Master printer donates letterpress to UM to spur interest in art form

After a long journey by truck from Berkeley, California, a 1936 Hacker brand letterpress that weighs about 3,500 pounds, along with about 500 pounds of type, arrived at the University of Montana.

Students will be able to learn how all that old-fashioned machinery sets words to paper. To see what it really can do, look to Peter Rutledge Koch, a master art-book printer and Missoula native, who donated the machine after decades of use.

“Not only are you involved in the history of writing, and the history of printing, and the history of art — because of course, art has always been printed — but also the history of the book itself as an intellectual form, as a political form, as a personal form, as an art form,” he said. “It’s all in one.”

The press will act as a cornerstone for a fledgling book arts program at UM, where students in English, creative writing, visual or media arts and other programs — or even community members — can collaborate on projects that take advantage of the tactile appeal of print.

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Ashby Kinch, the director of the UM Graduate School, has taken students through archives on campus where finely printed objects are stored, and sees the response.

“There’s a charisma to the physical object,” he said. “Until people encounter it, they don’t realize it’s there.”

A letterpress donated to the University of Montana by master printer Peter Rutledge Koch is installed on campus.

Since the 1970s, Koch has cultivated a career in art books and fine printing, collaborating with writers, visual artists and more. He has printed limited-edition books with Debra Magpie Earling and projects that were exhibited around Montana museums and dispersed around the world.

Much of it was done on that Hacker press, which he discusses much like a musician would about a favorite guitar.

“I printed some of my greatest work on it,” he said. “I mean, seriously, some of the best work I’ve ever done.”

Those include a series, “Hormone Derange Editions, Last Chance Gulch,” which contained broadsides with poems by Montana writers like Victor Charlo, Ed Lahey, Rick Newby, David Thomas and more. They were paired with wood engravings by Missoula artist Dirk Lee.

“Hard Words,” a series of picture poems limited to one word a piece, which were printed on the letterpress. So was “Nature Morte,” a portfolio of prints including images and text in response to the 2005 Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Celebration.

Outside of Montana work, and that particular press, he’s printed poems by Toni Morrison with illustrations by the artist Kara Walker. He worked with W.S. Merwin, Joseph Brodsky, Margaret Atwood and others.

In the 1970s, he relocated to California and is now based in Berkeley, where he runs his own press and co-founded the Codex Foundation, which promotes book production as a fine art.

“So much of the value of that press is in the intellectual history, not only my work but the work of all real creative printers,” he said. “We hope to be able to bring this kind of intellectual fervor.”

He’s maintained ties to Montana, showing work frequently. In 2021, he and the Codex Foundation organized Extraction, a decentralized, climate-change event comprising independently curated exhibitions around the country.

Kinch said there’s “a real dynamic interaction between the book object itself, the book is a work of art, and the content — really rich philosophical and literary and cultural content. And that, I think, lies at the core of what he does as an artist,” he said. “And that’s the legacy we’re hoping to kind of act on.”

Books as art

The first thing to remember is the distinction between books about art and art books, said Rafael Chacon, an art historian and the director of the Montana Museum of Art & Culture.

Koch creates art books, which can be thought of as “a marriage, if you will, between old-fashioned printmaking, particularly letterpress printmaking, and bookmaking, and that’s of course an ancient art form.”

Within that genre, Koch is a central figure internationally, Chacon said.

The world of book art exists somewhat outside of public view, but it can be thought of as presses and book-makers that print original or historical material with an eye toward artisanal details in selection of paper, fonts, illustrations, covers and bindings.

“The book is a work of art,” Koch said. “Not books with pictures of art in them, but the book itself as a work of art … like painting and sculpture and photography, as when practiced as an art form, and printing when practiced as an art form.”

In 2010, Koch collaborated with the writer Debra Magpie Earling on “The Lost Journals of Sacajewea.” The author, a member of the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes who is known for her award-winning 2002 novel, “Perma Red,” wrote text from the perspective of the Lemhi Shoshone woman who guided Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery. They were on view in 2005 at the Missoula Art Museum during the countrywide bicentennial celebrations.

Like many art books, it’s limited edition. They made only 65, one of which is held in the Mansfield Archives. The volume includes text by Earling in carefully chosen typefaces, adjacent to historical photographs and unexpected flourishes like a smoked bison hide binding from a Minneapolis artisan. They accented the spine with trade beads and small-caliber bullet cartridges.

In the fall, Earling is publishing a novel of the same name that expands on the premise.

Montana origins

Koch believes that his first one-man operation was likely one of the first private presses in Montana.

The Missoula native attended UM, cycling through “six or seven majors” before graduating in philosophy. The desire to print was inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement in the U.S. and Europe; along with early 20th-century presses, and the most famous of them all, Kelmscott Press.

The idea of practicing a literary, intellectual craft “thrilled” him. In 1974, at age 30, he started his first outfit, Black Stone Press, which published Montana Gothic, an arts and literary journal.

Self-taught, he felt that he’d found his legs after four years. Then he moved to San Francisco and knocked on the door of Adrian Wilson, one of the most celebrated book designers and printers in the world. He’d just wanted to meet an artistic hero.

“He liked me, and he said, ‘Well, why don’t you come and work for me as my apprentice?’” Koch recalled “And he paid me. So, I got lucky.”

For a curious person, the trade is bottomless and defies the notion of a learning curve.

“The history of the written form, the history of language, the written language, is vast,” he said. Different facets of the work have become highly specialized. Typography alone is the subject of doctorates. His model looks back to printers before the 20th century, where “they did it all. In other words, there was no such thing as graphic design.”

Regarding the craft itself, “once you’ve mastered it, then it’s time to really dance.”

He acquired the Hacker press in the 1970s. It’s a test press or approving press, he said, which is used to make proofs of a plate and its images and type before they’re sent to a commercial printer. It’s a precise, hand-operated machine not designed for large-scale production.

He purchased it not long after he arrived in San Francisco and needed to scale up to make broadsides, poster-sized work and large books.

He found a willing seller, who he met out at a somewhat cinematic location — a massive pier.

“It was empty except for this one printing press out at the end. It was like a science fiction movie,” he said.

They haggled over the price, but his offer of $50 was declined. Later, the owner of the pier called him and said he could have it for $50 just to get it off his property. That cost $1,000, plus the $50 for the press itself.

Nowadays, this particular model is rare. The company was bought out not long after producing it, and only a handful of these exist, according to people in the industry who track them.

A new discipline on campus

The letterpress has been installed in the basement of Schreiber Gym, where space has been carved out for the School of Visual and Media Arts.

It was delivered from Berkeley to Missoula by Walter Hicks, who’s helped Koch move this particular press many times over the years. UM Creative writing alums David Axelrod and Jodi Varon traveled to California to spend time working with Koch on the press.

Kevin Head, who’s sponsored the Writers’ Fall Opus benefit for the Creative Writing Program for the past 15 years, was the other major donor to get the program started.

Kinch, the dean of the Graduate School and director of the University of Montana Press, said the press can draw in people from a variety of programs and colleges.

They envision building out a curriculum and coursework for students from multiple programs, including the School of Visual and Media Arts, which is home to Matrix Press; the English and Creative Writing programs and more.

The projects could be elaborate or minimal — a single page of a historical document, a poem or a short story.

Robert Stubblefield, the director of the BFA Creative Writing Program, hopes students will be able to “create broadsides from their poetry or prints of prose from their own work,” he said.

“I already see significant enthusiasm among the students,” he said.

Kinch believes print’s appeal is experiencing renewed interest as screen time has increased.

“There’s been a kind of counter-movement of people craving contact with the physical object again,” he said.

Koch, who taught for decades at institutions in California, said “students absolutely go bonkers” over printing this way. “There’s something extremely attractive about working with your hands, getting to know some people and being on an intellectual adventure all at the same time,” he said.

“It’s like a big picnic, only you’re producing literature or art and both,” he said.

Koch compared working with the press to any other machine with fine parts — a gun, motorcycle or car.

They could offer a practicum studio course potentially in the fall. The certificate, which remains in development, could include a class on the history of the book; a practicum-style course working with someone on the press itself; and students could produce their own projects in interesting ways after learning the history and techniques.

“It’s going to take a little bit of time to get someone that can work on the press, and start setting up the shop, producing documents on it, and then pivoting to creating a studio that students can come in and take credits,” Kinch said.

He sees potential for collaborations with people from the community as well, one that has a particular DIY ethic that aligns with the letterpress work.

“That means artists and art entrepreneurs, and people that have a passion and really care about these craft and art forms that are not part of the mainstream commercial culture.”

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