Light falls from windows on students who chat and drift between workstations. The clanking of metal interrupts the gentle scraping of a chisel.
When ARTS 358: Letterpress meets in Hanes Art Center, it's a multi-sensory experience.
Beth Grabowski said she has been teaching letterpress, the art of making prints with a printing press, since she began at UNC in 1988. Her students make everything from bookmarks to full books, and reclaim a centuries-old craft for the present day.
“It’s just a really beautiful aesthetic,” Grabowski said. “I think that’s what a lot of people appreciate about the object that you end up with, is that it’s been touched by a human hand, and really been crafted as opposed to push-button printing.”
Grabowski’s letterpress students each complete five projects during the semester. One project requires students to think of some kind of wrongdoing or sin that resonates with them. The students then print a series of pieces to serve as indulgences, a kind of certificate of forgiveness, for their chosen sin.
Grabowski, who was raised Catholic, based the idea on the church’s practice of selling indulgences in medieval times to pardon people for their sins and help fund the crusades. She plans to have her students sell their pieces on Arts Everywhere Day and donate the proceeds to a charitable cause.
“My motivation was to take it in a positive way, make it clear that this was raising money for a particular cause,” Grabowski said. “But they can define whatever the cause is that they want.”
Elizabeth Macmillan, a junior studio art major in Grabowski’s class, is quick to identify her own transgressions when talking about her indulgence project.
“My sin is streaming independent musicians without fair compensation,” Macmillan said.
For her project, Macmillan first carved the image of a record into an MDF board, a special wood product similar to plywood that is useful for printing. Next, she applied ink and pressure to transfer the carving onto multiple sheets of paper. Finally, she used a printing press to finish her prints with the following message in neat, black typeface:
“You are hereby forgiven for the sin of streaming independent musicians without providing fair compensation for their work.”
Macmillan said she plans to sell her prints for $5 to $7, depending on their quality. She said the proceeds from her prints will go to the Future of Music Coalition, an advocacy group for issues that affect musicians’ livelihoods, like copyright laws and artist compensation.
For some students, the class is a way to expand their artistic abilities or donate to a good cause — but for others, letterpress has a greater significance.
Yasmin Jiang is an exchange student from London in Grabowski’s class. Jiang said she has taken a broad range of liberal arts courses, and that she used to want to work for a museum after graduation. After her experiences with letterpress and other UNC art classes, she is now considering a graduate diploma in illustration.
“It’s just been really nice to make things with my hands,” Jiang said.
Grabowski said that beyond the technical parts of letterpress, she tries to teach her students how to take advantage of a particular medium and turn ideas into finished products.
“It’s about, ‘What does it mean to be a creative thinker?’” Grabowski said.
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