This Incredible Need to Create: Letterpress Salon with Ted Ollier*
“Creating is the true human activity”
In her This Incredible Need to Believe (2009) Julia Kristeva argues that human life is shaped by an indomitable desire to believe, which is almost an “inexorable push”. Reflecting on the function of letterpress printing workshops at a time when industrial mass printing is now readily available, Ted Ollier shares a similarly significant observation: As he answers the questions that followed the two consecutive letterpress printing workshops within the framework of “A Press of One’s Own: Celebrating 100 Years of Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press”, Ted Ollier underscores the centrality of the need to create for “Homo sapiens sapiens.” As the press master of Bow & Arrow Press, Harvard University and a conceptual artist running his own “Mindhue Studio”, Ted answers his calling and works hard to foster this inexorable push, this essential need to create.
Being not just a printmaker but also an artist, he sheds light on the hard labor behind the beautiful Hogarth Press books as well as exploring the stakes of letterpress printing today. With his firsthand experience at weekly Open Nights, he can easily discern the fact that creative involvement in producing a printed page was a stimulus for later stories for the Woolfs and their circle.
Mine Özyurt Kılıç (M.Ö.K)- Ted, you are a conceptual artist and a printmaker. What does Bow & Arrow Press mean to you?
Ted Ollier (T.O.)- The Bow & Arrow Press means several things to me. It is a place that has its own history tied with the arts culture at Adams House Residence Hall. It is a slice of Harvard life that is not quite as severe as the usual Harvard experience. It is a reliquary of obsolete technologies. It is a forum where I can interact with novice artists in a much less formal setting than in a graded class for college credit. It is a refuge where I can experiment with my own printmaking ideas. It is a salon filled with discussion, drink and laughter. It is, in the words of a student/partner/friend, an “art-safe space”.
M.Ö.K- How do you think these Harvard-related Open Press Nights contribute to the scholarship and general culture?
T.O.- It’s hard to say, exactly, as we’re not very academic at the Press or during Open Press Nights, but in the eight years I’ve been doing this, I’ve taught printmaking and letterpress to a wide variety of students, staff, and scholars. I’ve taught paleontologists, financiers, book conservators, librarians, venture capitalists, experimental biologists, conceptual artists, poets, translators, Classicists, doctors and computer scientists. I try to introduce art not as a walled garden with specific credentials for admittance, but the birthright of all members of the species Homo sapiens sapiens, regardless of skill or specific intent. Most people leave with some small piece of work that they can point to with pride and say, “I did this.” I can only hope that in doing so, I have increased the diffusion of artistic thinking into the general populace by some small (but non-zero) percentage.
M.Ö.K- Running our “A Press of One’s Own” workshops here, we learned a lot about the production process. But can you tell us more about what it meant to typeset and print a book at home back in the 1910’s?
T.O.- The funny thing is, it would not have been all that different from printing a book commercially. All printmaking, not just letterpress, is very process-oriented. This holds true whether one is running a small press on a kitchen table or a huge press in a factory warehouse. The basic difference between the two is the number of final pieces you intend to produce: 100 or 100,000. But regardless of the quantity, you have to typeset running text. Running text takes a lot of type to set. Even in a commercial press, an entire book would not have been typeset all at once, as that would have been an enormous investment in metal and casting. So, anyone looking to print a book would typeset the text in chunks, print them in sets, and slowly work their way through the book, reusing letters from previous pages as they proceeded. It becomes even more complicated when you realize that printed text that is intended for binding into a book is not laid out in page order — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. The pages have to be divided up and imposed into signatures that make it easier to print and bind — 8, 1, 2, 7, 6, 3, 4, 5. You may wish to decide your page breaks and page flow before you even start laying lead into a composing stick. This means that one must have some sort of plan — a mockup, a flowchart, a maquette — for managing the production of the piece as it progresses. Woolf would have probably learned this the hard way with her first few projects.
M.Ö.K- For an item like Virginia Woolf’s “Kew Gardens” (1919), a story of 13 pages with illustrations, how much time do you think they needed to typeset, print, cover and make available to the reader?
T.O. – “Kew Gardens” is a relatively short piece, around 2700 words, but it has two separate printing runs — that of the text and that of the illustrations — and an edition of 500. My back-of-the-envelope estimate would be about three working weeks, most of which would probably have been spent printing and binding.
M.Ö.K- Considering the intensive labor involved in the process of not only typesetting but also tidying up the workspace for the next job, do you think it would have caused mental and/or physical problems?
T.O.- Typesetting, production and preparation can be tedious and boring, but humans are very flexible, especially if they are heavily invested in the outcome. : ) Also, we have to remember that from this end of history, typesetting lead type is a slow, plodding process when compared with typing on a keyboard and printing on a laser printer. For the Woolfs, they were using the fastest technique available. It was just something you did. It was all in a day’s work.
M.Ö.K- Hand press printing machine was the first thing they bought, but they also needed the paraphernalia, like the paper, book cover materials, ink and all that. Measuring it against the numbers they could produce, do you think it was still a realistic enterprise?
T.O.- Well, they managed to get the edition printed and bound, so in one sense it was realistic. : ) Was it realistic from a commercial standpoint, running the numbers of profit-per-unit or return-on-investment? Well, that’s another question entirely. And I suspect that for something like “Kew Gardens”, this is the exact wrong question to ask. It was a labor of love, it was a quixotic experiment, it was making an end-run around such questions of profitability that would have kept the story from being printed by a commercial printer. It was a technical challenge, it was a learning experience, it was an additional outlet for the creative urge that sparked the writing of “Kew Gardens”. With the inclusion of hand-done illustrations, it was a way to leverage creativity from their entire circle of friends. I would also argue strongly that this intense creative experience of producing a printed piece from start to finish was a catalyst for later stories that became printing projects in their own right, thereby completing the feedback loop and making it a self-renewing process.
M.Ö.K- Do you think they could still be creative despite the physical restrictions they had?
T.O.- This answer needs just a simple rewording of the question: They were creative because of the physical restrictions they had. Many many many times, in my experience and in the experiences of many of my artist friends, it is the necessity of overcoming restrictions, difficulties or boundaries that makes for the deepest and most satisfying creative experience.
*This interview was held on May 29, 2017 in Cambridge, MA.
Ted Ollier teaches letterpress, graphic design and printmaking, and is the press master for the Bow & Arrow Press and Arbalest Press. Further information about Ted Ollier’s work can be found in the following websites:
Dr. Mine Özyurt Kılıç is a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. She is the co-organizer of the event “A Press of One’s Own” with Dr. Nana Ariel.