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Selections: Hamilton Wood type Printing Museum
By Dan Swartz
Fort Wayne Reader
In the history of visual production, there tends to a cyclical calendar of periods of production, disruption, revolution, and stagnation. It can be seen throughout the art historical canon in everything from the advent of new metals to sculpt with, the systematization of perspective drawing, all the way up to the 3D printer. One invention which, unbeknownst to its inventor, would have an runaway effect which would change visual culture forever: Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press. Until 1440 when Gutenberg perfected his invention to allow for a profitable mass printing method, there was printmaking in various forms, but it never came to be as “useful”, only existing as woodblock prints, the most exquisite being produced by Japanese masters. After the advent of the printing press however, the world of printed images opened up giving us etchings, mezzotint, chromolithography, offset printing, xerography, etc. All from this simple method of reproducing the written word.
Later, particularly in the 19th century, wood type was mass produced in every conceivable method to create a robust culture of printed material. Fonts, sizes of letters, punctuation, and imagery all existed on inexpensive wood type and was used in letterpress prints where blocks of letters were locked into place to create any given text, with images placed accordingly as well. Until offset printing, which was produced in the late 19th century and early 20th century, letterpress and wood type were king, dominating the world’s visual attention. Since the onset of the 20th century, and modernity’s penchant for throwing the baby out with the bathwater, wood type was nearly forgotten as newspapers and large printing companies converted to the more efficient and cost effective forms of mass printing. Luckily, not everything was lost, and there continues to be a large appreciation for the hand printed word, not in small part thanks to the Hamilton Wood Type Printing Museum, based in Two Rivers Wisconsin. The museum is run by the Two Rivers Historical Society and was originally creating out of the remains of the Hamilton Manufacturing company. Now the museum’s mission is dedicated to the preservation, study, production, and printing of wood type used in letterpress printing. Now, the museum has a collection of over 1.5 million pieces in more than one thousand styles of wood type, as well as vintage printing presses and prints.
Luckily for the Fort Wayne, Stephanie Carpenter, the assistant director of the Hamilton Wood Type Printing Museum, is a native and still keeps strong ties to our community. Because of this, Wunderkammer Company is currently able to host the exhibit, “Selections” of the Museum’s collection. In “Selections,” viewers are able to see the depth and breadth of what wood type is capable of, as well as some of the genius printmakers of our time who choose to work with this media specifically. Most importantly, “Selections” highlights to use of text and image interchangeably, making it clear that what is written is seen, and what an image being produced is also read by the viewer.
The commonalities of the work included in “Selections” is clear, but it also contains a surprising amount of diversity for work being produced, primarily, with the English alphabet. Pieces like “Dracula” and others clearly incorporate large wood cut relief images, as well as lettering, but there is also great strength in more minimal images which are only basic representations of fonts displayed through alphabetical displays of lettering. Other prints like “Auto Races” incorporate the letters and image on top of each other, through multiple runs through a press creating less graphic and more complex imagery. Sometimes the most striking images however, are the most simplistic. “Five”, a multiple layer print of the number in a large format takes on much more formal context than just a numerical meaning. The accentuations of the curves and the stylisation of the number is more visible and the overall presence of the image expands. Other pieces like “Give Me Twenty Six Soldiers of Wood And I Shall Conquer the World”, a phrase changed depending on the medium (the original being lead, instead of wood) have much more content and conceptual meaning. Printers working with type, unlike most printmakers coming from a fine art background, have full license to be writers and poets as well as visual artists. By manipulating words and images combined, the world of wood type printing becomes something between fine art and graphic design.
Through exhibitions like “Selections”, and the work of museums like Hamilton, artists will hopefully begin to explore more aspects of the advertising and graphic design worlds, and realize the value of these other disciplines which effect the visual landscape thoroughly, but often times get relegated as “low” art forms, if art at all. Especially now, in a time when the digital and analog worlds are being blurred more than ever, wood type and these more authentic forms of image making are becoming ever more relevant. Locally, printmakers like Julie Wall and her business Hedgehog Press are leading the pack with this form of work. Wall’s work, like many of the artists in “Selections” combines aspects of printmaking and fine art to produce a hybrid. With more examples of artists like Wall, Fort Wayne could capitalize on its authentic history of being a producer and gain recognition for being a site where craftsmanship and content marry to create something greater than the sum of its parts.
As with any form of art, it takes time and the correct set of circumstances to grow. We are currently seeing a period of renaissance for wood type and the forms of printmaking it naturally leads to creating. This writer is particularly interested in seeing where this art form continues to grow and what kinds of expression it allows artists to produce.