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.