to visit again, this time on my own, to collect more images with the objective of creating a new print. While photographing, I reminisced about the first time I met Mr. S's Grand Pap, a hard-working, first-generation American who spent his life laboring in a meat packing plant. This man won me over when I was pregnant by ordering two chicken breasts for me at lunch because I was 'eating for two.' His straight shooting humor and affection for family, not to mention his passion for meat and the right way to slice salami, is much missed.

Years prior to dating, Mr. S came across a stash of wonderfully vivid 1950s-era posters for the International Livestock Expositions that occurred on the grounds of the Stock Yard. Three of these, in beautiful frames to match the moldings of our 1920 Chicago-style bungalow (again, a nod to our love of the city), now hang in our living room. Another familial connection exists here as my Scottish-born Great Great Grandfather exhibited sheep at these very events.

Framed and photographed by Artists Frame Service, Chicago.

Framed and photographed by Artists Frame Service, Chicago.

I thought I could approach this differently than most of the structural pieces I've printed if I used rules (lines) as the main, or key color and then added subtle textures over them. I didn't sketch much, didn't work out the proportions. I found curved furniture that felt like a good start and quickly built out from there.

The first good carbon paper proof.

The first good carbon paper proof.

What was I thinking? This was incredibly challenging. Getting all of the lines to stay in place, especially the curved ones, not to mention keeping the straight ones, well, straight... I wasn't sure this would work at all. I carved a tiny Sherman, the bull whose head graces the top of the gate.

Printed proof with slightly altered ornaments and rule.

Printed proof with slightly altered ornaments and rule.

How would it look with added textures? What would they be? Color? No idea. This print was coming together on its own, as I set it. This is partly because I chose to wing it and wanted to finish in time to celebrate Chicago's 179th birthday on March 4th. Could I slow it down and make multiple proofs? Sit on it for a week? Revisit the site? Make proportional measurements? Sure. But this isn't what I'd call the Chicago Way. The thing I love the most about working in this community of printmakers is the sheer Roll Up Your Sleeves, Do It NOW, Go Big or Go Home approach to every project, and the support one gets from peers when this approach is taken, even if it fails in the most epic manner. No one has ever said it better than Steve Albini, and while he references the music scene, it's true for printmaking in Chicago:

In Chicago people display their affection for each other by the amount of abuse and ball-breaking that they do among their closest friends. There’s a sort of enforced humility here, which means that nobody ever really gets bigger than their britches and if they do everybody else will let them know about it. In Chicago you end up with a bunch of people who are working on something trying to make a difference and do something solid, but the focus is never on the personalities. It’s true in the arts community, the theater community, in the music community, and among writers in Chicago.

This is also profoundly true of the Stagehands in Local 2; more on that later. Back to the print. Would it all fall apart? Maybe. But I kept on, knowing that pushing through and getting type on press is what mattered for this project and there's merit in whatever happens with the pressure of a deadline.

Adding a layer to make the structure pop on the paper was next. This is a pretty clean version of what the workspace looks like while piecing together something new.

The second color was simple; one linoleum cut to create the roof as well as the title at the bottom of the print. The third was the biggest struggle as it would be the texture of the building and should separate the overall structure from the paper color (which matches the actual limestone of the gate.)

Here is the final print; overall I am pleased given how quickly it came together. When I get closer I see nothing but flaws. Combining old and new wood and metal type alongside brass rules and linoleum is a recipe for uneven print quality. And while I keep looking at this and comparing it to the photographs I realize these flaws are more true to the spirit of the gate than if it were perfect. The stone work is worn, and patches through the years hold it together, iron gates and lights are missing, and much like my ornament collection, it has seen better days. Perhaps the imperfections are acceptable when viewed as metaphor for the complicated and messy history of what transpired on this ground.


While countless similar likes and dislikes are the foundation of my relationship with Mr. S, Chicago forms the very roots that have grounded us; nothing pleases me more than raising a child in a city that has something incredible to offer at every turn. Its ingrained understanding and acceptance of unions (have you seen our St. Patrick's Day parade?) and their place in both supporting the rights of individual and collective workers while paving the way for better conditions is very much alive.
No one understands, no, feels, this better than myself. In our hour of great need, we witnessed the Local 2 Stagehands rally to establish a fund for our family to cover us while Mr. S can't work. They have delivered food, comfort, theater gossip and the moral support that lasts longer than hydrocodone. The musicians of Local 10-208 staged a benefit performance in January to raise funds for us as well in the way they know best: good beer and incredibly tight music. These are strong unions doing what unions are supposed to do. They are taking care of their hard working members when needed in a show of solidarity.

I built this form in the shape of the IATSE bug and printed it on 5x7" cards to share with as many of the stagehands as I am able to track down. It is a small gesture towards recognizing the work of many in support of the few. Our tiny family is part of something much larger, namely an idea of ourselves as tied to the Roll Up Your Sleeves and Get It Done Chicago Way that transcends the last century and more. I am proud and humbled to be a part of yet another legacy in the city that staked a claim on my heart and I strive every day to earn my place in it; Chicago doesn't accept any less than that.


The Union Stock Yard print is available for purchase here.
Props to Billy Bragg for the title of this post, and for keeping the faith.

Gig Posters for All!

There's no doubt Chicago has a thriving and close knit screen printing community that is centered around gig posters. I have shared spaces with these printers and displayed work in countless print shows side by side. And while we're all friendly, I have always been dismayed to be one of the few, if not only, letterpress printers represented. And let's face it, compared to large, multi-colored illustrated posters, letterpress work can look, well, rather drab, with it's subtle color palettes, detailed typography and smaller size given the limitations of the presses. This has often left me feeling diminished on this particular stage.
About a year ago I had this thought: Okay, screen printers, you might be able to do giant, colorful gig posters but I can do really tiny ones because letterpress can do small better than screen printing. But who wants really tiny posters? With that the idea for Dollhouse Gig Posters emerged.

But how on earth could I sell little tiny posters and make it even moderately worthwhile given the amount of time that goes into each minuscule print? I couldn't. The idea was temporarily shelved.
I cautiously shared the concept with a few trusted collaborators as I wasn't convinced it was viable or that anyone would get the joke and enjoy it as I did. During one of our early meetings about the format of Alphabet of Sorts, Rich Kegler (RK) would repeatedly break and say 'let's talk about the tiny gig posters again' which made me think that it just might have legs.
What if the posters were distributed the way record clubs used to work? What if people bought subscriptions and got a new poster in the mail every month? Just crazy enough to fly?

Having spent most of my college years either working in or frequenting record stores, I knew that the best albums came with the goods. 7" singles had an extra photo of the band. 12" albums came with stickers and zines. And box sets, well, box sets held all manner of fun surprises; I am still looking for the missing records to complete my Working Holiday set. So if all of my mini gig posters fit into a classy reel box there should most definitely be additional treats.
I brainstormed my ideal list of contributors, all of whom answered with a resounding YES. Maybe I was on to something after all.


I've known Dan Grzeca since... I don't know when? He is one of the many incredible talents in the screen printing community and we've always run in the same circles. Our friendship was solidified, however, not through print but by our children, who have become fast friends at the school they attend. Dan's style is decidedly old school as he works with scratch boards to create dynamic, original illustrations. His art prints are among my favorites and I love seeing him not only stretch his style past gig posters, but relish the ridiculous in his work and elevate it to fine art. We've shared many drinks (me: cappuccino, Dan: orange blossom tea) at Spoken, our favorite cafe, and his clan have helped the Starshaped family through dark times this Fall. I was pleased when he said 'Hell Yeah' to my inquiries about contributing art for a temporary tattoo to accompany the March poster.

Coasters Dan designed and I printed, along with his label for Apocalypse Cow.

Coasters Dan designed and I printed, along with his label for Apocalypse Cow.


As I started to think of how this project not only pulled together all of my interests but also gave me the opportunity to revisit the people and ideas that brought Starshaped to its current state, it felt natural to have RK on board. I have always been the biggest fangirl of P22 Type Foundry. In P22 I found inspiration, research, thoughtful digital type, oddball projects, music and a spirit that felt like home through my college years and beyond. Now that we have collaborated on a number of projects, a fact that still surprises me, I am pleased that RK, in a new incarnation as P22 Analog, was on board to contribute whatever I wanted. And what I wanted was an incredible letterpress print that fit the themes of the project. He has delivered on this, I can promise, but you need to wait until the August mailing to receive it!
 

P22 2015 Club Cards printed at Starshaped, one of many print collaborations.

P22 2015 Club Cards printed at Starshaped, one of many print collaborations.


I often recall the days of working at Fireproof Press with a nostalgia that doesn't involve the mundanity of running a business, the days when I could show up at a print shop and set type without a care for how the lights were staying on. But the best part was just being around John Upchurch, owner of the whole operation. I learned all of the things from John that you're supposed to learn at a good job, as well as the things that find no place on a resume. And while it's been more than 15 years since Fireproof existed, the Upchurch family still feel like my adopted tribe. I run to John for perspective on life, love and friendships, knowing it will be tempered with humor and pragmatic, personal anecdotes. He is a true friend.
John was also a member of The Coctails, a band that cemented their place in the history of Chicago music just as I was calling it my home. By the time I was old enough to get into a club to see them play they had already called it quits. Thankfully they performed twice more and I was present for both shows. It was through John that I met Mark Greenberg, another member of the band, who has appeared as a supporting musician on stage at many shows I have seen since the Coctails days. Mark is kind and funny and connects people throughout the music and art community. I was pleased to present him and his work to Erin Beckloff, the masterful mind behind Pressing On, for which he is now creating the music. This collaboration makes me clap my hands with glee.

The Dollhouse Gig Posters box needed to have some actual music to go with it. I stewed on who could help with this and what the format would be, when I both stumbled on affordable flexi disks and remembered John & Mark still write music together and just might be on board. When I asked them about the prospect of writing a new song to fit the series I got a resounding We're In!

A few relics from my Fireproof Press days.

A few relics from my Fireproof Press days.


With this incredible team in place the project moved from a silly idea to seriously great fun. The posters don't advertise specific bands or events, but different genres of music through the stereotypical styles of each. It involves the most enjoyable research; I listen to music indicative of the prints while pouring over books and records so I can compile all of the best and appropriate features.
January's mailing includes the reel box that houses all of the posters, which are mounted on 7" cards. They are wrapped in a band that's fresh off the press:

Fiat, compliments of John, full o' paper for the tiny gig posters.

Fiat, compliments of John, full o' paper for the tiny gig posters.

The back side of the wrapper borrows a locking tab die from old metal type packages.

The back side of the wrapper borrows a locking tab die from old metal type packages.

Little details on the sides of the wrapper.

Little details on the sides of the wrapper.

The back side of the chipboard cards the posters are mounted to are printed with a checkerboard-style collection of vintage mid-century cuts on loan from P22 Analog. These were odd-sized remnants of advertising plates that I trimmed to be uniform. It's just a little extra detail to enhance the overall look of the project.

The first poster is on deck to print this week and ship, along with the reel boxes, as soon as it's finished. Can you guess which musical genre is first? Subscriptions are still available if this is exactly the little bit of joy your mailbox would love to see every month this year.

Put It In A Letter

On September 25th, 2015, Mr. Starshaped and I celebrated our 11th anniversary at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, downtown Chicago, awaiting a surgery that was to remove a mass in his chest. The operation was described to us as 'kind of laparoscopic, but with chopsticks that have robots at the end.' To make light of the situation, printer's devil Jo and I collaborated on this print:

First sketches

First sketches

Operation: Robot Chopsticks

Operation: Robot Chopsticks

Within a few hours we learned the mass could not be removed; not only had it grown substantially from the previous scan, it was very definitely cancer. While Mr. S slept that night, I went to Starshaped and built this tiny form, determined to salvage something of our anniversary:

truelove.jpg

We waited two excruciating weeks to receive devastating biopsy results. The tumor was indeed a rare and aggressive sarcoma, and it had already spread to his lower spine and hip.
To distract during this time I threw myself into The Well-Traveled Ampersand, spending many late nights taking out frustration and fear on these elaborate projects. But then little forms appeared in my head in time to the music that was pulling me through a dark time. I saw them so clearly that I set them quickly, pulling other people's words that filled the spaces where I could produce none.

'You Can Have It All' · Yo La Tengo

'You Can Have It All' · Yo La Tengo

'This Water' · Ida

'This Water' · Ida

'Heaven' · The Walkmen

'Heaven' · The Walkmen

A testament to my love for Mr. S started the flow, followed by the Ida song that has pulled me through every journey made over the course of our relationship; every theater he worked in another state, every flight to New York to learn new theatrical technology and now this unknown path that felt like he was heading into an unpredictable and unforgiving sea. The Walkmen gave us a rally song.
I had no plan for these type forms. Much like the run to the restroom when you know you're going to vomit, I raced to the studio at night after every More Bad News appointment to let another form escape. They spilled out, in 30-60 minute spurts, not unlike therapy sessions (though these didn't involve set times and insurance companies.)
While waiting on conclusive scans in October, I learned of the death of Carey Lander from the Scottish band Camera Obscura, struck down by the same crappy sarcoma that we were now facing. The sheer ruthlessness of this cancer and its penchant for attacking young people was a crushing blow.

'Cri du Coeur' · Camera Obscura

'Cri du Coeur' · Camera Obscura

Their words appeared again, inspired by the incessant and absolutely necessary text messages I received throughout a Saturday from Matt Rieck, my 'other work husband' as Mr. S warmly refers to him. A day filled with beautiful and distracting images of monograms from the Genesee Center for the Arts pushed this out of me:

'Away With Murder' · Camera Obscura

'Away With Murder' · Camera Obscura

More on Matt later. He's important.
I also learned, through mutual friends, that Sue Miller, the wife of Jeff Tweedy from Wilco, but more importantly to me one half of Lounge Ax, the seminal club I spent many, many nights at before it shuttered in 2000, also suffered through a near identical cancer to Mr. S and came away from it battered but intact. Wilco songs percolated in moments of hope.

'A Shot In The Arm' · Wilco

'A Shot In The Arm' · Wilco

'Sunken Treasure' · Wilco

'Sunken Treasure' · Wilco

On the day of the failed surgery in September I escaped the stale waiting room to buy records. I picked up the solo album by Mac McCaughan of the band Superchunk, potentially my favorite of 2015. Two songs immediately went on constant repeat in my brain.

'Only Do' · Mac McCaughan

'Only Do' · Mac McCaughan

'Lost Again' · Mac McCaughan

'Lost Again' · Mac McCaughan

At the end of October we were introduced to the world of chemotherapy. I'm thankful for Mr. S's brother who came to help the first day, as well as the best friend that flew in for the weekend to see it through. This gave Jo and me a chance to escape for a long weekend, because we learned that no matter how committed we are to going through this together, we still need to have time independent of each other and can take advantage of the large support network that was gathering around us.
Chemo is terrible. I have watched it take my husband's hair, his muscle tone, his energy, his appetite, his ability to find fulfillment at work and occasionally his dignity. If you have spent time in hospitals, you'll recognize the agonizing details in every line of this Sleater Kinney song:

'The Size of Our Love' · Sleater Kinney

'The Size of Our Love' · Sleater Kinney


Shortly after the first round and a few days into thinking he could still work, I dragged Mr. S and Jo to the Hamilton Wood Type Museum annual Wayzgoose. This was a very low point. It was clear immediately that Mr. S just needed to sleep (and so did I, not having done so that entire week), and that the personal superseded the professional and I couldn't escape into print and design conversations like every other year. This was also exacerbated by the fact that I was a volunteer and worked the event as opposed to wandering about at large. Why didn't I skip this year? Mostly I tell myself I wanted Mr. S to see my important place in the community and that his support of me over the years was not in vain. This task wasn't successful, but it ultimately didn't need to be. I also sought a sense of normalcy with my work that was not to be achieved in one weekend away.
I woke up early each day and paced the lakefront, sobbing and losing myself in the angst of Frightened Rabbit to exorcise the exhaustion and icky feeling. And I counted the hours until I could get him home safely again. It was clear that travel wasn't going to work.

'I Feel Better' · Frightened Rabbit

'I Feel Better' · Frightened Rabbit

'My Backwards Walk' · Frightened Rabbit

'My Backwards Walk' · Frightened Rabbit


We live by a bridge that crosses the Chicago River. When I traverse it in the morning I know the day has started. When I trudge over it at night I'm ten minutes from home. Pausing at the top, and depending on the time of day, we see rowers, nature walkers, ducks, a sneaky heron. It's the body of water that has grounded us since purchasing our little home in 2009.

'Levitation' · Beach House

'Levitation' · Beach House

As a private person, the outpouring of support has been hard to swallow and not because I eschew the attention for Mr. S. For weeks, friends and family would show up at the studio, food was coming in droves, money appeared in the mail and I suddenly had what I now refer to as 'my part-time cancer job' of maintaining and art directing our new, very public, life. Every bit was appreciated but being so new to this, I had to develop strategies for maintaining our home, our child, my full-time job and my ailing husband. The studio languished; then overqualified printers from around the world started showing up and somehow, miraculously, work was accomplished.

The Starshaped interns that come in to help from time to time (and the current roster isn't doing it for school credit or money; they just keep showing up) have been patient and kind and funny. They take me out of myself and make me laugh. On one particularly productive day, I vented about trying and failing to manage all of the assistance we were now receiving and Isabella said this, pulled from a legal case she had just read about:

lostinafog.jpg

Not a song, but absolutely perfect.
Sometimes the forms feature funny or uncomplicated lyrics that tie into our history:

'I Love You, You Big Dummy' · Magazine

'I Love You, You Big Dummy' · Magazine

'#1 Hit Song' · The Minutemen

'#1 Hit Song' · The Minutemen

'New Morning' · Bob Dylan

'New Morning' · Bob Dylan

Mr. S affectionately calls me 'Dummy,' and The Minutemen are one of his favorite bands. We had the Dylan song 'New Morning' sung at our wedding, in a moment marked by the standing of my brother-in-law in a show of affection, a brother currently fighting his own war with cancer and chemo. The one benefit of Mr. S being home so much now is that we have time to talk, and we do go on about many anecdotes of our last 15 years together. And we hold onto these things.

Subconsciously I knew the chemo wasn't working. But we didn't know until December 8th that it was not just failing, but the cancer had spread significantly in multiple places as well as having caused a fracture in his spine. A new course was needed asap. I left Mr. S with his visiting sister that night and raced for the studio as another form was bubbling, painfully. This type will surely rust from tears. No matter that it's 4 point type (on a 6 point body); I couldn't see it anyway.

'Tomorrow' · Daughter

'Tomorrow' · Daughter


As we move forward, there's a new path in many ways. I learned to direct all of our support. I know I need to reduce my workload at the studio and that this will affect what jobs I take and when. I know Mr. S needs what he needs to get through one hour at a time.
But these forms kept coming and with so many piling up, something needed to happen. 'Print them for me' he said, and so I have.

I cut scrap paper from The Well-Traveled Ampersand to 4.75" squares, planning to print 30-40 of half of the forms and 200 of the rest so that I'd have extra pieces to submit for my APA membership requirements in 2016. I built 25 forms, significant for the date of our anniversary and life-altering news in September. 'True Love' was additional in case I needed it for any reason.

Each form is set to print as one color, but I wanted the final collection for Mr. S to be special. The studio's Christmas gift was a set of 120 beautiful German colored pencils so that I could test my latent drawing ability. Coloring brought in a whole new aspect to the therapeutic nature of this project and the results were cathartic.

There was no rhyme or reason to the order of coloring; if I was inspired with an idea for one then that was the one on deck. Here are snippets of the final pieces.

Going into this part of the project, a way to house the prints was needed. It wasn't appropriate to frame them as they feel more personal than that, like they should be kept on a bedside table and not explained to house guests. I asked Matt if he could make a simple wooden box to hold them. He created something so truly beautiful it made me gasp. Matt is the person who checks in every day ('what are you printing today?' 'what's going on Farrell?') and talks to me like life is completely normal right now. He sends pictures of fantastic type, especially ampersands, shares anecdotes about making type as well as family stories and makes me laugh. He is, as Jessica Spring says, the guyfecta: smart, thoughtful, funny.

'What Can We Do' · Superchunk + Matt's beautiful box

'What Can We Do' · Superchunk + Matt's beautiful box

The final print is from what I've often considered a theme song for me and Mr. S. Every lyric could be represented but I opted for this one as the memories of shoveling out our little Chicago bungalow during the last blizzard are actually warm ones, shared with our neighbors.

Now the project is nearly complete, with just the song credits to print on the back of each piece. I am grateful to the musicians who could say what I was unable to squeak out. I gave this to Mr. S as a Christmas gift, which felt more like handing over my heart in a box. It's our project, not just mine. But the tiny forms have run their course and no more are presenting themselves in my head. This is the physical manifestation of the tough turn our lives took this Fall and has given me the tools necessary to approach future projects.
There will be fewer Starshaped jobs for the foreseeable future while I focus on finishing current commitments and overhauling a few of the things we've always done. It is absolutely crucial that the work coming from the studio be the best, most enlightened and forward-thinking work I have ever done. Mr. S has long considered Starshaped the Family Business, even though it has never been the most lucrative option, and the confidence and joy that inspiring work gives me is ultimately the most soothing medication for my other half.


If you're interested, the Spotify playlist of all the above songs is available here.


Hundreds (literally) of family members, friends, printers and stagehands have taken the helm of our lives for us and guided us through the rough seas. We are currently printing special projects to thank them all and these will get their own blog post in the near future.