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Creating A Delicate Skeleton


In this age of digital media, tablets and reading on one's phone, Hamilton students were able to learn about old-fashioned printing methods at an Apple and Quill series event, “Extravaganza in the Letterpress Studio,” on Oct. 19.

The hands-on event, hosted by Visiting Assistant Professor of Literature and Creative Writing Andrew Rippeon, attracted students and employees to the basement of Dunham residence hall, a hidden gem of the College.

Rippeon introduced the extravaganza by describing the history of letterpress arts, noting that printing presses were the primary methods of distributing information for 500 years before offset and phototypesetting replaced letterpress approximately 40 years ago. Press culture at Hamilton began in the late 1960s and was maintained by student interest. Students printed their own work, pamphlets and posters for the college, and even taught courses during a three-week term in January.

Participants in Wednesday’s event were introduced to the idea of an “exquisite corpse” or “delicate skeleton,” a literary exercise where participants write a word or phrase, conceal it and pass it to another person. This collaborative exercise results in a poem or story that has been built by all members. Attendees split into small groups and selected headlines from copies of The New York Times to construct the “delicate skeleton.”

Each group set their selected lines on a composing stick, a metal piece that holds the type. Individual words must be built from letters that are placed upside down and left-to-right. This set-up is the mirror image of what will appear when printed, which is the normal right-to-left order. From there, the groups came together to start constructing the skeleton, which involved locking the lines into the press. Students had the opportunity to run the press and print their own copy of the “elegant skeleton.”  

Today newspapers and books are printed digitally but the art of the press has not been lost at Hamilton, as there is an active printing press club that designs and prints posters for each visiting poet to the College. Working with the letterpress is similar to working in a lab, as it is both formulaic and experimental, but also is a creative and artistic activity.

Emma Reynolds ’17, senior intern and founder of the printing press crew, commented “Letterpress straddles different disciplines. It’s a perfect art for word lovers.” Newly appointed intern Sean Schneckloth ’20 added, “There is an intrinsic importance of every word. Letterpress is responsible for the spread of ideas and modern art.”

Rippeon repeatedly communicated that in letterpress arts, “everything is physical.” Each aspect of the workshop involved movement from the selection of headlines, to setting type, and running the press. Rippeon spoke to the influence of the press on the College saying, “Our growing letterpress culture is a product of student interest starting with the founding of the press by Michael Lang ’67. Since then it has been sustained by student commitment and student exploration... letterpress culture at Hamilton has been by and for the students.”

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