Pensacola, Florida
Monday October 14th 2019


The Art of Letterpress

By Jennifer Leigh

It’s easy to take modern marvels, such as inkjet printers, for granted.

But inside the print shop at the Museum of Commerce, printer Caitlyn Cooney is introducing folks to the art of letterpress.

Since June, Cooney is hosting 30-minute demonstrations inside the museum’s print shop every third Tuesday of the month. Using a late-1920s clamshell press from Chandler and Price, she guides folks through the intricate process from typesetting to pressing.

It’s a process Cooney fell in love with in high school.

“I went to a performing arts high school in Jacksonville, and an instructor there taught me everything about printing,” she said. “When I graduated, I knew I wanted to be a printmaker.”

After high school, Cooney went to the University of Florida where she studied fine art and curatorial studies after realizing the printmaking program had gone away. An internship at the iconic Hatch Show Print in Nashville only solidified Cooney’s passion with the art.

“It’s very tactile process, definitely a craft,” Cooney said. “It takes a lot of work and love. I get lost in the repetitive motion… I get into a creative Zen.”

Not only does Cooney love the process, but she enjoys sharing it with others. During her demonstrations, she talks about print’s early history from the invention of moveable type—it was first invented in China in the 11th century before Johannes Gutenberg developed the modern moveable type around 1440—to the Gutenberg printing press to the Industrial Revolution.

The Gutenberg’s press is considered the first instance of mass communication, but it was still a lengthy process by today’s standards. According to the website, The Beauty of Letterpress, it took three years for a staff of 20 to produce 180 Bibles.

Richard Rodriguez, exhibition technician for UWF Historic Trust said Cooney’s expertise is a beneficial addition to the museum.

“It’s interesting to see how the machine actually works, see it put in motion,” he said. “You get a better understanding. It’s becoming more of an art form. You don’t want it to drift off into history.”

At Cooney’s first demonstration, she said most of the questions she received were about the process itself—how time-consuming and precise it has to be. There was a little shock too when it came to the question of cost. Let’s just say a hand-pressed card won’t be found in the value section of the card aisle at Target.

“Digital printing can be so impersonal,” Cooney said. “Sometimes people just want to feel something real. It’s something that requires special skill… you can’t just Google it.”

Outside of the museum’s display print shop, Cooney has her own print studio Charlotte Mason Printing Company, where she houses both her new series and old style Chandler and Price letterpress.

Charlotte Mason Printing Company was established in August 2016. The name Charlotte comes from Cooney’s paternal grandmother. Although her grandmother died when Cooney was in third grade, she has been a role model of sorts throughout her life. On the website, Cooney says her grandmother embodies all that she wants her company to be “hard working, passionate, sweet, southern and a bit feminine.”

“She was a badass chick,” Cooney said with a smile.

Charlotte Mason Printing Company represents the traditional letterpress style, while also embracing some modern techniques. In the early days of letterpress, printers were never supposed to stamp letters into paper leaving an indention, instead, the ink was supposed to merely “kiss” the paper, Cooney explained. As letterpress has become more revered, printmakers have embraced that indentation.

Everything from the hand-mixed ink to paper quality to design is custom, which sets letterpress apart from other forms of communicating, Cooney said.

“It just feels and looks like someone worked really hard on it,” she said.

In the modern renaissance of printmaking, Cooney said she’s incorporated some “loopholes” into her process. Instead of typesetting with wood or metal blocks, Cooney creates a design on a thin, plastic sheet, which gives each project more freedom.

Cooney still likes the “old style” using the wood or metal blocks, because sometimes you have to get a little clever. Recently, while making a set of business cards she had to improvise since commercial “@” signs (used with e-mails and social media handles) was not a common symbol used with sets of moveable type.

“I ended up putting an ‘a’ in between brackets for the email,” she said. “I love to get creative with it. A lot of the time, it’s problem-solving—like a puzzle.”

As a self-described “paper nerd,” Cooney understands that not everyone who walks into the museum will become as enthusiastic about printmaking as she is. What she really wants is for people to appreciate the process.

“I want them to love it as much as I do,” she said. “I remember seeing my first letterpress and thinking, ‘This is really beautiful. Why don’t we do this anymore?’ I hope people see the value in it.”

WHAT: Letterpress demonstrations with Caitlyn Cooney of Charlotte Mason Printing Company
WHEN: 2:30 p.m. every third Tuesday of the month; the next one is July 18
WHERE: Museum of Commerce, 201 E. Zaragoza St.
COST: $4-8, Free for UWF students or EBT cardholders with valid ID