Sunday, March 16, 2008
Throw off Friend
I taught my first letterpress class today. Given that a year ago I was a complete novice, stumbling without guidance up a trial and error learning curve so steep that I should have had crampons and a rope, offering to teach might seem arrogant. But I am going to be leaving Te Kowhai (and Whangarei, and New Zealand) soon, and we want to make sure that my hard won knowledge does not all leave with me.
I had two keen student, both passionate printer-artists with a genuine interest in letterpress. I did no planning or preparation for the class other than decide to lead them through the whole process of composing a few words, locking in, proofing, printing and cleaning up. We managed to complete all this, with a cup of tea as well, in under three (pleasantly exhausting) hours.
Because I was self taught for nearly six months before Jim and the other printing posse adopted me, I knew what bare essentials to focus on for achieving a half-decent print without endangering themselves or the equipment. Some of the things I glossed over (like make-ready) will no doubt come back to haunt my students, but they are experienced enough at relief printing on other kinds of presses to figure it out (I hope). And I will always be email-able.
Among the things I did emphasise was the importance of the throw off lever. The 'throw off lever is your friend' I said, demonstrating its wonderful ability to make or withhold contact between the platen and the type. In the storm of printing jargon I was throwing at them, and with the need to co-ordinate three limbs in different movements and rhythms while balancing on the fourth, they both forgot the name of the lever and took to calling it 'friend'.
I feel sure that Ruth and Jeanine will keep letterpress alive at the Quarry after I am gone. They caught the exhilarating buzz of simultaneously pumping the treadle, sliding the papers, throwing their friend on and off, laughing, talking and admiring their text. Printing on a platen jobber is an exciting addictive activity. They can look forward to fumbling their way to making fine prints, hopefully without all the mistakes I made on my way. I feel relieved to know that my beloved Arab press and the cabinets of type will be used, maintained and appreciated.
I also feel a delicious melancholy to be leaving my friend the Arab. I have never bonded so closely with a machine, never felt such strong sentiments towards an inanimate object, never anthropomorphised a chunk of metal, the way I have my sweet Arab. He has sometimes infuriated, often frustrated, mostly pleased and regularly thrilled me. He has engaged my body, my mind and my soul in a collaborative, creative process. He has inspired new directions for my work and my life that were unimaginable until I stood in front of the feed board, placed my foot on the treadle and spun the fly wheel. The Arab has given me a bigger life than I knew and now I am throwing him off to go live it. All I can leave the Arab is some new friends to engage with, and I have found him two with enough passion and enthusiasm to keep his wheels spinning.