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That's one of the most interesting contradictions in the printmaking genre. The traditional tools are cumbersome, and equipment is heavy and difficult to move — yet the products they disseminate are rarely meant to last. Bryce McCloud knows this well. He inherited his letterpress equipment from his uncle, Tennessee historian Roger Firth.
"My uncle was the curator of industrial technology at the State Museum," McCloud says softly, in his gentle drawl. "He discovered letterpress printing and just fell in love with it. He was studying during the transitional period when the trade was dropping letterpress printing, and all the people who were doing it were retiring or dying, all their stuff was being thrown away.
"People didn't value the equipment. It wasn't hip. It was the '80s, and printing was yesterday's news. It was just an industrial technology, and they'd come up with new ways to do it faster — like Xeroxes. Nobody thought about it as an art form. It was a means to an end, like steam locomotives."
Although McCloud wears Oxford-cloth shirts and good jeans, his messy hair matches his boyish enthusiasm for his work. He rides a Russian motorbike to his Isle of Printing studio in South Nashville, and he freely offers rides (he keeps a spare helmet in the sidecar). His studio is a minefield of shiny vintage equipment so huge it could crush you if it tipped over during a move.
"My uncle passed away, and I took over the equipment," McCloud says. "Sometimes I look at it all and think, 'One day this will all be someone else's.' It's a gift, and it's also an enormous problem. There's a real sense of love in this equipment. I've invested a lot of my life into protecting this stuff, and it's become my whole reality — I can't just pack up and move without leaving all this stuff behind."
"A lot of my life has turned into being the caretaker of this stuff. I feel like it shapes my life as much as I do. A lot of people want to have this equipment, but it isn't a casual affair. It's like getting married."
McCloud used to share a space with Ryan Nole, a printmaker who now runs his own nearby studio, Kangaroo Press. Nole moved to Nashville from Bloomington, Ind., about four years ago, and since then he has become one of the city's most sought-after printers. On one day in March, he was working on jobs for Imogene + Willie, Crema and 12 South Taproom.
Nole has the rectangular glasses and deadpan delivery of David Cross, and the hallway that leads to his shop is lined with framed posters he's made for bands like Built To Spill, Guided By Voices and Modest Mouse. His studio is a mixture of old and new technology, of antique letterpress machines and a six-legged automatic T-shirt press, of vintage Coke bottles and Goonies pinball machines.
He's using the spidery T-shirt machine to print 12 South Taproom logos onto bright red tanktops in one room. In another, his old Heidelberg letterpress is printing labels for Crema coffee. The Heidelberg, Nole says, was made in 1965. "They call it a windmill because of the way the arms hold the paper," he says, cleaning a plate with mineral spirits that he keeps in an old whisky bottle.
An hour later, Nole has printed a couple hundred labels for Crema, but not after fastidiously mixing ink to just the right color, measuring and remeasuring the spaces until everything's dead center. As he works he explains his process, punctuating certain steps with, "If I really want to get anal, which I usually do." It's amazing how specific these massive machines can be in the right hands.
The differences between Nashville's printmakers are broad enough that their similarities stand out in contrast, the most obvious one being: They have extraordinarily good taste and conceptual skills. Baisden, for example, imagined Gillian Welch's music as a sad/sweet owl on a fencepost for a poster advertising her Ryman show. Welch now requests that Baisden handle all her posters. McCloud can put Fred Rogers and Johnny Cash on paper pennants, and the imagined correspondence between the two is enough to bring even the most cynical of us close to tears.
Almost more than fine artists, printmakers are responsible for understanding the needs and desires of their culture. That often means knowing what people want to see before they know it themselves. As a result, printmakers are instinctive hoarders of the popular imagination, scouring ideas from sources as obscure and disparate as vintage Sears catalog ads, Soviet movie stills, Edwardian children's-book illustrations and Norwegian postage stamps. Nole collects vintage stuffed animals that are straight out of Mike Kelley photographs, and even the Johnson & Johnson baby powder he uses on his machine comes in a Chinese package.
But there's something inherently down-to-earth about printmaking. The same process that has been used since Printers Alley teemed with ink-stained workers is essentially the same as that espoused by Rembrandt and Goya — which Nole now uses to make T-shirts for Third Man.
"There's an accessibility to printmaking," says Hosford, "and it's a perfect bridge between mass-produced and unique. I think we've reached a breaking point, and we're getting away from mass marketing. The physical nature of the object is what's important — like buying and collecting vinyl records."
A common thread among many printmakers seems to be that they begin with another medium in mind — some type of art with a capital A — but move on to printmaking for whatever reason. Hosford says he sees that often in his students, who sometimes start a class not knowing anything about printing. By semester's end, they're converts.
"I feel like I'm almost like a preacher who wants to bring the gospel to everybody," Hosford says. "Printing has transformed me so much that I feel like I need to share it."
Although his uncle was heavily involved in letterpress, McCloud was fairly unaware he could adopt the medium as an art form. The moment he embraced it, his life changed.
"I studied sculpture in college, and was making these big monstrosities out of concrete and metal, and they felt really permanent — and completely immovable," he says. "I remember dragging some of that stuff home from college, and it was just completely ridiculous. It kind of becomes this albatross around your neck, because what do you do with it?
"But prints!" His eyes light up, and you can imagine a light bulb blinking on in his head back in his college days. "A print is so easy to distribute, it can go anywhere. You can make something today, and tomorrow it can be to China. And there would be no crane involved, no shipping container.
"It makes it easy to share. And that's what I really like about printmaking."
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