Monday, December 29, 2008

A hard day's print

I finally got to print my pattern today. That big Western press turns out to be Very Hard Work. This evening I feel like I've had six hours of cardio and pumping iron at the gym (on top of my four hours of communting because the trains are on Christmas holiday timetables).

For a start, the press is too wide for me to reach all the lays and grippers to get the paper straight by myself. You have to stand on a pedal to lift the grippers, and if I ran around the other side of the press to reach that end of my big paper, I couldn't be standing on the pedal. Thank goodness Tiffany was volunteering at the Museum today, as she was willing and able to help me with positioning almost all of the twenty or so prints I took.

When it came to turning the cylinder with the paper attached, it was too heavy and the sweep of the handle to high and wide for me to manage with one hand, which was problematic as I felt I needed to keep one hand on the paper so it wouldn't fly off into space or the inky rollers. Eventually (after only about four or five bad prints) Tiffany and I worked out the best way to do it, so that half way through the turn I entrusted the paper wrangling to her and threw all my body weight via both arms into a smooth sweep of the cylinder, inevitably ending with a spontaneous grunt and a little bounce as both I and the paper suddenly came round to the end of the cylinder's turn.

The heavy workout on the cylinder and the full-body stretches with the lays and grippers were interspersed with the on-going inking drama. I won't even tell you about the performance I went through buying the inks and then trying to mix the tint I wanted before settling for the ubiquitous shade of green that characterises half my possessions, (which I really intended not to use this time, really: its embarrassing to have that much of one colour in my life).

No, the main inking drama was due to the broken oscillating roller only oscillating in one direction, so I to slowly push it back the other way every two or three minutes. If I got distracted for say, five minutes of struggling with the grippers or something, then the ink got all stripey and I had to manually oscillate in both directions at length to make up for my neglect.

Plus, since my pattern is made up of about 30 different kinds of old worn-out type and not even seven (7) hours of makeready persnickitiness could achieve uniform height, I had to supplement the (semi) automatic rollers with some judicious hand rolling before every print (and don't forget that the form is so wide I have to stretch my body right across it, or run around the press, to reach the whole thing).

Since hand rolling was only half way to helpful, I soon started reinking the oscillating roller between every single print as well, even though its cheating because a good printer doesn't use more ink to cover up the inadequacies of her composition. But I did today. Because, well, I was really running out of options and with only two weeks left in Melbourne, I am running out of time at the Museum.

However, before I launched into the hard work and intense concentration of printing my big pattern, Sakura kindly helped me take some proofs of the Jewish logos on the small press that she's been using. They turned out really well, most of the chops in surprisingly good condition given their age and the circumstances in which I found them.

I'm going to take a proof of this with me to Temple Beth Israel next Shabbat and see if I can get some of the older congregants to help me identify all the old Melbourne institutions represented here. If any readers would like to see a higher resolution photo of this proof, and perhaps discuss future uses of this resource, please let me know.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Mermaid treasury

Soda water and mint leaves from below...
Christmas evening in Rayna and Karl's backyard.

I'm in another Etsy Treasury, with a charming mermaid theme. Check it out in the next couple of days before it disappears...

Kate, Anita and Rayna as we sit down to a delicious Christmas dinner in Rayna's backyard.

Old Paper

I'm almost ready to print, after 25 hours of composing, proofing and make ready (7 hours just for sticking pieces of paper on the back of each piece of type to bring it up to the same height as all the others). Since I don't want to waste expensive paper, most of my proofs have been on some very old newsprint that was lying around at the Museum. Old newsprint is brittle, weak and discoloured, but it seems to be a fashionable look. At least four people have gotten very excited about the paper when I showed them my proofs.

Perhaps people focus on the old newsprint because they can't think of anything nice to say about my proofs. I can only bear my proofs right now for technical purposes, knowing that once I print on Italian 200gsm hot pressed cotton rag paper with carefully mixed translucent ink, it might start looking how I want it too. Maybe people are politely deflecting attention from my ugly proofs onto the funky old paper.

It's the vintage look I guess, that genuine 'old' faded paper look that an acid free paper would only achieve after a century or so of careless stewardship, but that newspaper takes on after a day or two sitting in the sun. The newsprint I'm proofing on has probably survived twenty or thirty years of warehousing and virtually crumbles at touch.

It's one of those things where I can see that something is attractive in the current fashion, and if I squint and tilt my head right I can like it well enough as irony, but I know it's not for me. I'm too practical I guess to be seduced purely by the look of it. I need to see that it will do what I want, and other than the ephermeral purpose of showing me which pieces of type I need to lift, old newsprint offers me nothing as a printer or book maker.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ambient City

The sun broke out for a couple of hours yesterday and I celebrated by joining in with Unsilent Night 08 for an ambient music tour of Melbourne's CBD. Having downloaded one of several music tracks composed especially by Phil Kline I was provided with a old fashioned megaphone to plug into my MP3.

About 16 people each pressed play simultaneously on our boombox, ipod, megaphone, transistor radio or laptop. The different tracks of a beautiful ambient composition combined differently depending where you walked within the group, and of course for the innocent bystanders who came out of their shops to listen to the ethereal music drift by.

It was a glorious way for me to see the city as a newcomer. Following our leaders meant I didn't have to put any of my brain into navigating* but could just gaze around enjoying the cityscape/soundscape. It was like being inside a music video, something I like to evoke with Brian Eno on my headphones, but this time I was sharing with our group and with everyone we passed by. Better than drugs, man.

We were led through a variety of acoustical and visual environments, narrow cobblestoned alley ways, upmarket malls, bustling main streets, Christmas throngs in a department store. I kept looking up, craning to see the tops of the skyscrapers shifting against the blue sky as I walked or admiring the decorations on the nineteenth century architecture. At eye level there were fabulous shop windows, glimpses of urban domesticity, and brick walls covered in colourful street art. We moved past bakery and restaurant aromas to stinking garbage cans, spilt beer and stale urine, past heady perfume counters to exhaust fumes. Our celestial music was supplemented by piped Christmas carols, and engines, conversations and best of all, a choral group.

While our Silent Night crew assembled on one side of the State Library steps, synchronising our boomboxes and megaphones, another group was practicing singing on the other side of the steps. They turned out to be an community chorale setting out to sing anti-consumerist songs while wandering through the CBD. Towards the end of our respective journeys, our two groups met, one on each side of a narrow lane. For a moment, we paused, looking at eachother like a music video cliche of gangs meeting for a dance off, and then both groups stepped out into the lane and started dancing and singing together and stopping the traffic.

My heart may belong to the forest, but this is what cities are good for.

NB If you are on Facebook you can see more pictures of our UnSilent Night 08 adventure here.

*So disengaged from navigation was I that at one point I actually walked into a bollard and now have a large purple bruise swollen up on an intimate and tender part of my body.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A forest of type

After twelve hours it's nearly finished: the rainforest pattern viewed from the top .

One of the things I most enjoy about letterpress is the pace, slow and deliberate. This is not the way that professional printers did it of course, because they were caught up in a chasing deadlines and money, which is why hand composing was eclipsed by linotype in the 1880s. But hand composing is my meditation, my creative process (one of them) and I like to do it slowly. Mostly I have set my own writing in fairly conventional rows of type, but sometimes I like to use the typefaces as shapes and create patterns without (textual) meaning.

The project I have started with at the Melbourne Museum of Printing is proving to be fiendishly time consuming. It's a large (40x60cm) pattern, intended to evoke the complexity, density and lushness of the rainforest edge (inside healthy mature rainforest it tends to be very open below the canopy). I am pillaging every drawer of sans serif type I can find in the Museum, mostly extracting 'O's 'S's and 'V's, with a few other letters for variety and volume. I didn't want to have any avoidable areas of white space, but I have pretty much run out of suitable type, so there are going to be a few white patches, hopefully covered up the with overprinting to come later.

I have used every size of sans serif I can find; from condensed grotesque wooden type so big that its not even numbered (well over 100pt) to a miniscule 8pt Gill. I've spent about 12 hours on it so far, and am almost ready to take the first proof. At which point, all the variations from type-high will be revealed and I will have to painstakingly go over the whole thing and build up the low type with make ready. This is inevitable whenever you use old wooden type and/or mix together different type faces.

Working in the Museum means a lot more (knowledgable) people are looking over my shoulder as I work, than I was used to at Te Kowhai. It's reassuring to know there's good advice and a helping hand when I need it.

My large patterned piece is also raising a lot of eyebrows and the most frequent comments express concern for how long it will take me to dis it after printing. The limited bench space at the Museum is littered with galleys filled with projects that visiting printers abandoned without dissing, so it is an understandable concern. Dis-tributing the type back into the 20+ drawers from whence it came will probably take as long as the composing did, but I have taken methodical notes and am psychologically prepared for it!

In the dusty chaos of the most accessible of the Museum's warehouse storerooms I found a drawer of old Jewish organisation logos and ornaments. Here they are, being set up for proofing, as soon as I can access a press.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Letterpress at last

The old sign built into the Salavation Army Printing Works building, near Parliament.

One of my two reasons* for coming for Melbourne was the Melbourne Museum of Printing. The museum offers access for artists to use some of the tiny proportion of their collection that is accessible and in working order (95% of it is in storage!). While I was in the rainforest I had lots of time to think about my next letterpress projects, but I didn't want to decide exactly what I would do here until I saw what was available.

Now that I have seen the Museum, there are three opportunities I am interested in taking up while I am here: printing big, learning the Ludlow and using Hebrew typefaces. Over the next month or so, I'll be trying to do as much with these three opportunities as I can, and of course, documenting the highs and lows of the experience here.

The three presses they have working and available are all proofing presses, with very large flat beds. After the limitations of the Arab's tiny platen, I am keen to print BIG, so I have started my first project on the largest press, making a poster. The first stage of my design involves a setting patterned background, using some of the museum's large collection of typefaces as shapes (rather than meaningful text).

A small section of the pattern I am laying out in wooden and lead typefaces, on the bed of the big Western proofing press.

I intend to overprint a poem onto the background pattern in a bold black typeface which I will create using the Ludlow Typograph. I'm keen to learn how to use this machine, as there is one in Mareeba which I might be able to use when I go back to Queensland. It produces a similar outcome to a Linotype machine (which the museum also has in working order) but requires handsetting (which I love to do) instead of keyboarding. And its a much smaller and easier machine to use for creating lines solid lines of type.

Some of the wooden Hebrew type available at the Melbourne Museum of Printing

On my second day at the museum, I made friends with a wood engraver called Jennifer who is using the old Albion press. She directed me to a couple of trays of wooden Hebrew type. She had no idea how significant this would be for me, as I spent a lot of time last year wishing I could find some Hebrew type to use in my Do the Dishes book. There are three incomplete sets of large type, but enough to use a Hebrew word or two here and there. Now that I know the type is available, I'm thinking about how I can make the most of it.

The Hebrew letter shin- isn't it a beautiful shape, like three candles in flame.

*The other is to spend time near my beautiful daughter, Louise.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Concrete Jungle

In the ladies room at The Order on Swanston Street

After a week in Melbourne, I'm starting to get the hang of it. At first I felt battered by the violent contrast between Cape Tribulation (pop. 85 people deep in the tropical rainforest) and Melbourne (pop. 4 million people crowding in a chilly drought). The culture shock and climate shock were overwhelming and exhausting for a few days. But (thanks in no small part to the endless patience of Rayna and Louise) I'm no longer in a constant panic of disorientation or hayfevered from sensory overload.

Renaissance Bookbinding, where Nick Doslor's Vandercook press is buried under mountains of books awaiting bindings.

I'm coping by thinking of the city as a system the way that the rainforest is a system. There is chaos and mystery in both environments, just as there is also an internal logic governing each element within the environment and its relationship to the other elements. In both environments there are fascinating, delightful, beautiful and awe inspiring things that bring me joy: but I find I am laughing out loud more in the city. In both environments there are dismaying, disgusting, scarey, tiresome things that challenge me: but the city's disappointments are familiar rather than novel.

Girl on the 220 bus, Saturday night

Right now I'm looking back on my seven months in the Daintree as the culmination of a seven year cycle of desiring introspection and solitude. Spending this summer in Melbourne hints that the next seven year cycle of my life may be more outwardly focused, active and social.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Last Impressions

On my last afternoon, Rob surprised me with a champagne picnic on the beach.

My last weekend in Cape Tribulation was a glorious farewell to a dream come true. The thing about dreams come true (I'm realising with the perspective of someone facing her double 21st birthday tomorrow) is that a dream come true is not an end point. It might be a culmination, a reward, a blissful interlude or a turning point, but then life goes on.

Rob demonstrates how to shatter the peace of the ponds by jumping into the plunge pool, which has been a lifesaver over the past weeks of extreme heat- some days I was in and out of the water every hour or so.

So after spending half my life dreaming about living in a treehouse in the Daintree, I actually did it for half a year. Some things about the experience aligned with my hopes: learning to understand the rainforest and being inspired by its beauty, peace and mystery. Other things surprised me: like learning to love the beach and being inspired by the Great Barrier Reef.

Later on my last afternoon we were invited to go sea kayaking. I'd been out the day before, but in the rain, so the chance to go again with Paddle Trek in perfect conditions was too good!

It's been an intense, challenging, relaxing, fun, emotional, productive, hard, inspiring, frustrating, lonely, educational, beautiful and surprising six months. I left Cape Tribulation with new skills, new friends, more than a dozen new poems, two new websites and a fantastic tan.

Despite all the many delights of that tropical rainforest: despite my deep and abiding love of the birds and trees and butterflies and coral and despite my addiction to a warm climate, I now know I can't live there forever. It's too damp to make books or even own them; and too isolated for me to make a living or a social life. So I'm moving on, in search of a warm home where I can have a comfortable and productive life, balancing access to the natural world and stimulating society.

I've got a bit of travelling to do though, before I can settle down, so off I paddle, into the sunset....

Paddling round the Cape with Paula (in the back).