I have introduced Myrna Keliher of Expedition Press before on a number of occasions. A young woman doing amazing things who is super passionate about art, print, poetry and literature - She is someone in the print community I really admire!
Recently (well earlier this year - I confess it has taken me sometime to write this post!) Myrna set off on an adventure. Her journey took her across the states and through Italy. One of her stops along the way was a residency at the Wells Book Arts Center where she produced the most exquisite artist book 'A Specimen of Broken.'
Printed from partial and damaged woodtype Myrna printed an edition of specimen that were folded and trimmed into the specimen of broken book. (Of which she collated an edition of 10 copies). I watched the progress with great interest and enthusiasm via Myrna's Instagram feed and reached out to ask some Q's to share with you here.
Myrna congratulations on the fantastic body of work! Your Specimen of Broken book is a triumph! Did you have an idea before arriving at Wells? I read on your blog you that you were determined not to do a book! So did you have a particular project or output you were keen to explore?
I didn’t have any specific plans for the residency - I spent most of last winter designing and binding books, so I was keen to ditch that format for awhile (though of course I never can get away from books, they’re part and parcel to my life in print). I wanted to work bigger, and I wanted to work with broken and/or partial letterforms. I did some fragmented sign painting experiments last year that I wanted to expand upon, but of course I was going to Wells to print, not paint. And I would never intentionally damage a piece of type. So I spent eight days driving across the U.S. from Seattle to New York wracking my brain for project ideas. I drove a lot of back roads and saw a lot of worn down and weathered buildings, so much empty forlorn space across the middle of the US. The second day of my trip the words ‘built broken’ snuck into my head and stayed around. I wondered on the page a lot in my morning writing, and about halfway through the trip I started thinking about writing my own poetry. So that’s it - I arrived at Wells with the words ‘built broken,’ a dare to write my own poems, and vague images of partial letterforms.
You also write that you were inspired by the deteriorating type you saw on the drive to New York but that you were keen to build not break type. So it was very fortuitous that Richard Kegler (P22 Foundry and Director of the Wells Book Arts Center) was able to introduce you to his collection of partial and broken wood type upon arrival! Was this an accidental discovery? Or had you been talking about the type that inspired you along your journey?
It was quite the fortuitous discovery. My first day at Wells I toured the facility, which was quite overwhelming, four floors of type and presses and books and bindery. Too much to take in all at once, but I saw as much as I could that first day. Rich made mention of the ‘P22 Design Research Lab’ (or the analog garage, as some call it) that houses a vast collection of mid-century wood type and advertising cuts. I got a brief look at it that fist evening, enough to make my jaw drop. At dinner, conversation came around to modular type design in light of Rich’s recent P22 Blox project, and I described the fragmented signs I’d done. Rich’s eyes lit up and he said, oh I’ve got something you probably want to see. He took me out to what he jokingly calls the ‘Back 40,’ the shed behind the garage, and there were several boxes of broken dirty partial wooden letterforms. The sun was just setting, golden rays were streaming through the dust, and I was done for. We returned to the dinner table and he asked, “Of everything you’ve seen today, what do you think you want to work with?” There wasn’t a moment of hesitation in my answer, and he wasn’t surprised.
How did the broken pieces seduce you? Which sorts were you most excited about?
There was a wide variety of sorts. Some were obviously broken, cracked from too much pressure or other mistreatment. Some were sawn apart, courtesy of the previous owner (he collected wood type and sawed it apart to build sculptures. This is one of the big reasons Rich acquired the collection. Preservation!). As I cleaned and reconditioned the sorts, I discovered that a lot of them were the same line height, and of the same apparent make and vintage. The curious thing about these, is that they were inked on all four sides, with multiple layers of color showing through. Which means at some point, they were printed as is. This led to a lot of questions and hypothesizing with Rich. We agreed they’re not quite modular, but were probably used for printing billboards. We settled on the terminology ‘partial wooden letterforms’ for the colophon, since their origins are hazy and you mostly couldn’t call it type. Very few of the letters were actually broken, that just became the shorthand for how I thought about the series. I’m always working with parts of things, mostly fragmented poems, and I’m fascinated by the idea of what constitutes brokenness vs. wholeness, and how parts can become whole on their own, given the right space and context.
The pieces of type were large scale and how when taken out of context new relationships formed in the shapes of the letters. Can you describe this tension between the black and the white shapes created by the broken type?
One of the things I love about working with partial letterforms is that it takes you inside the letter. Whether I’m painting or printing, I feel like I get to know the letter from the inside out, and it makes me see the negative space around the letter as part of the form, not separate. I primarily work with metal type, and I spend most of my time arranging space in the form and on the page. Working on a larger scale and with partial/broken forms helps me learn how letters occupy space in a very intimate way. I’m outside of the words and suddenly inside the letters and this abstraction helps me see past my normal contextual connotations. I’m always trying to see more than I can, and beyond what I’ve seen before.
Also, once I inked up the press and pulled the first evenly inked prints on nicer paper (Mohawk Superfine), the grain of the wood started coming through in all kinds of beauty. Previously, during the proofing process, I was heavily hand inking the forms and printing on slick copy paper, going for dense blacks and only looking and the positive/negative spaces. But when that grain showed up, and all the imperfections in it, I couldn’t stop looking at it. The letters were large enough that most were made from long grain, which of course is wider and more patterned, and many of the sorts were made from multiple pieces of wood. Right away I noticed tension between the vertical and horizontal grain directions and I started pairing forms with an eye to that tension.
Something that really surprised me was how much the sense of scale changed once the pages were trimmed (creating a bleed top and bottom) and bound into the book format. Suddenly everything is so much larger, falling of the page and almost too big to hold in your hands. This was a very happy discovery, something I suppose I sensed but didn’t understand until I physically saw that tension between the formal structure of the book and the letterforms bleeding off the pages.
You printed some broadside specimen sheets as well as the books. What were the dimensions of these prints and do you have plans to exhibit?
Yes, I loosely refer to the specimen sheets as ‘Broken Studies.’ The sheet size is 13x19” (about 33x48cm). They are how the book started; I decided I would just knock out some studies, no strings attached, low bar. I was endlessly fascinated by the combinations and of course couldn’t help myself thinking about the third dimension a book format would introduce. At any rate, I printed about 15 copies of each Broken Study (they are 24 total). 10 of the 15 copies are double sided, which became the pages of the book. Of the extra 5, I kept one set for archives, and a second set that I’m thinking about tiling for a large installation. Or maybe collaging into sculptural pieces. I have an upcoming solo show in Seattle in June 2017, and it’s pushing me to imagine the next iteration of these studies. I’m still very much in the imagination phase. I am pretty certain it’s going to incorporate further dimensionality, because when I think about the show, I think of the entire gallery space at once, not individual pieces.
What were the most exciting/interesting/stressful parts about the residency? And what did you learn while there?
The most exciting thing about the residency was simply the fact of having so much uninterrupted time to work on my art. It actually made me cry more than once, it was very overwhelming to have such solid affirmation that my work deserved that time and space and focus. Not only did Rich accept my proposal, I also got a grant from a local arts organization here to cover basic costs. It was an incredibly freeing experience. I learned a lot about my work habits, the impact of writing and reading on my studio time, and my ability to imagine and execute projects within timeframes. I work really well with deadlines. The most stressful part was having to stop printing and get a book bound and finished. I didn’t sleep much the last few days of the residency. And I learned a ton about composition, layout, type design and history from conversations and consultations with Rich. He was a kind host and invaluable resource.
Which presses were you using and how did the Wells environment differ from Expedition Press? How did the new environment affect the outcome of your work?
At Wells, I worked on Vandercooks and mostly with wood type. Equipment-wise, it’s opposite of what I’ve got in my shop, which is all platen presses and metal type. For me the biggest advantage of working on cylinder presses was the ability to switch out lockups and pull proofs quickly. I spent 3 days hand inking proofs before I settled into the eventual format and began printing in earnest. Also, I was able to work on a larger scale, though that’s not the case now, as I just acquired a Colt’s Armory Press!
Beyond the equipment and type collection, the biggest impact of the environment, I think, was simply that it was a different environment. Totally apart from my regular full-to-the-brim life, and I went there with an acknowledged focus. I put an auto-responder on my email and told people I was on a residency, and poof- suddenly I really got to be alone in the world. I think that’s what allowed me to take the very frightening strange leap into writing my own poetry. I decided I could just try it on for size and nobody would have to know. Ha. Well now you know, because I printed it.
You wrote daily poetry while on the residency including a poem to accompany the work 'Built Broken' which cleverly links the type anatomy to the human condition! The poem is a joy - poetry is something you use a lot in your work can you share with us a little on the relationship between your writing and your printing?
Oh, this could be a whole other interview topic. All of my work has to do with words, and books. I first encountered letterpress printing in a literature class in college, so it’s been that way from the beginning. My very first prints were excerpts from poems and philosophical texts I was reading in that class: Artaud, Mallarme, Rilke, etc. My first book edition I wrote myself. It took me about two years to write it, and it was fairly painful personal history type stuff, so you can imagine hand setting and printing it, and then binding it, all the while failing at every step because of course it was my first big book undertaking - well that turned me off to printing my own writing for good. Or so I thought.
I’ve always been a writer but never fully identified with it. About five years ago I started writing morning pages, it’s an assignment from Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. Three pages, long hand, stream of conscious, every morning when you first wake up. You don’t show them to anyone and you don’t reread them. It’s just for clearing the brain and sorting things out and once in a while, major discoveries. It was in my morning pages that the idea occurred to me to try my hand at writing poetry when I was traveling to Wells. At first I thought it was a stupid, or at least ridiculous idea. But it came up several mornings in a row and if I’ve learned anything from the morning pages, it’s to adopt an attitude of curiosity over criticism if you want to grow.
So yep, because I was in a completely different context at Wells, I decided to go ahead and write poems every morning. I did a second writing session after my morning pages, just to ’try it on for size’ as William Stafford suggests.
It was fascinating to observe my writing process after ten years of intentionally working with other people’s words and not my own. I wrote poems much the same way I remember them after reading - one line at a time, repeating over and over until suddenly I jump to the next line. The first morning I wrote “My body broken builds.” I don’t know where that came from, but I really liked the way it sounded when I said it out loud, so I wrote it over and over until another line appeared. Each day I wrote poetry for about an hour, and then I would go to the print studio and work for ten or twelve or sixteen hours, and inevitably one line, just one line, that I had written in the morning would stick in my head and literally get pounded into place throughout the clank and clack of each crank of the press. The next morning I would write that one line again, and go from there till I got to another one. I pulled thousands of impressions while I was at Wells, I did several broadside projects alongside the book. So there was lots of time for words to sift and solidify. Toward the very end of the residency, I realized I had a finished poem, composed of individual lines that occurred throughout those three weeks. I was astonished. Then, naturally, I thought: I better print it. Immediately followed by: no effin’ way! I’m a publisher, and a printer - not a poet! Followed by: crap. I’m afraid. That means I really better do it.
And so I did. I don’t know what the poem means, but I do know that it’s an effective, emotive piece that has resonated with a diverse array of people. Also, as I was printing it, I realized it’s an integral part of the ‘Broken Studies’ project and the resulting book, “A Specimen of Broken.” In fact, I think of it as the specimen sheet for that book.
Perhaps the biggest thing I learned at Wells is that I am a writer, as well as an artist, printer, and publisher. I’m not comfortable yet calling myself a poet, but I do know that I’m going to have to generate more poetry in order to create the next iteration of my work as a visual artist.
Original Artist's Book of black and white broken woodtype forms. Letterpress printed onto Mohawk Superfine and museum board
Myrna Keliher is the proprietor of Expedition Press. She is an artist, printer, bookbinder, and publisher. She holds a B.A. in Literary Arts from the Evergreen State College, and completed a long term apprenticeship with Stern & Faye, Printers. Equally at home on press and in the mountains, Myrna dedicates her days to the production of beautiful and useful things.