Always on the move, letterpress printer Chris Fritton just might be coming to a town near you. Chris has visited over 160 letterpress print shops in North America, where he is known as “The Itinerant Printer.” As a guest printer, he enjoys making one of a kind prints, cards and posters with his hosts, with the added bonus of the letterpress camaraderie. The Buffalo, NY, native shares with us his creative origins and printing on the go.
A PRINTER’S JOURNEY
I’m the former Studio Director of the Western New York Book Arts Center in Buffalo, NY, and for the past four years I’ve been doing The Itinerant Printer project. I travel around the US & Canada visiting different letterpress shops, and the only thing that I bring with me on the road is paper & ink. I use what those shops have in their collections (wood type, metal type, border, ornament, photopolymer plates, etc.) to create unique prints.
I got into letterpress printing as a writer and a book artist. I started out by making my own cut & paste zines during my teens, and then poetry chapbooks. I learned how to screen print early on, but that never really felt like the perfect medium for me.
When I found letterpress, everything clicked. There was something so compelling about actually building the language — setting every letter in every word and stanza by hand. It was so visceral and fundamental. I was lucky enough to print at a place in Buffalo run by one of my mentors, Hal Leader: Paradise Press. It was a tiny space right in the middle of a modern print shop, and it held all of his type and presses, as well of those of his mentor, a Roycroft master printer named Emil Sahlin. I worked at Paradise Press until Richard Kegler had the idea to start the Western New York Book Arts Center. Then I got in on the ground floor of that project.
PRINTING IN NEW YORK & ON THE ROAD
WNYBAC was my baby, and that’s where I printed for six years. We had an incredible collection that we used to create gig posters, event posters, broadsides, cards, etc. I knew where every single thing was in that shop, from the tiniest ornaments to the missing sorts that were in standing formes.
My favorite thing about it was the energy. We were always experimenting, always trying something new, always using alternative materials and processes. It was an incubator, really, and a springboard for what I would do in the future.
Now, everyone’s shop is my shop, at least for a day. With The Itinerant Printer project, I’m often only in a location for 24-48 hours. I have to familiarize myself with the shop, its contents, and try to create something interesting. Often, I have no idea what I’ll find; I don’t even know what kind of presses they’ll have. It’s a never-ending challenge, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
BEAUTIFUL BUFFALO, NEW YORK
All of Buffalo is a cool landmark. It’s a city rife with amazing architecture, copious greenspace, and a revitalized waterfront. The city is steeped in history, and its blue-collar legacy is evident everywhere you turn.
I miss it when I’m away, but so many of the shops that I visit have fantastic surroundings as well, from Menagerie Press in Terlingua, TX, among the Chisos Mountains to the School of Visual Concepts in Seattle, WA, with a view of the Space Needle. It’s impossible to choose a favorite.
Although I look to the past for ideas sometimes, I tend to appreciate the work of my contemporaries just as much, if not more. I really like the work of modern letterpress printers who are combining analog & digital technologies to get intriguing results. Right now, off the top of my head, James Tucker of the Aesthetic Union, Brad Vetter, Dafi Kühne, Kathryn Hunter of Blackbird Letterpress, Lindsay Schmittle of Gingerly Press, and The Print Project in the UK are churning out astonishing work that looks like nothing else. It’s their openness — their willingness to embrace something that may or may not work, as well as their desire to make something that doesn’t look like traditional letterpress that makes their work so arresting.
FULL TIME FUN
The Itinerant Printer project is a full-time job for me, much like a traveling band. I often take a break during the summer, however, and when I’m home in Buffalo, I run commercial vessels on Lake Erie as a “day job.” It’s a nice break from printing and traveling, and often I find that I feel recharged when I return to letterpress.
THE CREATIVE FLOW
When I’m on the road, because I’m going in blind, I have to design on the fly. Because I’m normally using movable type, I design primarily on the press bed (if it’s a proofing press), and have to make decisions about color & form very quickly. The experience has made me very decisive, but also accepting of failure, because when you’re working that fast, it doesn’t always work out the way you thought it would.
To date, I’ve visited over 160 letterpress print shops in 45 states and 4 provinces. I’ve covered over 60,000 miles and made close to 25,000 prints on the road. That feels pretty noteworthy to me. To culminate the whole adventure, I recently finished a 320-page coffee table book comprising 1,500 photos and 130,000 words that tells the story of all the people, places, and prints along the way. The book is a monster and it had to match the scale of the project.
Here’s a fun fact: I’ve never owned a press. I have a great collection of wood type and sundries, but no presses. At this point, it wouldn’t make sense to get one either, as long as I’m on the road.
Boxcar was elemental when we were doing jobbing or custom work at the Western New York Book Arts Center. It was the fastest, easiest, most reliable way to get the results we needed. When I’m on the road, Boxcar is the first name that comes up in every shop for photopolymer platemaking. It’s amazing to see how far its influence stretches, to every corner of the US & Canada.
Perhaps a useful letterpress printing technique? Baby wipes with a little bit of baby oil for cleaning your hands. It acts as a solvent for most inks and keeps you from running to the bathroom every thirty seconds to wash up. Other than that, employ as many techniques as you can to get the results you want: pressure printing, laser cutting, 3D printing, woodcut, linocut, photopolymer — don’t restrict yourself.
WHAT’S COMING NEXT
In 2019, I’ll round out The Itinerant Printer book tour. After that, I’m considering taking the project global in 2020 — The Itinerant Printer, around the world. I can’t wait to see what printers in other countries are doing, as well as spend time learning about them, about their presses, about their cultures. Logistically, it will be a lot different than the North American tour, but I know it’s possible, so keep your eyes peeled for a launch date!