Remind me not to move for a good long time…
Now that the big stuff is moved, with the help of our generous friends and community, I have reinforced the fact that moving is just not a fun thing to have to do. There are positives: fresh start, fresh space, a chance to rethink a workspace, but on the whole it’s just something one gets through.
Regardless, I thought it was about time that I give you an update. We finished the move, sweep, and clean at about 10:30 on the 14th of April, then bugged out for a weekend of music and hangouts in Invermere–a welcome change of pace to be sure. Below is a photo of me taking down the sign at the old location. It was a happy/sad few weeks. That old space had been my ‘home’ for the past 4+ years and I was quite fond of it. I’ll miss my colleagues at the Ghostrider Trading and nearby shopkeepers. Moving forward, though, mostly what I feel is excitement (mixed with a bit of apprehension) for the next chapter.
My life these past few weeks has been characterized by sorting, packing, boxing, moving, opening, unpacking, and re-sorting. To be straight up with all y’all, I’m ready to get back to working and printing. I’ve got some exciting projects coming up like the New Craft Coalition sale in Calgary in May, some collaborations with local businesses, and some new prints that I’m dreaming up in my head.
So far the new schedule has felt like a dream. I’ve been running errands and meeting people for coffee and not worrying about having to cover the retail shop. I’ve been home after school for the kids and helped by making supper more, we even eat much earlier so it’s not dinner and to bed for the kids on school days.
The setup at the new shop is going well. I’m taking the time to do it well so it all makes sense. My new studio-mate Angela Morgan has been generous enough to let me dream up my ideal space, and build it, so I’m trying to stay true to that goal by setting it up right the first time. I know from experience that changing your system as you go is much harder, and less likely to happen.
I spent a bunch of time sketching out the possibilities, then I measured each piece of furniture and created a scale replica in Adobe Illustrator. This allowed me to try a number of possibilities with all the pieces of the puzzle. On version 5 or 6 I came upon an arrangement that I felt would work really well. I then went down to the new space and taped it all out on the floor so we’d know exactly where each piece goes.
The digital version below is the final layout, and so far it feels like it’s going to be a great space to work. We were hoping to be up and running by this weekend, but as you will see from the photos further down, there is still a lot of organizing to do before we let people in. We are aiming now for next weekend to hoist the proverbial sail and do some glad-handing with you all. Below is a sneak peek into how everything is coming together and give you a sense of the ‘feel’ of the space. You’ll notice there are lots of boxes left to unpack and lots of things to organize, but it’s looking like a great space in which to work.
Anie and I would like to thank you all again for all the help and support we’ve received from our friends and our community. Without you all none of this would have been possible, and we are very grateful for the opportunity to live and work among you.
Additionally, we’ll make sure you get an update and an invite to come and see the new space as soon as we possibly can! Moving forward our gallery hours will be 12-5 on Friday and Saturday.
Hey Everyone, we have some big news to tell you about Clawhammer Press, and we wanted you to hear the straight-up story from us.
For those of you who have read my September post about chasing creativity (which now seems like a long ways in the past), you’ll know that I’ve been in the process of orchestrating a change. Originally, my plan was just to change the kind of work I took on for custom orders; to limit it to a few kinds of work I really enjoy and am well equipped for. From there I was going to spend the balance of the time working on my own printmaking, as well as creating some new products for our shop. Wedged in there somewhere was all the other stuff it takes to make a go of it in a rare artisan trade that definitely falls into the ‘luxury’ category in the middle of trying economic times.
It’s not easy to be an artist or an artisan. It’s a full-life commitment. It’s at least 1.5 full-time jobs with no mental or emotional down-time. The artist life is (typically) also not the kind of job that has you calling wealth-management firms to help you make the best investments.
The Back Story: When we founded Clawhammer Press in 2011, we never intended to be gallery owners. We were looking for a place large enough only to hold a printing press, some cabinets of type, and a retail space large enough to sell my own prints and posters. The space we found ended up being so much more–it became a space we held concerts, poetry readings, art openings, political rallies, workshops & demonstrations, in addition to the day-to-day retail traffic. The large space allowed us to showcase several local artists who were teetering on the brink of careers in painting and pottery. It allowed us to create a culture of live acoustic music that found a niche outside the pub venues and Arts Station venues and eventually spawned the Old Type Music Society, which has gone on to host house concerts, old-time dances, and fundraisers at venues all over Fernie.
All these unanticipated things have been amazing. Because of them we have felt a connection to our community that goes beyond what we would have felt if we were just a retail shop. On the other hand, however, they have brought complexity. Not the burdensome kind of complexity that a break-up brings to a heart-struck lover, but the wide-eyed, shit-eating-grin kind of complexity that comes when you have so much of something good you just don’t know what to do with it all. That’s the kind of complexity we have been facing.
Defining Success: To me, success is only in a very small part a financial consideration. I know we live in a society that values the dollar above all, but that’s not the artists’ currency. Money contributes to the overall knowledge that what you’re doing is valued by society in general, and of course everyone needs some of it to pay the bills and buy clothes for kids and maybe once in a while go on a vacation, but really that’s not what I’m out to find. What artists know is that real value is found in many places: being part of a community, finding acceptance, sharing your passion, making positive change, seeking personal growth, and simply feeling like your living your dream are all things that are a strong currency in the life of an artisan.
More often than not I see my colleagues, those who can on the whole not afford to do so, are the ones volunteering their time, their art, their expertise or their energy to find this kind of currency in their lives. This is a choice they (we) make because our aesthetic values make us conscious of beauty in many forms all around us, and give us that longed-for endorphin rush when we see that beauty, especially if we get to have a hand in bringing it to life. That is the core function of the creative process be it creating community or creating a typographic poster: we are all feeding that addiction to the process of something-from-nothing.
This is a choice we make. It is a lifestyle choice. We choose to gamble at the craps table of creativity knowing we’ll probably walk away with less money than we brought, and that’s okay. Once in a while one of our table-mates gets lucky and makes it to the VIP table, but as they say, most of those stars took 15 years to become an overnight success, and since we define success a bit differently, we always take away this secret stash of other value that is far less tangible but just as real.
The Unexpected: What actually happened to us was that our esteemed artists and our loyal customers have all made the unexpected gallery an unexpected success (in all the above ways). In the last half-decade we have put almost more that half a million dollars of local art in the hands of visitors and residents of Fernie. That feels like something significant. We have been honoured to be trusted with by local artists, even as we figured out some of the logistics of owning a gallery, mostly on the fly.
So while success has been knocking at both front & back doors with the gallery and the print shop, I have a problem: There is too much to do for one person, and just not enough of that elusive success to pay for help. In the last 5 years we’ve tried a variety of employment models from interns, grants, wage subsidy programs, and part-time retail assistants. Each model has had it’s ups and downs, and we’ve made some amazing friends along the way because of our students and staff, but ultimately I end up spending my time managing their time, and paying them out of my own ‘wages’, and ultimately what I set out to do was create something busy enough for me to manage, and successful enough to pay just one person.
That task of balancing the busy times with the down times has been quite a challenge over the years. The rigidity of retail hours in a resort town has us staying at home when everyone else is on holidays. Our kids are going camping without me in the summer, and to Nordic races without me on weekends in the winter. Christmas holidays are short or non-existent. The crux: things have gotten out of balance.
The last 6 months have been so full at the shop that I worked 6 and 7 days a week from September to January. Evenings were spent carving blocks and doing more work from home after the kids were in bed. Even so, the to-do list always far outweighed the done list. This pace is not sustainable for any length, and has left me feeling heavy, drained and unsatisfied with the quality of my work life and my family life.
Hoisting the Anchor: I’ve come to realize what I’ve built is a really, really lovely boat anchor–and as a result, I’ve been stuck in the harbour–but the open sea is calling. Through a series of completely unexpected events in the last 4 weeks, culminating in a hefty hike in our monthly lease payment, we are taking this opportunity to hoist the anchor and (ahem–here is the big news) move the print-shop.
There… I said it: Clawhammer Press is moving, and now that it’s happening it’s going to all happen very quickly.
First, let me assure you that we are only moving up the street. We will have a presence in downtown Fernie, which is still very important to us. What will be different is that we will have very limited retail hours (2 days/week), and we will not have a large retail gallery as we will be selling only our print and letterpress work from there. Thus, it is with great sadness that we are in effect closing the gallery at Clawhammer Letterpress & Gallery and morphing into a slimmer, more agile and flexible Clawhammer Press.
The New Digs: We are going to be sharing studio space and gallery hours with local painter Angela Morgan in her 2nd avenue space. As it turns out, Angela and I hold many of the same values dear; primarily the ability to focus on our work when we are creating, and the ability to focus on our customers when we are retailing. I am looking forward to working alongside, being inspired and challenged by, and learning from another professional artist.
For those of you who are worried about losing your source for cards or posters during the week, we are also working on building some new wholesale relationships with local shops to make sure our most popular products are available anytime.
The Timeline: At this point we are planning on closing our retail doors in the Fernie General Store building after Sunday, April 3rd, and spending the following 10 days moving to our new location to be ready and set up by mid-late April. At some point in the spring we will have a celebration to invite you all to the new space for some wine and cheese.
Were we really ready for this? No, but I don’t think we ever would be. These words have been feeling so true for us these days:
“It’s a terrible thing, I think in life to wait until you’re ready. I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There is almost no such thing as ready. There is only now”
What an unexpected delight it has been to grow this gallery from nothing. I am so proud of the Clawhammer Letterpress & Gallery. It has become an important part of my life and the downtown Fernie retail and arts scene, and I trust it will continue to be as we grow and change.
Anie and I have truly cherished the time we have nurtured the gallery, and as we hoist the anchor and set out on the next chapter of our adventure, please don’t be strangers. As an aside, I feel like we have proved that there is a demand for a professional retail gallery in Fernie, and it is time to pass the torch and see who swoops in and picks up where we left off.
Last night I was watching a documentary about The Eagles, the legendary country rock band from LA. They burned bright with creative energy for 10 years, and when success and #1 singles started pouring in the band started simmering internally until after 10 years of forced creativity together the wind of change whistled in and snuffed the flame (almost) permanently.
Creativity is a slippery, elusive thing. It’s like cupping a drink of water; if you don’t sip that quenching liquid quickly it all leaks out around your fingers and leaves your throat parched. You can’t hold it long. Like quantum science you never know for sure where it’s going to be or where it’s coming from at any given moment, but when inspiration hits you better take advantage because its appearance is fleeting and startles easily.
This morning I read this quote in The Painter’s Keys, a twice-weekly letter sent by Sara Genn (artist & daughter to lauded Canadian painter Robert Genn) the following quote:
“The trick to being truly creative… is to be completely unselfconscious. To resist the urge to self-censor. To not-give-a-shit what anybody thinks. That’s why children are so good at it. And why people with Volkswagens, and mortgages, Personal Equity Plans and matching Louis Vuitton luggage are not.” – Linds Redding
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately: how does one foster creativity in one’s self? Redding is correct in that many of our modern trappings do interfere. I know from experience the pressure to create knowing that my artist income is the only thing making sure there is food on my family’s table. For years I’ve been searching for a better balance: do I take the stable, bespoke work or gamble with turning customers away and focusing on making great art?
I have found that the clamour of every day living, parenting, small-business owning, and all the other things that just simply ‘are’ in life consume 90% of time and creative energy, and it takes another 8% to get to ‘that space’ that allows me to generate, refine, and articulate artistic ideas that are more than just competent.
I’m realizing now that as Anie and I attempt simplify our lives, I take on less and less ‘custom’ work and push further into that risky ‘artist’ range where there is no safety net… just blessed cool air whooshing past as we fall.
Some may find that scary, and with good reason: It is. Calling yourself an artist is a life-long pursuit because no one can confirm or deny that truth except for the artist themselves… and as artists we are chronic self-doubters.
What I’m finding, however, instead of fear in the free-fall, is joy: I can’t remember being happier. I’ve always been a slow-burn, long-game kind of a guy. I’m willing to be patient, never content to sit and wait, but my progress (self-assessed) has been a crawl forward rather than a sprint. It’s taken me 41 years to find this path but now that I’m on it the Armies of the Nations will have a tough job getting me off.
All that to let you in on this new truth: Clawhammer Press is changing a bit. The past 4 years have been stellar and crazy and wonderful. We’ve worked with some amazing people, and learned some hard lessons. In the end though I realize that I have to chase that happy… and right now that happy is coming from expunging ideas from my head that have been rattling around for years. It’s about finding models and industries and clients that allow Clawhammer Press to do what we do best: Create forward-thinking art with a historic process, to create memorable projects for memorable people, and much of the time that person will be me chasing my spirit animal through the woods.
This is part of the reason why artist are chronically low-income. We realize that often the trappings of success come with golden handcuffs and we need to dance on that razor’s edge of survival in order to generate enough inner turmoil to generate passion to generate ideas. Whether or not it’s true in each artist’s life, security has the perception of complacency. If you don’t need anything why would you chase an intangible thing through an imaginary forest? As Mickey Rourke says in his film Barfly “It’s a cage with golden bars”. Being an artist with a family, I have to be more pragmatic than some but I still get that sense: I must chase the white stag.
I don’t have a lot of information for you about what this all means exactly in practical terms (I’d tell you if I know), but don’t worry because there’s no urgency. Clawhammer Press not going anywhere, but I did want to give you all the heads up that we’re refining our vision and narrowing the focus of our headlights. I’m going to keep chasing that spark and trying to let that extraneous distractions fall away.
Someday, when the fires have burned hot and long, like The Eagles, I’ll let those winds carry me on to the next thing. For now, however, keep your eyes out for the signposts on the journey… it’ll be hot off the press.
Or, the making of a letterpress poster.
One of the things I”ve learned over the last two years is that letterpress doesn”t lend itself to just any old project. You have to have the right combination of the following: The right client, the right aesthetic, the right timing, and the right value. It”s hard to think in terms of price because a hand-made thing is always going to cost more than a digitally made thing, which is why I say “value“… with the right combination of the above factors, the price is not the main issue.
So it was when the good folks that run the Nimblefingers Bluegrass & Oldtime Music Workshop & Festvial approached me to design and print a new poster for this years” events, I saw a great opportunity to provide for them a great value because we could design a poster, but they could use it to market the workshops all year in ads, on the website and wherever. As a musician, I love to work with other musicians, they aren”t always the richest bunch, but they truly get the process of making something from scratch, of doing something different and unique. Right client? check. Good timing? check. Providing value? check. Now the simple (!) process of finding the right aesthetic.
Because the bluegrass and old-time music styles have such a rich history of visual design thanks to great designers, typesetters and printers through the last century in the Southern States, we don”t have to go really far for a starting points. Indeed every letterpress printer alive owes a debt of gratitude to the work of shops like Hatch Show Print in Nashville, TN which has been in operation for well over a century.
The first thing I did was start with a few rough sketches. I had a rough idea that I wanted to use a combination of an illustrative style for some embellishments and hand-drawn types, in combination with wood and metal type for other parts of the poster. This proposes a sort of chicken-vs-egg kind of logistical concern when starting the process… which do you start with? The answer is simple: both.
Knowing what typefaces I have in drawers is a big asset. I can turn them over (roughly) in my brain to find some good starting points, then jot down some quick sketches (like the ones at right) to solidify some of the ideas. Then there comes a point where you have to commit to an idea and that”s when the see-saw between formats begins. In this case I went first to the press. To my mind the “Nimblefingers” part was the crux of the poster, and I wanted it to be large, and bold, and printed with vintage wood type. One face in particular was standing out in my mind: A large classy italic serif with rakish good looks. Because it”s italic, if you stand it
up on its points it angles across the page in a way that breaks free of the grid that normally binds a letterpress printer. It”s a creative “hack” if you will that brings a dynamic feel to the page. Note the creative use (at left) of spacing to keep it steady in the press bed.
After printing a couple of copies, and using those to firm up my sketches, I sent a loose proof to the NimbleFolks to see what they thought. “Looks Great” was the only reply I got. Right client confirmed.
Taking that as a green light to proceed, I started blocking out my sketch full-size, and backwards on a 12 x 18″ piece of battleship linoleum. It”s the mirror image we have to print with, so every idea has to be flipped around for the carving process. For a full-sized poster of any complexity, the drawing and carving can take anywhere from 5 to 10 hours alone. Keep in mind we haven”t even set a single letter of metal type yet, or turned the press over more than a couple of times for a proof of the main type. This part, however, is the part that blends my passion for illustration, hand-cut prints, and music, so we press on.
I carve linoleum and wood with the same tools. I like sharp, smooth edges and the gouges I use good quality ones from Lee Valley. The linoleum is easy to work for these larger commercial projects and gives a great texture and look once it”s done.
After carving the bulk of the elements, I still want a better idea of where I need to add things like subtle shading to make the poster have pop in the right places. To do this, I mount the linoleum on plywood shimmed to the proper height for the press, and hand-apply ink to pull a proof or two. This has the added advantage of leaving black ink on my linoleum so it”s easier to see how the carving affects the small stuff. On the right here is the first proof of the Nimble Fingers poster. You can see the large angled block that I”ve left for the main text. With this proof in hand, I”ll make my final changes to the lino block, and get ready to start integrating the second part of the posters: the hand-set type.
Early on in the process, I”ve put the large “Nimble Fingers” type away in a small drawer we printers call “Galleys”. At this point I slide out my galley and move the type onto the the press bed. For printing posters I use a Vandercook Proofing press, which has a large flat metal bed to lay the type on. The type can be held in place with magnets, blocks of wood called “furniture” or positive pressure from expanding wedges called “quoins”. With a different colour I layer the main type over top of the proofed image above, to make sure my alignment is working.
After some (or many) adjustments, I start adding some of the secondary information like “Festival & Workshop” as well as “24th annual” at the top. These are all hand-picked letter by letter from one of the 250 drawers of type we have at the shop here. Each is selected for size and aesthetics.
With these additions made, a reasonable idea of how the poster is going to look emerges. At this point I might be thinking about colour, but in this case the black/blue just happened to be ink that I had mixed already on the press, but likely won”t be the final colours.
I send this photo over to Nimble Fingers HQ for a discussion about the design, and to figure out some details about what the “small print” will be at the bottom. We also make some decisions about paper weight, colour, and ink choices if the client has any preferences.
With that discussion in my mind, I tuck the hand-set bits away knowing I can figure out the details at the end. The two parts line up. It”s a good day. It doesn”t always work out so well. Now I clamp the plywood-mounted linocut back into the press bed and mix up what I feel will be a great colour for this project: Burn Orange. We decided to print on French Papers Muscletone Madiero Beach, a creamy coloured card stock with some flecks in it. French is one of the papers we stock in a variety of weights and colours. It comes from a 6th Generation family owned paper mill in the USA, which has been powering their plant with their own hydro dam for 100 years. A cool company to be buying product from.
The Burnt Orange compliments the paper nicely, so I throw myself at the task of printing the first 100 copies of the background layer. It takes about an hour and a bit to get through that, after which I have piles of 10-20 posters sitting all around me in the shop like some mad scientist surrounded by his theorems.
These sit overnight to “set”. Letterpress ink doesn”t dry in the traditional sense of the word, meaning the moisture in it doesn”t really evaporate into the air, rather it absorbs into the paper fibers and reacts with the oxygen to “skin” over from contact with the air. I use primarily oil-based ink, because it sets quicker than the rubber-based alternative. Some printers use a soy-based product, but given that (A) a 1-lb tin of oil-based ink is about a year”s supply for the average printer and (B) soy is one of the top GMO food-based products in our world, it seems there is no getting away from some environmental impact, and since that”s practically our ONLY environmental impact as a workspace, I think we”re doing alright. Letterpress inks are also indelible so a poster or label won”t run if it”s wet or in the rain.
Once the ink has set, I dig the main text out of the galley again (remember the chicken-egg thing?) and set it on the press bed. Now I”ll go dig out the “small print” and set that at the bottom of the poster. In this case, we are putting the performer list for the festival, and then the website. Always gotta have the website. The smaller stuff gets finicky, and the pressman often has to make judgment calls about arranging, sorting, and sometimes editing the text at this point because unlike the computer, you just can”t scale it. See all those silver letters at the bottom? Each one of those were picked by hand from a drawer and set side by side. If you get to the end of something like that, and the type you picked doesn”t fit, guess what? Back into the drawers it goes unless you can find a creative solution. In this case, with a bit of massaging, we made it fit. It involved cutting one of the dividing lines and taking out some of the leading (the space between the lines), as well as changing the typeface at the top to move “Sorrento, BC” up there. But in the end, we got it working.
With a final proof for us, and a final jpeg sent to NFHQ, and a hearty “cleared for liftoff” from them, we laid into the final colour, a deep red to stand out over top of the orange, and we call this done. The final step, once the second layer of ink is dry, will be to trim the edges down to give our final margins, and pack and wrap them for shipping.
Well I feel like we”ve rounded out the value of this poster by giving Craig & Julie at Nimble Fingers a great, vintage-inspired aesthetic poster, hand-printed, timely, and judging by their reactions, for the right client. Thanks Nimble Fingers. See you in Sorrento, BC. in August!
Thanks for reading! If you have any more questions about the process, drop on by our downtown Fernie shop, give us a call (778-519-5010) or send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and we”d be glad to have a chat.