Art student brings old letterpresses back to life

  Monday, December 14, 2015 2:00 AM

Pittsburg, KS

Art student brings old letterpresses back to life

Pittsburg State University senior art major Cat Jepson is living proof that those who wrote the obituary for letterpress printing in the 1980s were dead wrong. Thanks to people like Jepson, this early form of printing, developed by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid 15th century, is enjoying a worldwide renaissance.


On Tuesday, Dec. 8, PSU’s Department of Art dedicated the Cat Jepson Fine Art Printmaking Letterpress Studio. The studio bears Jepson’s name because she personally restored three old letterpress machines that will be used in the department’s printmaking courses.


Jepson said her love affair with letterpress printing took a while to develop.


Jepson grew up in an artistic environment but didn’t expect that to be her own path.


“My dad (a potter) always told me to get a real job,” Jepson said. “So I got my real estate license right out of high school. I came to PSU as a business major.”


When she didn’t find business studies satisfying, Jepson switched to biology, but something still was missing.


“I took Portico Bowman’s printmaking and paper arts class in 2012 and I really fell in love with it,” Jepson said. “That’s when I became an art major.”


Specifically, Jepson fell in love with letterpress printing.


“I don’t know what it is exactly that interests me so much about letterpress printing,” Jepson said. “I think maybe it’s the process. The process is really beautiful. It’s intimate and has a certain human touch.”


In a corner of the studio where the printmaking class was taught, Jepson noticed an old, unused Vandercook No. 2 proof press. The press, delivered to the campus in 1928, was covered in bright blue paint and in disrepair. Jepson got permission to attempt to restore the old press as an independent study project.


“As a kid I was always reverse engineering things,” Jepson said, “so this was something I was interested in doing.”


Jepson completed the restoration of the press and in the summer of 2014, landed an internship with Skylab Letterpress in Kansas City. There, she soaked up everything she could learn about commercial letterpress operations.


“The internship at Skylab Letterpress had a huge influence on me,” Jepson said.


Early this year, Jepson received a photo from her boyfriend, Hunter Morrison, who had stumbled upon two more unused letterpresses in PSU’s Axe Library.


Jepson approached Dean of Library Resources Randy Roberts about the two presses, a Vandercook Universal I and a Potter Proof Press, which had sat unused in the library for a couple of decades. He told her that at one time there had been discussion about donating the presses to a museum, but if they could be put to an educational use on campus, they were hers to restore. A research grant from Pawan Kahol and the Office of Graduate Studies and Continuing Education made the work possible.


PSU’s Physical Plant moved the heavy presses to the Art Department and Jepson set about bringing the old machines back to life.


“I spent a lot of time with a toothbrush cleaning the machines,” Jepson said, “and I did a lot of research.”


Jepson said she found vintage letterpress parts online.


This fall, Jepson used the three working letterpresses she had restored to teach a two-week workshop. She also presented her letterpress research in PSU’s Research Colloquium.


“The whole process has been so fulfilling,” Jepson said. “I’m happy we’ve been able to reintroduce the letterpress into the curriculum and to pass along the knowledge I’ve gained through the restoration.”


Jepson and her boyfriend will soon be moving to Colorado, where he has a job waiting. She hopes to find a way to continue her creative career in Colorado in areas including letterpress or surface textile printing and design.


“It been tremendous being at PSU,” Jepson said. “I found a real passion for my art and I’m optimistic about the future.”



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