Preserving the Art of Movable Type

May 8, 2015

The Virginia Arts of The Book Center is asking for help for a special project that’s more than a decade in the making.

WMRA’s Sefe Emokpae tells us more about the project and what the VABC hopes it will accomplish.

[sounds of press machine]

The printing press was invented in 1440, and centuries before that movable type was used as one of the first printing and typography systems invented in the world.

In Charlottesville, The Virginia Arts of the Book Center strives to keep the art of print making alive and celebrates all that traditional printing has to offer.

KEVIN MCFADDEN: The Virginia Arts of the Book Center is a community of artists exploring books, paper and printmaking. We’ve been together in some form as a group for 20 years this year and what we do is create wonderful, beautiful works using traditional printing style like etching like the letter press here at our studio.

Kevin McFadden is the chief operating officer at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. He says about 50 artists are currently involved with the VABC… including a wide variety of everyone from visual artists, painters, and photographers to literary artists, writers and poets. Every year these artists get together to collaborate on a project. This year’s project is the product of an idea that was conceived back in 2004:  a book called “Speaking in Faces."

The VABC recently found out that the center is home to the largest collection of movable type available to the public in all of Virginia. They plan to use the book to print the more than 325 cases and display them in one place making it available as a resource to all who need it.

MCFADDEN: This is a special responsibility we are feeling. We want to share it. We want to make it available to more artists and people who are interested in the history or just the fun of printing. A specimen book is basically a type of book that shows what each of the letters and the letter forms in a specific font looks like so that if you’re designing with type you have a really useful resource to know what everything is going to look like when you want to  see it. In the type cases, the type is just a little piece of metal and you might have to really imagine and think hard what it would look like. So we want to print it all and make sure it’s all printed and we’ve been at it for years and years and we wanted to up the ante and put the pressure on ourselves to complete this book in 2016.

In order to reach that goal, the VABC has launched a Kickstarter campaign in hopes of raising $12,000 by May 19th. Right now the center generally exists by teaching classes. Money raised would help to go toward the availability of open sessions for people interested in learning more about letterpress.

[sounds of letter press]

Garrett Queen is the program director at the VABC and has been in the traditional printing business for the better part of 45 years.

GARRETT QUEEN: After I went to college I found that I couldn’t keep away from printing and the smell of the ink. Everything from the design to the actual creation and one of the really nice things about this craft form is that one person can essentially do it all themselves. In fact, in this organization we even take the process as far back as making the paper.

And McFadden says even in the presence of today’s advanced technology, he doesn’t believe the craft form is going anywhere any time soon. In fact, he says, interest may actually be increasing.

MCFADDEN: Strangely enough people seem more attracted than ever to this type of printing. And as soon as people start handling the blocks of the wood type or start going through the drawers and seeing the little pieces that make up each sort of type, just something happens. It engages us at this level of humanity that we’re all toolmakers and want to build things. I don’t think it’s diminishing at all, in fact, it might be in the period where it’s becoming more appreciated. We hope “Speaking in Faces” is one of the books that will communicate that passion to even more people.

Depending on how much money is raised the VABC plans on printing 30 to 40 copies of the 96-page book. An affordable facsimile version will also be released and is being offered as one of the rewards in the Kickstarter campaign.