Meet Gordon. Born in England, he travelled to Melbourne to print facsimile editions of London newspapers for British expats. He spent 50 years printing those newspapers day-in, day-out. Gordon lived and breathed printing, having even been named after a publishing house. Sadly Gordon was made redundant when a newer model superseded him, and was tossed onto the scrapheap. Seven years ago he was rescued from a deceased estate by a young woman who breathed new life into him.
“A number of people must have loved him dearly over the years, because he was in excellent working condition, albeit pretty grimy!” recalls Amy Constable of her 800kg, 125 year old machine. “I love that he has outlived probably 3 or 4 owners and he will outlive me.”
Amy’s path to finding Gordon was set in place after she read an article about letterpress printmaker Carolyn Fraser. Amy’s interest was piqued; she’d always been interested in making things by hand and seeing a manual letterpress in action provided the inspiration to change career direction. It couldn’t have come at a better time, as a job in advertising was leaving Amy feeling disconnected from her work.
“Being on the conceptual, strategic and ultimately computer-based side of the creative process, and working for clients who weren’t personally invested in the project, I just felt like we were a bunch of people working for no real purpose,” she says. “Letterpress brought me back to basics.”
Amy describes the process of learning letterpress as “the most invigorating and infuriating undertaking” she has ever attempted. “In 2008 modern letterpress was barely known in Australia and only a handful of people were doing it,” Amy explains. “There wasn’t the same knowledge-sharing community that we have today, so most of my learning took place in my shed, well into the night. When I wasn’t elbows-deep in grease and ink, I was Googling issues and trying to make sense of it all. The smell of fresh ink always evokes that period of self-imposed apprenticeship in printing.”
The better Amy got to know the ins and outs of Gordon, the more intuitive the process became. “Mechanical engineering is beautifully logical and now I can solve almost any problem Gordon throws at me. I love when people ask me “who services your press?” and I can proudly answer “I do!””
With her new found knowledge and skills, Amy started up Saint Gertrude, a small design/letterpress studio in Brunswick. Amy describes her business as an ever-changing model. Her first four years were spent creating mostly wedding invitations and the occasional business card, whereas nowadays she’s working with students, designers and artists in collaborative or studio projects. Despite the growing demands for cheap and quick products, she was heartened to discover that people are still drawn to handmade goods.
The inspiration for Amy’s work comes from books and philosophy, with one of her most popular products being a set of nostalgic children’s literature prints. “Customers often comment that they get goose bumps or a lump in their throat reading passages from books that meant so much to them as children,” she says.
Amy aims for her work to connect with others not just on an aesthetic level but on a personal one as well. The connection between Amy and her art can’t be separated, as the tangible nature of letterpress work means that she needs to be fully present in the process.
“I am invested, body and soul,” Amy says. “There’s no room for everyday distractions. I am pumping the machine with my foot and feeding the paper by hand. I love the feeling of doing a hard day’s work, going home stinking of ink and grease, with sore legs from pedalling and sore shoulders from feeding paper into the press all day.”
With more and more letterpress studios popping up these days, Amy says that overall this community “is incredibly supportive”. Due to this revival she also no longer has trouble describing what she does. “When I first started out, I struggled to explain to others what I do for a living and so I would default and say I was a designer,” she recalls. “Now that letterpress has reached a much wider audience, I’m able to say with confidence that I’m a letterpress printer and most people know what I’m talking about.”
Amy herself is incredibly supportive of the scene and those interested in it, so much so that she has established a ‘Letterpress Academy’ at Saint Gertrude. These classes give an introduction and access all areas into the world of letterpress printing, with Amy passing on what she has learned to others.
“I’m a know-it-all from way back,” Amy says. “If I know something, I want to share it. I’ve never been precious about that kind of thing, because I really believe in community over competition. I know how lonely those nights in my shed were.”
Amy’s not lonely these days, as she and Gordon have expanded the Saint Gertrude crew. She loves working with her small, close team as everyone is invested in a joint goal. “Having worked for a large company in the past I can honestly say there is nothing I miss at all,” she says. “Except maybe the free booze at Christmas!”
Paying for her own beverages has been a small price to pay, for the journey Amy took into the world of letterpress has also helped her accept her authentic self. “I spent the first half of my career working for organisations that required putting on a professional face, so it took me some time to let that guard down and just be me,” she reflects. “I’ve made peace with the fact that I’m a bit of an eccentric, and that’s okay!”
First published in Slow magazine, Spring 2015.
Photo by Erika Hildegard.