Ink in Her Blood
Jessica Peterson is part of an ancient art form’s revival with Southern Letterpress
Eugenia Uhl photographs
Sitting in the organized chaos of her St. Claude Avenue workshop, in the shadow of a massive steam-powered contraption, Jessica Peterson talks about how she traded a thoroughly modern life to immerse herself in an archaic artform.
“I was living the ‘Sex and the City’ kind of dream,” she says, talking about her years living and working as a graphic designer in New York City. “I worked at an advertising agency 60 hours a week and got sushi all the time, got black car services whenever I wanted.”
It was during this time she took a workshop at a letterpress studio, learning the original way of printing invented by Johannes Gutenberg, and realized that she loved the way type looked when it was printed that way. Letterpress is a technique in which mulitple copies are made by the direct impresson of an inked surface onto paper. Peterson studied bookmaking as an undergraduate at the Art Institute of Chicago, but discovering letterpress was the catalyst for a life change. At age 30, she started on a path that would lead her to opening a letterpress studio in New Orleans.
“There’s a thing that people say: once you get ink in your blood you can’t get away from it,” she says.
Peterson entered a small masters program at the University of Alabama called the Art of the Book, which was a program in book-binding and letterpress printing design to show students in the library sciences program how books are made. She apprenticed with a group of letterpress printers in rural Alabama who, for their whole lives, had been creating brochures, menus, business cards and other printed items for the community.
Letterpress has seen a recent revival in the maker world, but Peterson says for these printers in Alabama, the practice was strictly practical.
“The people who kept the letterpress for the last 150 years, they were not college educated and they were not interested in Etsy,” she says. “They started working when they were 12 and worked their way up. Nothing was really precious to them.”
After completing the program and teaching in Alabama, Peterson contemplated her next move. She considered a few cities in the south, and New Orleans was high on her list.
“I think for a lot of people in the south who like New Orleans, it’s always tempting [to move there], it’s always on the bucket list,” she says.
Plus, New Orleans has a growing letterpress and bookmaking community. The city has Baskerville Studio, Fitzgerald Letterpress, Grove Street Press and others working in letterpress, and Peterson added to this list the Southern Letterpress, which shares a space
on St. Claude Avenue in Bywater.
The Southern Letterpress prints, and sometimes designs invitations, announcements, business cards, posters and more for clients. Peterson also prints her own artwork that she sells at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s gift shop. A lot of Peterson’s own work is influenced by New Orleans’ Voodoo culture.
Peterson uses the aforementioned large, steam-powered Heidelberg letterpress, as well as a smaller, manually operated letterpress for her work. The process is long — it can take up to 15 minutes just to set the metal or wooden letters to be printed — and it comes with a lot of constraints that don’t exist when designing type on a computer.
But Peterson likes the restrictions, and describes the printing process, as well as the whole book-making process in general, as “meditative.”
“The thing that’s great about printing books by hand is you really start with an intellectual or conceptual idea, and then you make every part of the book. You make the paper, you make the bookbinding, you make the pages, so it feels like a really holistic, awesome experience,” she says.” About letterpress in particular, she says, “There’s something about the whole process that really sinks into me, and I wish I could articulate it better, but I really love it. Everyone who takes a workshop says it’s so relaxing to do this.”
The Southern Letterpress does hosts workshops that are accessible to beginners (visit thesouthernletterpress.com for details). But be prepared: taking one might get that “ink in your blood” and compel you to make a drastic life change.
“I have a completely opposite life now,” Peterson says, looking back at her life in New York. “I don’t have a lot of money and I don’t do any of those things, but it’s nice to look back.”