Bozeman artists go mobile to preserve aging art
By Bella Butler
BOZEMAN – Last spring, two passionate artists found an old letterpress on Facebook Marketplace. It was $100, plus a short drive to Lolo to pick it up. They figured they didn’t have much to lose and bought it. Their serendipitous purchase would mark the launch point for an LLC and a cross-country modern-day take on the old tradition of revered letterpress apprenticeship.
The artists, Rosemary Middlebrook and Sara Budeski, were Montana State University students who had found a passion for letterpress—a printing technique using a raised image—while on a university trip to Italy. Middlebrook and Budeski were paired as dormmates their freshman year at MSU and kindled a strong friendship.
After living together for much of college, the art students traveled with 16 other students and three professors from the MSU School of Art to Italy to study for three months. As part of the trip, the cohort visited Tipoteca, a letterpress museum and working archive in northern Italy. Budeski and Middlebrook paired up for a letterpress project to document the evolution of their friendship. After that, they each dove into the craft.
Budeski loved learning how the analog practice had informed so much digital design, like the way letters and words are spaced. She and Middlebrook are both also graphic designers.
“That’s where that draw is for me is connecting the handmade with design,” Budeski said.
Middlebrook said letterpress is a chance for her to slow down. “After studying graphic design, I’ve realized that all I want is to break from the speed that everyone expects in our digital age,” she said. “There’s no real shortcuts in the tactile process of letterpress, and I love that.”
Budeski, whose grandfather was once a pressman at the Great Falls Tribune, returned to Bozeman for the summer and started working at Ice Pond Press. She took the introductory letterpress course at MSU and was accepted to a letterpress internship in Nashville, Tennessee, which has been deferred twice due to the pandemic.
Then came the Facebook listing.
For $50 a piece, the purchase seemed low risk. The seller, from Idaho, met the Budeski and her friend in Lolo with more than a press—he brought them a story. Accompanying the press was what Budeski refers to as the makings of a letterpress business: several drawers of lead type and a junky suitcase full of paper samples, letterpress samples, blocks, rollers, ink and personnel items like checkbooks.
Budeski and Middlebrook later learned the press belonged to a Mr. Gary L. Kissler, a commercial printer that used the small-sized Kelsey Excelsior press to create printed ephemera like menus, invitations and business cards. They assumed, based on information from the seller and clues acquired with the press, that Kissler had passed and his items had been tucked away in the corner of his building before it was sold. The new owner liquidated the remaining items, including the press.
Budeski said having this history is extremely significant in the letterpress and broader printmaking community. “There’s a real effort to archive things well, preserve things really well, restore presses, keep alphabets of type together, so it was really cool to see the history of this and to be able to tell people about the history of presses and how they do get bought and sold, but the restoration of presses today is really important because they’re not made anymore,” she said, adding that many people who are especially good at lead type are old and many of them are dying. She considers this a huge incentive for young artists to preserve these collections.
Following the acquisition of the press, Budeski and Middlebrook formed an idea to start their own business. They created an LLC in January 2021 named S.R. Kissler Press to honor the history and present life of the Kelsey.
Not long after they restored the press, the artists knew they wanted to do something with it. After an exhausting year of pandemic limits, the vaccinated duo wanted to combine interests in travel and creating content for people, and thus the idea of the Summer of Mobile, Moveable type was conceived.
Beginning in early June, Middlebrook and Budeski will start their journey with a mobile studio built out in the back of Middlebrook’s Scion xD hatchback. They’ll visit letterpress shops across the country throughout the summer and use the shop’s type or printing material to create postcards. “[We’ll] use that as a way to document the shop that we go to and the places we’re at and during a time that’s really quite interesting and unprecedented,” Budeski said.
To fund the trip, S.R. Kissler Press opened a Kickstarter to pre-sell the postcards they’ll make throughout the summer and collect donations.
As with the press, their journey has a historical layer. Centuries ago, letterpress apprentices would travel from print shop to print shop to learn the trade from several masters before assuming the role as master themselves. Later, the International Typographical Union would allow for union-card holders to travel and pick up work in various cities. These workers were called Tramp Printers, or sometimes, the original freelancers.
In 2015, artist Chris Fritton revived the practice, traveling across the globe for two years modeling practices of the Tramp Printers. Fritton is famously known as The Itinerant Printer, and in Budeski’s words, created a “new way of archiving the letterpress shops” that have popped up in the last decade or two.
Middlebrook and Budeski knew Fritton distantly from lectures and appearances he had made at MSU. When they launched their Kickstarter and got the word out about their trip, Fritton contacted them and offered to help connect them with print shops.
“I guess what’s really cool with communicating with all these shops is … it’s such a niche thing and all the all the artists and designers that still use it, they’re stoked when young people are like ‘Hey we have this press and we want to come see you and do a print with you’ and they’re like ‘This is so cool. Yes, of course,’” Budeski said. “We’ve gotten a lot of feedback like that and that’s really cool to see that you’re part of a community that is so welcoming.”
To date, the Kickstarter has raised nearly $7,000 and is open through May 10. They’ve also acquired several sponsors, including Stix Yarn Co., Frederick Books Art Center and Clementine flowers.
With an entire summer on the road ahead of them, the young women are excited for the entire experience, they say. “Besides printing, I really don’t know what’s in store for us, and I’m so excited to have the room for spontaneity,” Middlebrook said.
“As just members of the letterpress community, [we’re excited to] continue to just grow the community, be a part of it and connect to people through our trip,” Budeski said.