Daniel Orazio, Contributing Writer
As if University of Dallas students didn’t have enough reasons to visit New Orleans — that beautiful, fun, strikingly Catholic city — another emerged last November when Grove Street Press opened there on 521 St. Joseph Street, right by the World War II Museum and within walking distance of the French Quarter. The shop was co-founded by alumna Kate Wyman, an English major from Lake Charles, Louisiana, who graduated from UD in 2008. Along with her cousin Anna, who is a dear friend as well as a business partner, Wyman is keeping alive the beautiful craft of letterpress printing.
Funnily enough, Wyman discovered the art of letterpress by watching a video on YouTube. Having “never before thought about exactly how words made their way onto paper before digital technology,” she was “immediately taken” and wanted to learn more.
The story gets funnier. One day that summer, just after graduating from UD, Wyman showed the video to her mother, adding that she had done a bit of research into craft schools that taught letterpress printing. Not long after her mother was picking up the family dog from the vet, whose wife kindly inquired into how the children were doing. As Wyman tells the tale, “My mom, no doubt nudged by her guardian angel, just happened to spit out, ‘Kate has gotten interested in letterpress printing. Have you heard of it?’”
The vet’s wife sure had, for her own father had been a printer. She took Mrs. Wyman out back to the storage room to show her a 1910 Chandler & Price platen printing press; it was sitting under a pile of cat crates. The machine weighed 1500 pounds, and it was unclear where it was going or how it would get there, but Mrs. Wyman accepted an offer for the press on the vet’s wife’s condition that it be loved and used. Says the younger Wyman, “I didn’t see the press until it was rolling down the driveway of my family home on Grove Street, on a dolly led by four men, and seated in its new home in our storage shed.”
She named it Patsy, after Patsy Cline, and you might just say that at her first sight of the 100-year-old platen printing press, Kate Wyman fell to pieces. She felt that the machine had been “entrusted to [her] care,” and moreover that she had a “duty to the press,” which had been used commercially in her hometown by “a man who had been loved by the community” and had been friends with her grandfather. So Wyman got to work “reading online forums and chiseling away at [the] petrified machine oil that was adhered to various parts” of Patsy; her “fair-weather love,” she says, needed to be overcome by her sense of duty to the century-old machine.
How exactly does a platen printing press work? The process is difficult to explain without visuals, so Wyman encourages the interested reader to look for an explanatory video online. In a nutshell, a platen press has a platen, or flatbed, that holds the paper that receives the text or image. The platen presses the paper against the inked type or printing plate to facilitate the transfer of the ink to the paper. All presses have quirks, Wyman says — this or that little defect that the tender operator must remember and be sure to check for before using — and it seems that in these quirks a relationship is born: “You learn the quirks of the presses like you would the personality of a friend: You come to expect them to act and malfunction in a certain way, and you learn to be less defeated by their peccadilloes when they surface.”
And you put up with the peccadilloes because the rewards of this friend are so lovely. Grove Street Press sells the most delicious note cards, posters, and gift tags you’ll ever see. The cards, especially, are full of wit and charm; I delight in the series featuring Mildred the dog, who is alternately packing her suitcases, driving a convertible, and delivering a love letter. The shop’s owners are typical Louisianans in their love of wildlife — there are cards featuring pelicans, fish, deer, ducks, mosquitoes, alligators, crabs and more. Mardi Gras inspires the delectable card on which a crawfish calls out, “Throw me something, mister!” as beads fly at him, and the state of Louisiana is honored by the two posters: one containing a map of the state with the names of all the parishes written in, the other featuring a characteristically wonderful Walker Percy quotation that speaks to the communal genius of the state’s residents.
Note cards, posters, and gift tags made by a letterpress are worth buying not only for their delightful designs and witty sayings, but also for how they look and feel. Digital printing is enormously convenient, but it is an impoverished culture whose only virtue is convenience; visual and tactile pleasure ought to count, too. When one can actually touch a word or image, and see that it has substance to it, it seems more real.
“The impression that the press leaves,” Wyman observes, “and the subtle inconsistencies in inking, are immediately discernible to a viewer (let alone the texture and thickness of the paper when it is held)”; for this reason, then, the viewer “can intuit that another human hand has touched the page before.” This intuition lends support to Wyman’s claim that she and her cousin are “facilitating human relationships” through their work. The inconsistencies in inking, as she says, serve this human cause: “It is the imperfections (the dappled things! the fickle, feckled ink!) that set letterpress apart and reveal the handcraft.”
Yes, Hopkins was Wyman’s Junior Poet.
Our printer notes the irony in all this: “Huge, heavy machinery uses its great force to print dainty, small, precise type and line work.” Asked if she is an artist, Wyman answers that when acting as printer, no, she is not an artist, but a craftsman. About her role in the craft, she marvels, “My hands are the efficient cause that corral the half ton of steel into pecking the paper with ink, and that’s pretty incredible.” The art enters during the design process, when she and Anna must lay out images, choose colors, etc., while figuring out which images that look good on the 21st-century computer screen will still look good when translated onto a plate that will be pressed into paper.
Her old professors in the English department will feel good to know that Wyman credits her English education with some of her success in her present endeavor. It was in reading lyric at UD that she learned the importance of the fine detail — the individual word, the placement of a comma, the cadence of a line — and essential to the letterpress design process is a similar close attention to the little things. “The training in lyric has really made a difference in the way I approach my craft,” she reflects.
We can all be most happy, then, that Kate Wyman came to the University of Dallas and studied English. We ought to be happy, too, that she has remained close to her cousin Anna. The duo share complementary strengths — “she’s the digital to my analog” — and also a common way of looking at the world that Wyman attributes to their mothers being close sisters: “We were marinated in the same pot.”
We ought to be grateful, in short, for Kate and for Anna and for their spirited commitment to “letterpress, handcraft, and joie de vivre.” The next time you’re in the Big Easy, the city whose style matches the ladies’ own, “classic with quirk”— it’s the place, after all, “where kitschy Mardi Gras beads hang from the Spanish Moss of ancient oak trees”—the next time, I was saying, that you have the happiness of being in New Orleans, do stop by cobblestoned St. Joseph Street and indulge in a handcrafted, hand-designed note card. Send it to someone special, and feel the love.
Please visit grovestreetpress.com, and take a look at the shop’s Instagram feed, @thegrovestreetpress.