Boxcar Talk With Bridget Elmer

In the pressroom, Bridget Elmer of Flatbed Splendor is creative heat, cool logic, a constant of undeterred printing desire. She is the definition of adroit; passing from typesetting, to teaching classes in both the academic & community settings, and comes back around as a deft, keen machine of printing prowess bent on devouring type, ink, paper, and bindery. Bridget peered in through the letterpress looking glass in the early 2000s and became immediately enamored with the letterpress community. She started up Flatbed Splendor in 2007, and stays on her toes at Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center. Her style presses the printing frontiers (e.g. multiple colors on one run, dubbed the “Rainbow Roll”) while getting the job done and then some—drawing from a library of book art knowledge to specialized printing techniques. An American splendor, Bridget let us in on the wonderful workings of Flatbed and how the ink rolls these days.

SPREADING THE LETTERPRESS LOVE I am an artist, book maker and letterpress printer currently working in Asheville, North Carolina, and soon relocating to St. Petersburg, Florida. I am the proprietor of Flatbed Splendor, an independent press that I founded in 2007. Through Flatbed Splendor, I produce artists’ books, prints, broadsides, and ephemera. Flatbed Splendor is a member of the 7 Ton Letterpress, a collective devoted to letterpress printing, graphic design, calligraphy, paper goods, invitations and shenanigans.

My fellow 7 Ton members include Beth Schaible of Quill and Arrow Press, Kelly Kelbel of Tiny Story Factory, and Eleanor Annand of Two Step Press. I am also the co-operator of Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts (ILSSA), a membership organization for those who make experimental or conceptual work with obsolete technology, which I co-founded with Emily Larned in 2008. I am thrilled to report that I recently joined Jessica Peterson as co-owner of The Southern Letterpress, providing letterpress artwork, products and printing to the Southeastern United States. Jessica currently runs The Southern Letterpress print shop in Northport, Alabama. Upon my arrival in Florida this September, The Southern’s St. Petersburg location will soon be up and running!

I received my MFA in the Book Arts (2010) and Masters in Library and Information Studies (2011) from the University of Alabama. In addition, I teach book arts in a variety of educational settings. I have taught as an Adjunct Professor at Florida State University, a Visiting Art Professor at Colorado College, a Resident Artist at The Catherine Cook School, and an Instructor at Asheville Book Works and Ox-Bow. As a member of the College Art Association, College Book Arts Association, the Southeast Guild of Book Workers, and Ladies of Letterpress, I have also presented and published my work and my intersecting fields of interest.

BEAUTIFUL BEGINNINGS Ten years ago I arrived in New York City from Portland, Oregon, where I had been working in the non-profit sector for several years, advocating for affordable housing, transportation alternatives and police accountability. All of this advocacy work, as well as my interest in creative writing and poetry, led me to discover a continuing education class at Cooper Union entitled Self-Publication. The course was taught by Christopher Wilde, a book and collage artist who was a student of Walter Hamady’s and a co-founder of Booklyn, Inc., an artist-run, non-profit artist and bookmakers organization headquartered in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Christopher introduced us to the history of the book and the artist’s book as a contemporary art form. One of our field trips for the class was a visit to MoMA to see the exhibition, The Russian Avant-Garde Book 1910-1934. I was hooked, and letterpress is what hooked me! Particularly the work of Olga Rosanova and Vasilii Kamenskii, which integrated collage, wallpaper, monoprints, and linocuts with letterpress printed, handset type and simple book forms.

Soon I was spending my every extra moment in Greenpoint, absorbing all that I could from the amazing alliance of artists that Booklyn convened. I started taking classes at the Center for Book Arts as well and bought my first press soon after.

OPULENCE IN THE OLD NORTH STATE It’s a crazy time for me, as I am smack dab in the middle of moving from Asheville to St. Pete. Currently, I print at 7 Ton Letterpress Collective in West Asheville. I’m going to be moving from this space on Labor Day weekend, which I must admit, totally breaks my heart. 7 Ton is an amazing, affordable studio in a mixed-use building, located in a primarily residential area of Asheville. We have a storefront with huge windows and a glass door, where we prominently display our logo, which my collaborators designed and I love so much! Behind the storefront is a large studio space, which houses two Vandercooks, one Chandler & Price motorized platen press, and two table top platen presses, as well as an extensive collection of handset type, a monster guillotine, a bunch of flat files and a collection of book binding equipment.

West Asheville is one of my favorite places, so I love our location. We’re just a few short blocks from Harvest Records, the best record store on the planet; Ship to Shore Shop, the studio of artist, designer, dressmaker, and one of my favorite collaborators R. Brooke Priddy; Asheville BookWorks, a community resource for book artists and printmakers; and The Dry Goods Shop, a studio, community center and store for locally made goods. We’re also a hop, skip and a jump away from the River Arts District, a hopping, ever-expanding neighborhood that is home to over 165 working artists, including Ladies of Letterpress founder Jessica White’s Heroes & Criminals Press, as well as Mark Olson’s Innerer Klang Letterpress. Asheville is located on the Blue Ridge Parkway, nestled in the Appalachian mountains, surrounded by natural beauty and grounded in a strong tradition of craft and creativity.

PRINTING MENTORS The Booklyn crew, including Christopher Wilde, Mark Wagner, Emily Larned and Sara Parkel. My Bama crew, professor Steve Miller and my fellow MFA graduates Jessica Peterson, Emily Tipps, Sarah Bryant, Frank Brannon and Ellen Knudson. The Asheville crew, Brandon Mise, Laurie Corral, Jessica White, Beth Schaible, Eleanor Annand and Kelly Kelbel.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS When I design, I try to start with the idea, intention or overall feel of the project. As such, I usually start from a draft text and any available source imagery. From here, I draw up a variety of possibilities in my sketchbook. I usually move from my sketchbook to my laptop, mapping out potential layouts, trying out different typefaces and color schemes, and making my way toward a rough draft of the project. At this point, I often make mock ups if the project requires complicated imposition and finishing. If I’m planning to print from photopolymer, I continue working digitally until the design is finalized. If I plan to work with handset type, then I work from a fairly rough digital draft. As I set type and proof, the finalized design emerges. If I’m working for a client, I arrange for a proof check, either at our shop or via a digital scan, before I commit 100% and start cranking!

PRINTER’S PARADISE After ten years of letterpress printing and over five years of owning my own press, I feel that I’ve evolved from a printer to a designer / printer. I’ve been trained primarily as a letterpress printer and book designer, but as my interests have expanded into experimental printmaking, custom letterpress work and the foundation of a full-fledge print shop and storefront, my design interests have also grown. I find myself doing a lot of research and self-educating with regard to the history of design and contemporary design practices. I strive to constantly be learning more in that realm.

Currently, I do not print full time. I work three days a week at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, and I will soon transition to a more flexible schedule as a consultant at the museum, working the equivalent of two days a week from home. In addition to my work at the museum, I also have a sporadic teaching schedule, which can range anywhere from a two-day workshop to a semester or year as an Adjunct Professor. I would say that I currently spend about two days a week in the print shop on average. Once my move to St. Petersburg is complete, I’m hoping to spend at least three days each week printing, with the eventual goal of The Southern Letterpress being my primary bread and butter. I want to continue teaching and making my own work, so I intend to always make time for those pursuits. In my dreams, the print shop becomes a community center where I can do it all (printing, teaching, making art) in a one-stop shop!

PRESS HISTORY I took Letterpress I with Richard Meneely at the Center for Book Arts, and learned how to print handset type on a small, table top platen press. When the class ended, I asked Richard if he had any suggestions for how I could find a similar press. He led me to a previous student of his, who was living in Brooklyn. She had purchased a Craftsman Superior years before after completing Richard’s class, but it was languishing on the floor in the corner of her apartment, collecting dust and cat hair. I made her an offer she couldn’t refuse and, thanks to a generous gift of type, ink and leading from Mark Wagner, I was able to set up the first incarnation of Flatbed Splendor in my apartment.

PRINTING FEATS I am most proud of the collaborations and communities that I have helped to found and build through letterpress, including ILSSA, 7 Ton and The Southern. I’m also very proud of the artists’ books that I have published, each of which gives me the opportunity to learn more about designing, printing and binding. I feel a sense of pride when the back-and-forth of custom letterpress work comes to fruition in ways that please both me and my clients. Finally, I’m super-proud of my students and always excited to watch them fall in love with letterpress.

BOXCAR’S ROLE Boxcar Press has been an invaluable ally in my both my letterpress printing business and my work as an artist. In addition to enthusiastic service and a consistent, reliable product, Boxcar offers a community of support that I am constantly tapping into, both with my own work and with my students. Boxcar also provides a successful, sustainable model for all of us hoping to move forward with a career in letterpress.

SHOP TIPS I think the best advice I’ve been given as a letterpress printer regards the importance of clear communication and the constant need to educate our clients and the public in general. Clear policies and accessible descriptions of the letterpress printing process translate to good business and ever-increasing interest in our field.

WHAT’S NEXT Funny that you’re asking right at this moment! I’m getting ready to make some big changes in the coming weeks–moving from Asheville, North Carolina to St. Petersburg, Florida, finding a new space for my shop, refurbishing a new-to-me Vandercook #4, giving my Chandler & Price motorized platen press some long-deserved attention, and hopefully, by the beginning of 2013, spending the majority of my time building clientele and making things happen at The Southern Letterpress! I’m also excited to report that I’ll be teaching a two-month concentration at Penland School of Crafts in the spring of 2013, entitled Book Structures: Innovative Forms. I’m super-psyched that Micah Currier from the Dale Guild Type Foundry will be teaching a class in Type Founding during the very same session. I can’t wait to check out their pivotal casters and get a rare peek into the type founding process!

Big round of applause and a tip of the hat out to Bridget for sharing the details on Flatbed Splendor!

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