Old Days, New Ways

While some enjoy revisiting old memories for the good feelings they bring, I’ve made a career of setting up residence in the past and making a living there. Clawhammer Press is a business quite literally built on a foundation of nostalgia. The process I use to make prints remains virtually unchanged since Gütenberg’s time, nearly 600 years ago.

What is it about the ‘good old days’ that tug at our heartstrings? It’s a complex question with a many-layered answer. What first appealed to me about letterpress printing is the hands-on process that drew me away from the computer. While I’ve always appreciated the craft, I’ve never been interested in old things simply because they were old. When I got my first printing press, all of that changed—the history started to be very relevant to the process, the equipment, and the product, and suddenly I wanted to know more. Once I understood the history, I wanted to push forward without losing that historical knowledge and context.

Watching people come into Clawhammer Press is a fascinating thing. The machines themselves have a utilitarian beauty to them that modern mechanisms do not, but most people assume they are for display only. When I tell them that everything in the shop is hand printed using an ancient process, their jaws drop, and they see the products with a different set of eyes.

We are long past the golden age of printing, but when we lose an old machine, or craftsperson, we lose a bit of who we are as a culture. Letterpress printing was such a revolutionary concept: our ideas about literacy, critical thought, egalitarianism and freedom of the press all come from our ability to reproduce and disseminate ideas quickly and inexpensively.

Our desire to cling to these old trades ties into our belief that where we come from is a big part of who we are. The speed at which our current world of information is changing can leave us feeling disconnected from our neighbours and our roots. Having these historic crafts around is important because it grounds us in our origin story. Unfortunately just having them around is not enough—a diamond necklace has little true value if it never gets worn at a ball.

For historic trades (and good old things in general) to remain relevant, they need to remain dynamic, growing. For Clawhammer Press, that means finding new ways to interpret the medium. Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I can use vintage type in new ways by creating abstractions with the letter shapes, or figuring out a new way to get ink onto a wood block. The process may be old, but by pushing the boundaries with a sensitivity to history, the products then become part of our present—relevant to now.

Even the way Clawhammer Press interfaces with the public has changed over time. We started as a paper goods retailer, grew through large-scale commissions to fine art printmaking and now, seven years later with another location change in progress, the future of the good old days continues to evolve. Who knows what letterpress printing in Fernie will become in 2019? The key for me is to hold onto the important things: the craft, the equipment, and the knowledge, and then find a way to carry those forward with relevance. Fernie is like that too: an old town that needs to continue to change in order to stay vibrant. That doesn’t mean we lose our past because we need the context of history to grow in the right direction.

As novelist Peter De Vries said: “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be,” and thank goodness for that. The beauty is that by carrying our past with us while we reinvent ourselves, we can keep thriving as artists, as humans, and as a community. The old days were never as good as we remember them—the good old days are happening now.