Chris Fritton, the Itinerant Printer, travels the country visiting letterpresses. He works with folks in Alabama, New Mexico, North Dakota, New York, and many, many places in between to make actual ink-on-paper print artifacts and raise awareness of the potentially-vanishing art of making printed books, pamphlets, posters, and cards by hand. His journeys throughout the US last from the beginning of 2015 to the end of 2016.
Recently he visited Indian Springs School to give a presentation to students and others about his project, and that encounter inspired him to blog the experience. He was impressed with the character, responsibility, and eagerness to learn he found among his audience. And from his visits to letterpresses in the region he found some of his preconceptions about the southeastern part of the country challenged and transformed. The post gave me a pang, as I would like to have been there to hear and see him—again. Last year about this same time he was at the school, and I took my Entrepreneurship class to his presentation. Eager to hear him talk first-hand about the task of generating revenue, the costs of doing business, and the exhilaration of finding people interested in what he offers, we were not disappointed. Judging by his interest in returning—thank you, Jessica Smith—he was not disappointed either time he visited.
Chris demonstrated the hands-on art (see the butterfly postcard from the Southern Letterpress in Birmingham), and he talked about the practical economics of the
endeavor. He has sponsors to get him through this period—small printing and paper companies that stand to benefit from being associated with the Itinerant Printer—and individuals, such as myself who are willing to contribute some multiple of twenty-five dollars. Besides the satisfaction of seeing where he travels and what he learns, I may receive a couple of postcards printed at one of the sites along his route.
Itinerant in the truest sense, Chris aims to follow in the footsteps of printers who in the nineteenth century and earlier went from town to town, practicing their craft where ever demand emerged and then walking on to another place when demand dried up. His dedication to two years of migratory living prompted me to reflect on my own peregrinations, a sequence over my life that brings me now to a place near the ocean–in the Ocean State, in fact–north and east of where most of my time has been spent.
When I applied to college, I had a scholarship interview at what was then King College, “A Place of the Mind” as its one-time presidents R. T. L. Liston branded it. Among the first people I met on campus—it was a cloudy, cold, blustery, raw, late winter day—was Professor Winship. The admissions folks said I should go to Anderson Hall to visit the letterpress he ran. Condemned for structural instability, the three-story Georgian brick structure was empty except for a cluster of rooms on the first floor where The Sign of the George print shop operated. Suspended from a wooden rod projecting above one of the doors hung a wooden sign with a circular painting of St. George on horseback, lance in hand, slaying a dragon. Inside, the shop was illuminated by fluorescent lights in chain-suspended fixtures and a large window overlooking leafless trees and the little round hills beyond. The main room was set about with racks of lead type,wood blocks carved with images, cans of ink, bodkins, composing sticks, and galleys. It smelled of ink and solvents, aged wood and old carpet. His pillow-ticking apron smudged with black ink, George P. (Pat) Winship looked up from a chest-high metal apparatus in the center of the room and took his foot off its treadle. The massive flywheel on the side of the Chandler and Price printing press slowed to a stop.
With an expression that could have been confused with puzzlement, he looked over the tops of his glasses and said, “…Good afternoon!…” rather barking the “noon” in his Cambridge, Mass accent filtered through decades of living in Bristol, Tennessee. There began my acquaintance with the “George of the Sign,” as some of my classmates called him, with the art and science of typography, and with his powerfully influential views on the written word. While I did not actually lay hands on the workings of the press, I had friends who spent a great deal of time there. Some composed verse, read and vetted it for peers, and then set the type, printed, and bound little pamphlets. I own a few of those titles, mostly books of poetry by Winship himself—Psalms and Psonnets and Thoughtful Jestures: Austerity Sonnets.
In my first semester, I took a writing course with Professor Winship, and I got lessons, early and often, in what I did not know about writing. My manuscripts, typed on a second-hand Royal with an extra long platen, came back from him spread with more grading ink than a single Bic pen could hold. A callow high schooler who thought he was smart, I could not at first bring myself to look at the red scrawl. But it kept coming, and I became inured to it; finally began to read. It soon dawned on me that he was engaged with the stuff I had put on the page, and that he had a passion to help me see what was in it, and what it could become. I reached the point of being eager for him to hand back papers, to see what his own micro-dissertations would say, what he would think. His earnest readings and ruthless, spot-on commentary became one of the best things ever to happen to me.
Spurred by recollections, I wondered what I might find with a Yahoo search—as a matter
of principle I don’t google when I don’t have to—for the press and its eponymous founder. Number one hit was the Houghton Library at Harvard University, which houses a collection of materials produced at the Sign of the George. Listed were quite a few of the titles on which folks at the press worked during my years—Ode to a Nightingale, A Song to David, The Descent of Christ into Hell, King College as I remember it, 1918 – 1919, by Harry G Wheeler. The last was an oral history by a King student who started right after the first World War, left for family and business, and then returned some six decades later to finish his degree and graduate with my class.
My friend Andy Simoson–mathematician, polymath, and professor at King–helped to keep the press going for a time after Pat Winship died. Subsequently it went dormant, until 2015 when Pat’s son David took on the task of bringing back the Sign of the George. With help from faculty in the Digital Media Art and Design Department, he appears to be turning a dead dragon into a living phoenix.
Other signs suggested that the art of the letterpress may not, in fact, be vanishing. Another friend, Martha Kelly, a Memphis artist whose work has amazing scope and depth, happens to work in print, along with watercolors and oils. A couple of years ago her excitement was palpable at becoming the steward of a Chandler and Price printing press. As you will see, her website is a feast for the eyes, and it includes samples of prints off that press. The site illustrates that she, too, has a deep sense of home in Memphis while roaming the wide world and finding fuel for her art. And a product of her hands–a pastel landscape–on my wall reminds me every day that art is woven into the fabric of living, and that life itself is an art.
The art of making and forming impressions lives on.