Kyle VanHorn, letterpress printer extraordinaire, wonderful neighbor and good friend. I love walking in to Kyle’s apartment, seeing stacks of whatever his most recent project is neatly placed around the room, sitting down at his kitchen table, immediately being offered a cup of tea or beer (depending on the time of day) and brainstorming about projects, getting his advice on who/what/when/where or how it would be best to proceed, talking about whatever is in those neatly placed stacks and hearing about what other plans he has brewing. (Thanks Kyle!)
You know our first conversation when we met at a mutual friend’s party was about letterpress and our shared love for that art form. I know you were a Painting major in college, what drew you letterpress?
KVH: I had my first taste of letterpress in 2000 or 2001 in a class called Zine at the Maryland Institute College of Art. I think I was fascinated by these hulking, clacking, seemingly complicated machines. I loved how much technique was involved in producing the text or image. My work in school was very technique based, attempting to find a middle ground between process and content. Letterpress seemed to have that discourse built into itself between the typesetting, the locking-up of the form, and then troubleshooting the print. I loved it (though now, looking back, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing).
When I started in that shop, we only had type. There were precious few zinc cuts available. We could carve linoleum to produce an image, but that was never my style. Polymer plates were a complete unknown to me still.
Where do you look/go for inspiration?
KVH: I work for an art school now and I frequently see my best ideas being lapsed by work that the students are producing. They’re not hindered by knowing what they can’t produce, so they just try everything. That is a great way to approach work, though harder to do the older we get.
I frequently have a student approach me and say “I want to do X, Y, and Z.” and I’ll say – “You can’t, it’s impossible because… well… hm… OH WAIT, if you do this and that first… yeah, that will totally work.” So, in that respect, I get to use the classroom space as a research and development tool, and that is incredibly helpful.
I search the internet pretty constantly, I have a list of sites that produce or showcase great work, letterpress or otherwise. But then sometimes inspiration comes from the most random places – i.e. I think the idea for my business cards came from a Comcast commercial…
I love the work of Studio on Fire in Minneapolis and the new FPO blog is really great. The folks at printeresting.org also link to a lot of interesting (get it?!) and often non-standard print projects, and that is really helpful as well.
What is your favorite aspect of letterpress?
KVH: It’s easy to say the impression (meaning the physical image being pressed into the paper) or the smell of the ink, or whatever – but like a lot of the printers I know, I really love the tools and equipment. Letterpress printing, previously known simply as Printing, was a huge industry and some of the most precise, intricate, and complicated machines ever made were developed for it.
The equipment is endless fascinating to me – I think this is because so much of it was considered worthless and sent to scrap for so long, a lot of it has become much harder to find. It was all so specialized, which is probably a funny thing to say – but for example Vandercooks – they were originally designed to proof newspaper pages, almost exclusively, and they start at 1200 pounds. I feel like nothing today is a unitasker in that sense. This old equipment did one thing and did it well.
Any favorite or exciting projects you have been working on lately (I know you are always working on something!)?
KVH: I am always working on something – you know me too well.
I often find myself working on commercial printing projects for others. I really enjoy printing for other people, whether it is business cards, art projects, or wedding invitations. If it’s not a client halfway across the country asking for print work, I might be found on the press printing for a friend in trade.
As for personal work, I am quite proud of the alphabets I produced this past winter. I wanted something that was equally at home in a child’s nursery as it is on the office wall. We have a huge press at the school that I was able to run uncut sheets of Arches, 22″x30″ through. There are some videos of that print run kicking around if you look, and a number of the alphabets are still available on Etsy.
More recently decided to make a papercraft Vandercook. Vandercooks are one of the more sought after letterpress printing presses out there. They are relatively easy to use, capable of producing large prints, and fast. They are also massive, hulking machines, roughly the size of a refrigerator laying on its side, over 1000 lbs, and fetching pretty high prices. In the spirit of sharing, I thought it might be fun for people to start their press collection with a free press that they could put on their desk. It is conveniently also Vandercook’s 100th birthday this year, so that made it a nice homage. A downloadable file of that press will be available on my website soon.
I know you went to college here in Baltimore at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and have stayed on to work and teach there. How do you feel about Baltimore? What about the art community?
KVH: I really love Baltimore (of course, as I say this, I am writing from New York City). Baltimore is a great city for so many reasons. Its a big city (at least compared to where I grew up) and there is a really strong sense of community there. Its easy to make connections and before long you feel like you know everyone (Smalltimore!). I may not be selling it that well, but I like it there. It’s close to DC, Philly, and NYC, but more affordable than all of them. There is a strong arts community, great museums, a number of independently run gallery spaces and art spaces, theaters… then there’s MICA, which is constantly adding something new to the arts community.
I have watched you slowly begin to amass a collection of type and presses. What are your plans for all this?
KVH: I have the wonderful fortune of managing and maintaining the 15,000 sq. ft. print shop at MICA. It’s huge, and the shop offers nearly every aspect of fine-art printing from etching to lithography, screenprinting to papermaking, and of course, letterpress. I know I won’t be managing the shop forever, but I have no plans to give up on printing.
I have recently managed to acquire 2 presses (bringing my total to 4), and almost 2 cabinets worth of wood type. Currently my collection is spread out between two print shops (3 presses), my kitchen (the 4th press), and my bedroom (all my type).
I want to open a print shop. I’ve seen the desire and demand for printmaking explode first hand over the past 5 and 10 years. The DIY movement is huge, and people have come to really value the hand-crafted object.