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The Art of Letterpress

Hatch Show Print’s work fills BU Art Gallery


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In the slideshow above, Alston Purvis talks about Hatch Show Print and the art of letterpress. Photos courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

Johnny Cash—feet spread wide, gaze steadfast, guitar leaning against his body—stands tall. His stance is immortalized in a print of red and Cash’s trademark black. Underneath, inscribed in bold letters, are the words “Hatch Show Print,” referring to one of the nation’s oldest printing shops.

American Letterpress: The Art of Hatch Show Print opens tonight with a reception at the BU Art Gallery at the Stone Gallery. The exhibition showcases the art of poster making, displaying Hatch Show Print works focused on popular culture and music history. Posters advertising an eclectic range, from vaudeville shows to Elvis Presley albums, Beck to Ryan Adams, are included.

“These are posters made to advertise—but they’re all works of art,” says Alston Purvis, a College of Fine Arts associate professor of graphic design.

American Letterpress features 126 historical and contemporary posters and 29 hand-carved wooden blocks. Some of the work has never before been publicly shown. While much of the work from Hatch Show Print can be categorized as museum quality, the shop is still very much a working printer.

Reached by phone, with the sound of manually handled presses in the background, exhibition curator Jim Sherraden, chief designer at Hatch Show Print, talks about the range of orders the shop receives—from wedding invitations for the bride and groom next door to runs of 10,000 prints. “We put out 100 posters last night to commemorate the last show for Brooks and Dunn,” says Sherraden. “It’s all internal. We did 5,000 posters for Taylor Swift, sold out in one day at her concert at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, as opposed to 1,000 posters for a specific leg of BB King’s tour.”

The shop’s origins go back to 1879, and the process of letterpress printing—pressing wood and metal images against paper, with ink in between—hasn’t changed much.

Sherraden has manned Hatch Show Print since 1984 and has given new life to a process that in many places has fallen by the wayside with the advent of the digital age.

“The printer is the designer and the designer is the printer. The jobs come in faxed to us typed out, the clients wait in line about a month, similar to an order at a restaurant. Then we bird-dog until it’s done,” he says. “What this shop is able to create from this archaic archive is inspiring.”

Vijay Mathews (CFA’04) learned the art of letterpress printing at Hatch Show Print, where he worked for six months. “You’re there mixing the ink manually, placing these pieces of copper and lead—it’s a painstaking process, but everything was an exploration.”

Even today, he says, his use of color and design hierarchy on the page are shaped by his time at Hatch Show Print. “For me, it was a stepping-stone on my design journey,” says Mathews, who now works at the graphic design firm Two Twelve in New York City. “When I got my first job in graphic design, Hatch Show Print was influencing everything I touched—the way I approached type and elements on a page.”

Purvis was one of Mathews’ teachers, and he hopes the exhibition will show his current students what graphic design can be.

“I once had a student who said, ‘I never want to be influenced by anyone.’ I said, ‘That’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever said; why don’t you just go live in the Gobi desert?’” Purvis says, laughing. “You’re part of a design tradition, and I don’t mean copy or plagiarize, but you’re influenced by what’s done in the past.”

Mathews, who learned about poster design in Purvis’ class, agrees. “Alston teaches this great history of graphic design, and it’s the closest most people get to seeing how beautiful posters were created.

“Designers have our entire life to work on the computer—it’s the reality of it,” he says. “College is one of the few chances for the majority of people to experiment in different types of media. Letterpress is exceptionally impressive. It’s history. Learning about it gives a greater appreciation for the craft.”

American Letterpress: The Art of Hatch Show Print opens today, September 9, with an opening reception at 6 p.m., and runs through October 31. The BUAG at the Stone Gallery is at the College of Fine Arts, 855 Commonwealth Ave. The reception and the exhibition are free and open to the public. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. More information is available here. The exhibition, created by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, is supported by America’s Jazz Heritage.

Wednesday, October 6, 4 p.m., at the BUAG

Jim Sherraden, manager, curator, and chief designer of Hatch Show Print, will lead a gallery talk on the chronology of Hatch Show Print.

Tuesday, October 12, 7 to 9 p.m.

The Coolidge Corner Theatre, 290 Harvard St., Brookline, will host a screening of Proceed & Be Bold! a documentary feature about letterpress printer Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr.

Kimberly Cornuelle can be reached at kcornuel@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @kcornuel.

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