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The summer course combines book printing with problem solving

Students are mixing ink with problem-solving and critical thinking skills in an experiential letterpress printing class at East Carolina University this summer.

A centuries-old art form, letterpress printing uses everything from bubble wrap, chipboard and mylar to traditional wood and cast metal types. Also known as letterpress printing, this process creates an image using an inked, raised surface that is pressed and transferred to create multiple copies.

“They do things they don’t know how to do and learn through the process of doing it, so there’s a lot of failure and figuring out why it didn’t work,” said Dan Elliott, associate professor of graphic design , which gives its students a weekly challenge to a new process or technique—along with the freedom to explore what they can create.

“It’s more of a critical thinking course than doing a certain thing and figuring out how to control the results to achieve the same thing over and over again. This is where problem solving comes into play. Because it could be something random. Then, OK, how do I do this on purpose and do it consistently?” said Elliot.

Dan Elliott, right, associate professor of graphic design, talks to graduate student Michael Gaines about his artwork.

At the end of the five-week course, hundreds of prints measuring up to 12″ x 20″ will be connected and hung from the ceiling in the Jenkins Fine Arts Center’s two-story lobby. “Any processes and techniques they learn now will be applied to the final project,” Elliott said.

The class has 11 students with a mix of undergraduate and graduate majors ranging from art education and illustration to photography and graphic design, where most of their use of color is digital.

“When you mix color here, you learn more about how color works. Even if they have trouble getting an accurate color when they return to the computer, they know a little bit more about what they’re selecting, which is beautiful,” Elliott said.

Some combine multiple interests, including an art student majoring in graphic design and photography who printed on darkroom paper. “He combines letterpress with photography in a way you wouldn’t expect. It doesn’t print a photo, it prints on photo paper and looks at the results, which has had cool results so far,” said Elliott.

Michael Gaines, a graduate student from Charlotte who is studying photography, also likes to mix different media. “I love alternative photographic processes, so I can incorporate them into different projects. I also enjoy working in book art,” Gaines said. “A course like this really helps you think outside the box, so I was keen to use it to push my mindset.”

Last week, Gaines did a piece called “Tiny Bubbles” on paper he printed with bubble wrap the day before. In his final product, he used various letter and text-based fonts – two exclamation points and an apostrophe for a fishing line, two letters to make a fish, another from a Russian letter.

The ECU School of Art and Design has approximately 500 metal type boxes and three wooden type boxes neatly arranged in tall cabinets next to printers and production tables. Previous printing projects hang on the edge of the classroom, along with variations on the numbers nine, one, and eight — a significant number in the letterpress community since the typeface is .918 inches, Elliott said.

Raleigh-based Anna Query, an aspiring senior studying film and graphic design, said she wants to take the course for her portfolio and work outside of a mostly digital space. “It’s different because we’re mostly sitting at the computer all the time. It changes it,” she said. “You can have so many different ideas, and I feel like every day is a new idea.”

Lexi Karaivanova, an aspiring sophomore in political science from Greenville, said she’s looking forward to thinking more creatively since she doesn’t have an art degree. “I can’t have an idea in my head and then know how to translate it so I can better adapt to it,” she said. “Get out of the box, don’t take things so seriously. I’m doing something I don’t know how to do and every day is different.”

Rachel Spencer, a junior art education major from Wilmington, plans to teach art after graduation and wants to teach her students as many methods as possible. “This is probably the most interesting course ever,” said Spencer, who worked with Jalisha Armstrong, an aspiring Tarboro senior who is studying illustration.

In addition to different letter shapes, the students experimented with ink, including adding mineral spirits to the surface of the shape to see what happens.

“This is about knowledge acquisition, not what the final piece is going to look like,” Elliott said.

“I view my experimental work as influencing my professional work. It’s something I can do and screw up without fear of my client getting upset that I’m taking too long. If I have these processes in my tool bag, I can make something for a client or an order and then I don’t have to experiment, I just know how to do it. A lot of them learn how to go through that process, learn how to control it, and then they know how to do it later when there might be a higher risk of failure.”

Emily Hall uses a letterpress type in a summer class at the Jenkins Fine Arts Center.

Emily Hall uses a letterpress type in a summer class at the Jenkins Fine Arts Center.

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