Interview conducted by Alexandra Loumidis (Harvey Mudd).
Bridget Elmer is an artist and educator. Much of her work focuses on using printing and her artistic practice as means of engaging with the community, as well as the relationship between old and new forms of image-making. She is the co-founder of Print St. Pete Community Letterpress, where she holds workshops for members of the local community. Additionally, Elmer is the co-founder of Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts (ILSSA), a union for artists and creators that focuses on improving immaterial working conditions. Currently, Elmer serves as the president of the College Book Art Association (CBAA) as well as the coordinator of the Ringling College Letterpress and Book Arts Center. flatbedsplendor.com
How did you first get into letterpress? And how has it led to what you are currently doing or working on?
My path to letterpress was circuitous, for certain. I studied cultural anthropology as an undergraduate student at Reed College and after working for a few years in social service and community development after graduation, I moved to New York City. My day job in NYC was grant writing for an after-school program in East Harlem. Writing has always been one of my strengths and passions, and at that time I was doing a lot of poetry writing in my spare time. I was also learning about ‘zines and I was super-curious about independent publishing, so I decided I would take a creative risk and take a class to try to push me forward in my creative efforts. I ended up in a continuing education course at Cooper Union, entitled Self-Publication, and taught by Christopher Wilde. Christopher is a book artist and one of the co-founders of Booklyn, so he introduced us to that world. He also took us on a class trip to see "The Russian Avant-Garde Book 1910–1934," an exhibition of artists’ books at MoMA. I was absolutely enthralled, and most of the work that I found most engaging was produced, at least in part, with letterpress printing. I started volunteering for Booklyn in exchange for learning more, and after the Cooper Union class, I took my first letterpress class at the Center for Book Arts.
Those experiences in New York were formative. I slowly became an integral part of Booklyn, purchased a small table top platen press, and eventually I left the city to spend two months studying book arts on scholarship at the Penland School of Crafts. While there, I met a bunch of folks in Asheville, NC, who co-owned a building, where they ran Blue Barnhouse (a letterpress print shop) and Asheville BookWorks (an educational space and gallery that was focused on artists’ books). After my workshop at Penland, I moved to Asheville and started working for both of those spaces, and eventually I went to the University of Alabama to get my MFA in Book Arts, as well as my MLIS (with a focus on special collections and the challenges of cataloging artists’ books). Since that time, I have been letterpress printing, making books, and teaching book arts as my primary work.
Can you tell me about your experience co-owning a printshop? How is the work you produce there similar or different to the work you find yourself producing on your own?
Print St. Pete came together organically. I moved to St. Pete with my partner when he got a teaching job at a public high school in town. I set up a home studio in one of our extra bedrooms and, after saving up over the years, I was able to purchase my own cylinder flatbed press and a few cabinets of type (thanks to an incredible two-generation print shop in Tryon, NC, who generously sold the type to me for what I could offer, which was nowhere close to enough!). I was going to give letterpress printing a try as a small business and, in partnership with one of my fellow graduate students, Jessica Peterson, established the St. Pete, FL location of The Southern Letterpress. At that same time, Kaitlin Crockett, one of my former students, was living in St. Pete and printing as Oma’
Darlin Press out of the corner of a resale shop that she co-owned downtown. We connected and started looking for an affordable place to share. We found our current studio and soon after moving our equipment into the space, we realized that our customers had a lot of interest in workshops and printing their own work, so we shifted from a model of print-for-hire to community education and co-founded Print St. Pete Community Letterpress. We also both found full-time jobs outside of the shop at this time (me as Coordinator at the Ringling College Letterpress and Book Arts Center and Kaitlin as librarian at St. Pete College), which gave us the freedom to make affordability a key part of our mission. We started inviting visiting artists to teach and teamed up with Calusa Press to organize an annual celebration of all things inky–St. Printersburg.
So as you can see, Print St. Pete really is more about teaching and building community than production. We do produce an ongoing inventory of cards, coasters, and posters, but we see those products primarily as outreach materials for the studio. Just like our classes, the work is all about accessibility. Also, our posters and prints tend to evidence the fact that we are both librarians, writers, and activists, as well as artists. This is definitely true of my other work, as is the fact that it is produced collaboratively. Over the years, my practice has evolved from making limited edition artists’ books entirely on my own to more of a social practice, where the printing and publishing of ephemera serve as vehicles for engagement and action. In this way, I consider Print St. Pete to be a part of my art practice.
On the ILSSA union website, you refer to letterpress as an “obsolete technology.” How do you see letterpress fitting into or having an impact on our current society?
Letterpress printing has definitely experienced a resurgence over the past few decades, so I’m not entirely sure that our claim of obsolescence is true any more! That said, we are clearly working at a much smaller scale these days, and I think that is really part of the appeal. Just as the slow food movement gained traction in response to globalization and extreme capitalism, I think that the current love of letterpress has a similar genesis. It is the values at the core of such movements that we were trying to discover and distill with the founding of ILSSA. I see letterpress impacting contemporary society by enacting some of those values-sustainability, reuse, freedom of expression, limitation as generative, prioritization of process over product, and DIY community building.
How do you as an artist combine or see a relationship between old and new image-making technologies?
Though I am a strong proponent for choosing media that best conveys our intentions as artists, I am also deeply drawn to old technology (for many of the reasons listed above) and I usually start there. I like to understand the underlying structure beneath the technologies that I use, and I think that is also part of what drives me–not to mention the fact that I spent most of my youth without a computer and I didn’t send my first email until college! That said, I am often excited by new technology, as well, especially if it is well-designed for thoughtful purposes. A good example is the Processing programming language, which I used to generate imagery for my thesis project in graduate school. For that artist’s book edition, I combined hand paper making, letterpress printing, and bookbinding with open source software and photopolymer plates. My favorite answer to this question is a quote from one of my fellow MLIS graduate students, John, who ended a lengthy discussion about the potential death of the book by saying, “When they invented the elevator, people didn’t stop using the stairs.”
On the ILSSA union’s website, it states “our Union seeks to improve the immaterial conditions of our fellow impractical laborers: how we experience what we are making—our lives.” How are you seeking to improve the immaterial conditions of other impractical laborers during the current crisis?
In a strange way, our work as ILSSA was already moving in a direction that makes sense for this unprecedented moment. Our unofficial motto has always been “Working Together, Alone” and we were about to embark on a revisioning process when the pandemic began to take hold. As such, we are moving forward with two projects that we hope will improve the immaterial conditions of our fellow impractical laborers during the crisis.
One of these projects was already in the works, “Surveying the 2nd State of the ILSSA Union,” with which we ask our members to assess their working conditions as impractical laborers. First issued in 2012, the responses to the original “Surveying the ILSSA Union” charted
ILSSA’s course for the next several years, including the ILSSA Convergence in Asheville, NC (2013), and “It’s About Time: A Workbook for the Working Person” publication and exhibition at Colorado College (2014). Now, in the tumultuous first months of 2020, we are (re)visiting these questions in order to orient our (flexible) future activities. All answers will be anonymously complied into one document, the “2nd State of the ILSSA Union Report,” and mailed back to all ILSSA member-subscribers.
The second project is specific to this moment entirely, “A Trying Time: An ILSSA Quaranzine for Working Together Alone,” which we will publish to document our members’ suggestions, strategies, remote collaborations, invitations, reading lists, priorities, boundaries, and social distancing projects. For this project, we are asking impractical laborers to consider the following questions. How has the Coronavirus / social distancing / shelter-in-place / remote everything affected your practice? What are you reading, and/or what do you hope to start soon?
What new resources have you found? What are you trying? We are hoping to send out this compilation zine by the end of May.
How has your own routine shifted due to the crisis?
My daily routine has shifted significantly as a result of the crisis. As I mentioned, I live in St. Pete, FL, but I work an hour away in Sarasota at the Ringling College of Art and Design, where I serve as the Coordinator of the Letterpress and Book Arts Center on campus. We are on “stay-at-home” orders from the governor as of April 3rd here in Florida, and my son fell ill with four days of high fever in mid-March, which required me to stay home for two weeks following his recovery. So, I have not driven across the bridge to campus for over a month, at this point. I am working from home on a makeshift desk in my bedroom and sharing homeschooling responsibilities with my partner (we have a one-year-old and a four-year-old), so life is a true experiment these days. I am also now teaching one (very hands-on) Artists’ Publications course remotely, which is an interesting and at times disheartening challenge. Kaitlin and I had to close up Print St. Pete for the time being, and I also had to postpone the launch of another large-scale traveling public art project for which I serve on a three-person artist team. The list goes on and continues to evolve, but I must say, I feel extremely grateful for the privilege to be able to stay home and be with my family at this time.