When I got my first letterpress in 2003, I started looking around a still very young internet for information and inspiration. One of the people already making waves in the modern letterpress community was Jen Farrell of Starshaped Press. Founded in 1999, she’s never stopped pushing herself and the medium forward with skill and originality. Many of us later to the party admire her work and have studied under her mastery in one way or another.
One of the most amazing aspects of letterpress culture is how quickly it transitioned from an old-white-guy dominated world to a very ecumenical trade that has gender and ethnic diversity—an unimaginable variety of styles that come from people of every background and country around the world—contributing to the forward movement of this nearly 600 year-old craft. How did it happen? My over-simple explanation of it is this: when the old guard saw their knowledge in danger of being lost, they opened the banquet table to all the beggars. It was a clear decision that their knowledge was more important than their pride.
Almost all of us have some sort of story about being taken in, shown the ropes, and given a bunch of equipment but unexpected mentors. For me it was Peter Bartl and Jane Merks at PB & J. Press, for Jen Farrell it was Paul Aken at the Platen Press Museum (worth a visit if you’re ever in Zion, Illinois). Unusual alliances were formed over the love of printing. Life-long bonds of mutual respect have tied that history to a very real and growing craft that is more vibrant now than it was in the 1990s. That vibrancy is built on the foundation of judgement-free sharing by the mentors, but nurtured, grown, and shown to be a viable and sustainable path by the new pioneers like Jennifer.
I’m so grateful to work in this small world were ideas like ‘She’s pretty good… for a girl’ simply do not exist. Jen Farrell is a giant, full stop. It has nothing to do with her chromosomes or her hair style or politics, but it 100% has to do with the fact that she is talented, tenacious and hard-working enough to forge a path through uncharted waters to be the inspiring artist she is. That path has been full of personal and professional adversity. Through the trials she has used her work as therapy, again teaching us all how to weather storms with grace, showing that it’s possible (or crucial) to chase inspiration when the needle is on empty. Art is a rope and if you keep winding the strands it can help anyone climb out of the hole.
Over the years I’ve crossed paths with Jen at gatherings like Hamilton Wood Type’s Wayzgooze, and then at her studio in Chicago. I’ve emailed questions and she’s responded thoroughly. I’ve bought her prints, and she’s bought mine. This is the amazing thing about the letterpress community: there is support for all. When you look at who shows up at the gatherings, it’s rarely the normal, straight-cut people—it’s the freaks. We, the beggars at the banquet, went to knock on the door and found it standing open, and a person like Jen standing there with a greeting saying “I was hoping you’d come, you seem interesting”. Over the years I’m quite honored to have grown to know Jen as peer and friend. I’m also quite honored to continue to follow in her giant footsteps. Our styles are so very different, but I am constantly inspired by her desire to do things extremely well, very thoughtfully, and almost always in service of her community in some way. Those are skills worth emulating and it keeps pushing me to do the same.
All of this to say, I’m very grateful to have stumbled into this crazy world of printers, print-makers, designers, trades-people and book geeks. I’m glad that while the outside world is talking about gender-equality and colonial attitudes, letterpress printers have been quietly and diligently changing our internal world for a while now, to the point where we admire people for the work they do, not their social standing or shallow features of their physical person.
I’m also very grateful for Jen, Jo and Starshaped Press for pushing through some hard stuff so we can all see a way. I’m sure that wasn’t her intent; as artists we’re all compelled break our own path through the ice—but without the likes of Jen there would be no knowledge of that proverbial Northwest Passage. Starshaped at 20 looks pretty amazing; no signs of slowing down at all. Happy 20th Starshaped Press. Here’s the the next 20!
To find out more about Starshaped Press, visit www.starshapedpress.com