Graphic Design and Printmaking Students Visit Shooting Star and Yella Dog Presses

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By Jessie Hornbrook, Assistant Professor of Art, Printmaking »

Field Trip: Arkansas Letterpress Studios

Shooting Star Press is owned and operated by John and Robyn Horn, the Horn’s have made it their life’s mission to proselytize for the arts. After a winding, scenic drive outside of Little Rock one enters the sprawling property and the Horn’s commitment to the arts is immediately evident. Large-scale metal, stone, and wood sculptures dot the landscape the length of the drive right up until we arrived at the Art Warehouse, a building nearly the length of a football field, housing a jaw-droppingly impressive amount of letterpress and printmaking equipment.

Students and faculty were able to take part in printing with one of the oldest presses in the Shooting Star Press studio

The Horn’s and their collection of functioning presses and type are letterpress famous, but they generally prefer to fly under the radar. Although John has an intimate group of apprentices and Robyn works contemplatively painting and sculpting, they graciously invited a group of UCA typography, graphic design, and printmaking students along with Bryan Massey, Pete Bella, and myself to visit their studios in January.

After the trek through racks and racks of cases of myriad type, (individual metal and wood letters that make up a type family, what many people understand now as fonts) and letterpress equipment that went from the floor to ceiling, we arrived at the print studio. Like a magpie, my eyes swam from type drawer to type drawer, from expertly printed posters to signs and cards with smart quips and decorative ornaments, mostly created by John himself or other local printers. John was ready for us, and had a press charged with ink and ready to go, a Harrild & Sons Albion Press, manufactured c. 1845, and still running like a champ. Many presses of this age are not in working condition, but if it holds type, John has made it his business to know how to fix it, use it, and maintain it.

Students watched in either fixed awe or anxious enthusiasm, while he explained the basic function of the press, the role of the master printer, and the role of the apprentice in the history of the Harrild & Sons Letterpress. Each of the 15 UCA art students were able to pull a print while John helped them through process, all the while continuing to explain the importance of proper press usage, inking, pressure, ideal paper weight; John Horn is a wealth of information but does not wax poetic, we quickly moved from one aspect of the tour to another. To illustrate the evolution of “letterpress as craft” and tool of communication to “letterpress as art” he demonstrated the Linotype machine, (it creates a line-of-type!). The machine creates one line of type at a time by heating up molten lead from a mold based upon the chosen type family. The type can be used and recycled, allowing faster printing for newspaper editions, its original purpose. It was invented over 125 years ago, and made obsolete in the 1970’s, with only about 300 working models to date.

John Horn giving tour to UCA students and faculty of the collection of wood and metal type

Weaving between cases of type John showed students the difference between wood type, metal type, and 3D printed type, showcasing the distinction between old wood type versus newly created varieties. This was not a visit to a print and letterpress museum; students questioned the master printer, handled type, and produced a print from a press older than their great-grandparents. Nothing at Shooting Star Press felt like history, it felt like design and printmaking in real-time.

Robyn Horn allowed the group to enter her studio space as well, fielding questions about the process of choosing her medium and many aspects of the making. Her process is instinctive and grounded in a response to the wood or tree she choices, or each of the marks she makes. We moved from her work space to her gallery, an intimate building full of natural light and jammed full of carefully and intuitively manipulated sculptures and non-objective paintings, the ties that connect the 2D and 3D works obvious in their thoughtfulness, color choices, and scale. Here the mood shifted and students engaged Robyn in a dialogue about professional practice and installation of artwork.

Nearing the end of our visit, the Horn’s piled our arms full of posters, boxes of printed objects, and letterpress swag. Minds blown, we had one last leg of the field trip to complete.

Kate Askew, Owner, Press Operator, and dog lover at Yella Dog Press

Kate Askew of Yella Dog Press operates out of downtown Little Rock, and she greeted our motley crew with warmth, even more letterpress swag, and peanut butter crackers, (no students left hungry!). Yella Dog is a much more manageable and intimate print studio but still with an impressive amount of type. Kate was printing that day with a Vandercook, what I would say has become a letterpress printer’s bread and butter. Most were manufactured between 1909 and WWII; a Midwestern based company Vandercook made 27 models; it is still operating under a different name and making parts and equipment for the cylinder-style presses.

Students working the Vandercook press at Yella Dog Press

Kate printed with each of us, explaining each of “Bebe,” the Vandercook’s, unique idiosyncrasies. There is a certain rhythm to most printing processes, and Bebe required a deft hand and light feet. Askew is by trade a bibliophile and her first love was rare books. Getting to the root of the thing- the paper, the words, the ink, became her mission. Kate started from scratch, teaching herself, apprenticing with John Horn and amassing her own collection of type. Her operation is slowly growing, her building and press space is smartly organized, and will soon also house a gallery area.

Like John, and most other letterpress artists I know, Kate is knowledgeable, clever, and doesn’t mince words. The student artists barraged her with questions for more than 2 hours and, all smiles; she fielded every one of them.

Our UCA art students make their art within the scope of academia. They are surrounded by peers and instructors that speak the same vocabulary and use a similar visual language. They make, and they experiment, and they succeed and they fail with the safety net of art school beneath them. They have all traveled to galleries and museums, yet they mostly see their art through the scope of assignments, classes and group critiques. Visiting Shooting Star and Yella Dog Press was, I think, a shift in perspective. The history of printmaking and letterpress and the contemporary world of art making crashes together in studios like these and seeing them gives our students a glimpse of what could lay ahead for them when they graduate.

Big thanks go out to John and Robyn Horn of Shooting Star Press, and Kate Askew of Yella Dog Press for welcoming us into your spaces, and also to Bryan Massey for your help in organizing the event.